Ur, Iraq, Mar 6 (efe-epa).- Pope Francis met with several Iraqi religious leaders, including one of Iraq’s most senior Shia clerics, on Saturday, the second day of the first ever papal visit to the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
After landing in the capital Baghdad on Friday, the pontiff traveled to the southern city of Ur, where the prophet Abraham — a principal figure in Islam, Judaism and Christianity — was born, according to monotheistic tradition.
“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 said.
Francis added that believers “cannot be silent when terror abuses religion” at the meeting with representatives of Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, Zoroastrians, and Yazidis.
The pope also discussed the persecution suffered by the Yazidis, among other ethnic and religious communities, during the Islamic State terror organization’s invasion in 2014.
He prayed for “all those who have gone through such suffering and for those who are still missing and kidnapped, so that they will soon return to their homes”.
Earlier in the day, the pope met with Ayatollah Sistani at the Shia leader’s modest home in Najaf. The meeting, which has been long in the making, is being seen as a historic moment in relations between the Vatican and Islam.
During his 45-minute talk with the Ayatollah, Francis stressed “the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities to contribute – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family”.
The pair discussed the safety of the country’s dwindling Christian community. Sectarian violence in the war-torn country over much of the past two decades has seen Iraq’s Christian population fall from 1.5 million in 2003 to just 300,000.
Francis expressed gratitude to al-Sistani for “for speaking up (…) in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people,” according to a statement distributed by the Vatican press office.
Al-Sistani’s office said in a statement that the meeting addressed “the great challenges that humanity faces”.
The Shiite leader spoke about “injustice and oppression, religious and intellectual persecution (…) the economic blockade and the displacement of many people of the region, including the Palestinians,” the statement added.
Al-Sistani said he had “interest in Christians living like all Iraqis, in peace and security and with all their rights”.
Najaf, located 160 km to the south of Baghdad, is the main Shia religious center, a site of pilgrimage for Shiites.
The city houses the tomb of one of Islam’s most revered figures, Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the first man to convert to Islam.
The pope’s visit is marked by heightened security measures amid fears of potential sectarian attacks and restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some 10,000 security personnel are being deployed to protect the pontiff, while he will use a closed vehicle for the entirety of his three-day trip. EFE-EPA