Pope Francis held a historic meeting with a senior Shiite cleric in Iraq on Saturday and called for greater interfaith unity, visiting Abraham’s birthplace as part of his whirlwind tour of the Middle East.
Francis, 84, met the great Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, at his home in the holy city of Najaf in central Iraq, where the two elderly men in faith provided a highly symbolic moment of tolerance for a country marked by sectarianism and violence. .
“Religious and spiritual leadership must play a major role in ending the tragedy,” Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, said in a statement after the meeting.
He also called for “wisdom”
The pontiff met with an ascetic and a somewhat secluded spiritual figure for 45 minutes in the modest home of Sistani, on a narrow street near the sanctuary with the golden dome of Imam Ali.
An official photo of the Vatican shows Sistani in his traditional black Shiite robe and turban sitting opposite Francis in his white robe.
With almost mythical growth among millions of followers, Sistani rarely appears in public, but intervenes at critical moments in Iraq’s history. His decrees sent Iraqis to free elections for the first time in 2005 and raised hundreds of thousands to fight ISIS in 2014.
“The Holy Father stressed the importance of co-operation and friendship between religious communities,” the Vatican said in a statement after the visit.
The meeting was an opportunity for the pope to “thank” the Synanist, who “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and persecuted” during the violence of recent years, the statement said.
After the meeting, Francis traveled to the desert plain of Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of monotheism and a unifying prophet in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Praising young Muslims for helping Christians repair their churches, Francis stressed the importance of interfaith coexistence and brotherhood in his speech.
“From this place where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful,” he said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” he added.
With the blowing wind blowing, Francis sat next to Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi leaders and spoke in the eyes of the ancient archeological ruins of the 4,000-year-old city.
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The pope’s trip, which began on Friday, will last four days. This comes amid a second wave of coronavirus cases in Iraq and a series of rocket attacks as fierce US-Iranian rivalry develops on Iraqi soil.
Welcomed by white doves, folk dances, a guard of honor and colorful street graffiti, Francis’ visit heightens national pride and provides a rare opportunity for Iraqis to be at the center of positive news. The oil-rich country is still struggling after the 2003 US invasion plunged it into chaos.
Francis said he was also making the trip to show solidarity with the Christian community in Iraq – one of the world’s oldest – which has dropped to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million 20 years ago.
“I am more than happy to see the pope,” Iraqi Christian Feras Ramsey, 46, told NBC News. “This is a message from the Vatican that it will not forget its sons and daughters in Iraq.”
Colleague Christian Fadi Left, a 39-year-old chef in Baghdad, also welcomed the visit.
“The pope came to Iraq offering peace,” he said. “Peace is the language that all Iraqis should speak, whether they are Christians, Muslims or other religions.”
Flying to Baghdad later Saturday, Francis is expected to celebrate Mass in Central Cathedral. He will then travel north to Mosul on Sunday, a former Islamic State stronghold.
Iraqi President Barham Salih thanked Francis for his first papal visit to Iraq, despite some calls for him to postpone the trip.
“Iraq is going through hard times,” Salih told NBC News on Friday. “He came to help us get to a better day.”
Reuters contributed to this report.
Richard Engel and Saphora Smith contributed.