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Pope Francis Makes History with Iraq Visit

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Charity, love and fraternity are the way forward: This was said by the Pope in conversation with journalists on the flight from Baghdad back to Rome, after his historic Iraq trip. Truly remarkable and inspiring words these, from a truly remarkable and inspiring spiritual leader.

Pope Francis, the 84-year-old head of the Catholic Church, recently made history with a four-day visit to strife-torn Iraq (5th to 8th March, 2021). The visit was an immensely significant and very appreciable step in promoting interfaith dialogue and inter-community harmony and highlighted the Pope’s deep commitment to peace between religious communities.

The Pope’s long-awaited trip sought to comfort one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, while also deepening his dialogue with Muslims. His historic tour of Iraq took him to six cities and sites, during which he met Muslim and Christian leaders and preached peace and coexistence.

The Pope began his Iraqi visit landing in Baghdad. In the first important meeting of the day, he pointed to Iraq’s authorities, civil society groups and diplomats the path toward a genuine recovery of the country following years of conflict and terrorism. The problems facing the country can be overcome by building a society based on fraternity, solidarity, tolerance, and coexistence, through concrete acts of care and service, especially for the vulnerable and those most in need.  The Pope said he was among them “as a pilgrim of peace in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace.”  “May the clash of arms be silenced” in Iraq and everywhere, he urged. “May no one be considered a second-class citizen,” he said. Later that day, he met bishops, clergy and religious in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, underscoring the importance of sowing seeds of reconciliation and fraternal coexistence that can lead to a rebirth of hope for everyone. At the cathedral, he prayed and honoured the victims of one of the worst massacres of Christians, the 2010 attack on the cathedral that left 58 people dead. Speaking to congregants, he urged Christians to persevere in Iraq to ensure that its Catholic community, “though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole” — using an image found in both the Bible and Quran.

Among the places in Iraq that Pope Francis visited was Najaf, where he had a historic meeting with the county’s top Shia Muslim religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and delivered a message of peaceful coexistence.

The meeting took place at the humble home Ayatollah Sistani has rented for decades. The Vatican said the Pope thanked Ayatollah Sistani for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history. The visit was carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders. In a statement, Ayatollah Sistani said, “Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role to put a stop to tragedy … and urge sides, especially great powers, to make wisdom and sense prevail and erase the language of war”. He affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.

The Vatican said Pope Francis thanked al-Sistani and the Shia people for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history. The Pope said that Ayatollah Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”. According to a statement from the Vatican’s Press Office, during the courtesy visit, which lasted about forty-five minutes,  the Pope “stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family.”

In taking leave of the Ayatollah, the Pope stated that he continued to pray that God, the Creator of all, would grant a future of peace and fraternity for the beloved land of Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world.