Pope Meets With Iraqi Ayatollah; Both Call for ‘Peaceful Coexistence’

Pope Francis met with Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during a visit Saturday morning to the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Both men issued statements after the meeting urging peaceful coexistence among Iraq’s different religious groups.
Amateur video posted on social media showed a group of children in the south of Iraq chanting a welcome message to Pope Francis as he traveled to Najaf Saturday morning to meet with the country’s top Shiite religious authority. Welcome signs were also posted on billboards in many towns and cities.After traveling from Baghdad by helicopter, Pope Francis, accompanied by close advisers, walked through the narrow streets of Najaf to reach al-Sistani’s compound. Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako sat near the pope, as he chatted with al-Sistani in his office for close to an hour.Neither of the men could be heard on the video but each of their offices issued statements after the meeting calling for “unity among Iraqis and peaceful coexistence.”
Arab media reported the meeting between Francis and al-Sistani “took months to arrange,” as the Shiite cleric rarely meets with visiting foreign religious or political dignitaries. Cardinal Sako, however, is said to have close ties to al-Sistani and his advisers, and he wanted both men to deliver a message of peace and unity.Iraq analyst Hassan Mustapha told Arab media that both religious leaders are following what looks like a “roadmap” for reconciliation following the bitter conflicts in recent years.He said that both the pope and ayatollah are renouncing violence and killing, and both would like mankind to live in peace, security and faith. The statements of both, he said, read like a roadmap with al-Sistani denouncing oppression, persecution and religious tyranny while promoting freedom to choose.Al-Sistani reaffirmed that religious authorities must play a role in protecting Iraq’s small Christian community and that they should be able to live in peace and enjoy the same rights of all other Iraqis.Pope Francis, center, prepares to leave after an inter-religious meeting near the archaeological site of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq, March 6, 2021.The pope’s meeting with al-Sistani was followed by a visit to the ruins of Ur, thought to have been the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. Members of Iraq’s different religious groups held an interfaith meeting before hearing the pope speak.Chaldean religious music preceded the pope’s message along with readings from the Bible and the Quran related to Abraham. The leader of the world’s Roman Catholics urged Iraqis to “unite” and not to “surrender” to violence and oppression. He stressed that “we are all grandsons of (the Prophet) Abraham and we must not try to divide heaven since heaven calls for uniting men.”
Dr. Paul Sullivan, a professor at the Washington-based National Defense University, told VOA that “the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism have a chance to see similarities over differences.” “Let us hope,” he stressed, “they take this chance and get beyond the blind spots of prejudice and bigotry … to see their common humanity and similarities of belief.”  
Later Saturday the pope was expected to celebrate mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad.
Francis also plans to visit Mosul, Irbil, and Qaraqosh before leaving Iraq.  
The pope will hold an open-air mass at the Irbil stadium on Sunday afternoon. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, attendance will be limited to 10,000 people.
The Christian presence in Iraq dates to the first centuries of the religion, but only a few hundred thousand Christians remain today.  
This is the pope’s thirty-third trip outside the Vatican and his first in the last 15 months due mostly to the COVID pandemic.  
The pontiff is scheduled to return to Rome Monday morning.