Baghdad (AP) – The Pope wants to build a bridge: during his trip to Iraq, Francis continued to promote dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Saturday marked the interfaith culmination of his journey to the Middle East.
In the morning, the head of the Catholic Church went to the highest Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the southern city of Najaf. “You are all brothers and sisters,” said posters bearing the likenesses of the two, which were displayed on the streets of Baghdad near major traffic intersections.
The conversation between the two took place behind closed doors in Al-Sistani’s home. Only then did it become known what the 84-year-old Argentinian and the 90-year-old Iraqi were talking about. Francis thanked Al-Sistani for standing up for the persecuted and for promoting cooperation between the religious communities. Al-Sistani’s side reported that the Grand Ayatollah had spoken of the oppression, poverty and persecution of many peoples in the Middle East. He also addressed the situation of the Palestinians.
Al-Sistani has millions of followers and also enjoys political influence. His speeches are very well received in Iraq. However, he lives withdrawn from the public. In the past he had already proven himself as a mediator. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the turmoil surrounding the new government, Al-Sistani mediated between the parties to avoid intra-Shia conflict, Islam scholar Thomas Würtz said. “That is certainly his greatest diplomatic achievement, making him known outside the Shia ranks.”
However, the Pope and the Grand Ayatollah did not sign a joint statement. It would have been a success for Francis’s journey. In 2019, during his visit to the United Arab Emirates, he signed a joint document with the great Imam of Egypt and the high religious representative of Sunni Islam, Ahmed al-Tajjib. It was entitled “The Brotherhood of All Men – For Peaceful Coexistence in the World”.
After talking with the Grand Ayatollah, the Pope flew to the plain of Ur for the interfaith meeting and thus the next highlight of the day. The area looks back on thousands of years of cultural history. In the middle of the desert, the organizers had set up a stage – with excavations of thousands of years old Sumerian settlements in the background.
According to Old Testament biblical tradition, Abraham was from this region. The place is therefore of great importance to Muslims, Jews and Christians, as all three religions consider Abraham to be the progenitor.
In addressing numerous religious representatives, Francis denounced the destruction during the Iraq War. “When terrorism raged in the north of this precious land, it barbarically destroyed some of the beautiful religious heritage, including churches, monasteries and places of worship of various communities,” he said. Christians, Muslims and Yezidis were invited to the meeting. Contrary to initially planned, Jews did not participate.
The 84-year-old was impressed by the story of the two young men Dawud and Hassan. The Christian and the Muslim started a business together to finance their studies, among other things – although they do not belong to the same religion. Young people’s dreams should not be destroyed by past conflicts, the Argentinian said.
Francis was the first Pope to travel to Iraq. Above all, the Christians, who form a shrinking minority in the country with 38 million inhabitants, have long been waiting for his visit. He wants to meet her on Sunday when he travels to northern Iraq and visits the cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh there. On Saturday evening (local time), Francis wanted to celebrate another Mass in Baghdad.