Hostility, violence are 'betrayals' of religion, pope says in Iraq
Pope Francis arrived in Ur after a 45-minute early morning meeting in Najaf with 90-year-old Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
A member of the Iraqi security forces stands guard in the streets of the northern city of Mosul, in preparation for the visit of Pope Francis, on March 7, 2021. Pope Francis, on his historic Iraq tour, visits today Christian communities that endured the brutality of the Islamic State group until the jihadists' "caliphate" was defeated three years ago. (Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)
Traveling to the birthplace of Abraham, Pope Francis urged believers to prove their faith in the one God and father of all by accepting one another as brothers and sisters.
From a stage set on a dusty hill overlooking the archaeological dig at Ur, Abraham's birthplace about 10 miles from modern-day Nasiriyah, the pope called on representatives of the country's religious communities to denounce all violence committed in God's name and to work together to rebuild their country.
"From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters," the pope told the representatives.
"Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion," he insisted.
Pope Francis arrived in Ur after a 45-minute early morning meeting in Najaf with 90-year-old Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shiite Islam's most authoritative figures.
At the large interreligious meeting later, with the Ziggurat of Ur, a partially reconstructed Bronze-Age pagan temple, visible in the haze, Pope Francis insisted that when Jews, Christians and Muslims make a pilgrimage to Abraham's birthplace, they are going home, back to the place that reminds them they are brothers and sisters.
Representatives of Iraqi's Shiite Muslim majority, its Sunni Muslim community, Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans, a group that claims to be older than Christianity and reveres St. John the Baptist, joined Pope Francis at Ur.
Farmon Kakay, a member of a delegation from Iraq's small Kaka'i community, a pre-Islamic religion and ethnic group related to the Yazidis, told Catholic News Service, "To see His Holiness is big news for me. We want the pope to take a message to the government to respect us."
Faiza Foad, a Zoroastrian from Kirkuk, had a similar hope that Pope Francis' visit would move the government and Iraqi society as a whole to a greater recognition of religious freedom for all.
Wearing a white dress trimmed in gold and decorated with sequins, Foad told CNS that even though her religion is not an "Abrahamic faith," participating in the meeting was a sign that all people are members of the one human family.
In fact, Rafah Husein Baher, a Mandaean, told Pope Francis that "together we subsist through the war's ruins on the same soil. Our blood was mixed; together we tasted the bitterness of the embargo; we have the same identity."
From the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and through the reign of terror of the Islamic State group, "injustice afflicted all Iraqis," she told the pope. "Terrorism violated our dignity with impudence. Many countries, without conscience, classified our passports as valueless, watching our wounds with indifference."
Just as Abraham set out from Ur and became the patriarch of a multitude of believers in the one God, Pope Francis said, those believers must return to Abraham, recognize themselves as brothers and sisters and set out to share the news that God loves every person he created.
"We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion," the pope said. "Indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred!"
Called like Abraham to trust in God and to set out on the paths he indicates, believers must "leave behind those ties and attachments that, by keeping us enclosed in our own groups, prevent us from welcoming God's boundless love and from seeing others as our brothers and sisters."
No individual or group can live in peace or achieve progress alone, he said. "Isolation will not save us."
The answer is not "an arms race or the erection of walls" either, the pope said. "Nor the idolatry of money, for it closes us in on ourselves and creates chasms of inequality."
The journey of peace, he said, begins with "the decision not to have enemies."
It means spending less money on weapons and more on food, education and health care, he said. It means affirming the value of every human life, including "the lives of the unborn, the elderly, migrants" and everyone else.
After both meetings, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced in a tweet: "In celebration of the historic meeting in Najaf between Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Pope Francis, and the historic interreligious meeting in the ancient city of Ur, we declare March 6 a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence in Iraq."
Khatib said "al-Sistani represents coexistence with, acceptance of and respect for the 'other.' It is one step ahead of tolerance. The visit falls in line with al-Sistani's line of thinking, which always seeks social cohesion and fights sectarianism, despite the immense pressure he has been placed under."
"Sistani also says that we all have to live together and be together. This is against the politicians who are polarizing the people," she added.
"For example, in the midst of a bloody Sunni-Shiite conflict, a group of Shiites came to him and referred to Sunnis as their brothers; he corrected them by saying: "Don't say Sunnis are our brothers, they are ourselves," the Lebanese Sunni Muslim analyst said of al-Sistani.
Khatib pointed to a poster featuring Pope Francis and al-Sistani with doves above their heads bearing the slogan: "We are part of you, and you are part of us."
Iraqi Dominican priest Ameer Jaje, an expert on Shiite relations and an adviser to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told CNS that "tensions exist between Shiites espousing al-Sistani's school of thought, which opposes direct rule by clerics, the system in place in Iran, and those who are pro-Iranian and who want to impose that system in Iraq."