Pope preaches peace in Iraq amid widespread Christian persecution

Christians hoped that that the Pope’s symbolic meeting with a top Muslim cleric would impact the violent persecution they face.

By World Israel News and AP

Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric appeared together on Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-torn Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during a historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis, despite the fact that Christians in Iraq face violent persecution at the hands of their Muslim neighbors.

According to a 2019 interim study ordered by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and led by Rev. Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, “Christian persecution” is “at near genocide levels” in the Middle East. According to the report, Iraq’s Christian population was slashed from 1.5 million before 2003 to below 120,000 as of 2019.

“Christianity is at risk of disappearing, representing a massive setback for plurality in the region,” said the report.

On Saturday, the Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam and his rare political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq.

The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.

Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, traveling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam. He then walked the few meters to al-Sistani’s home.

A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.

The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks.

The official said there was some concern about the fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before.

Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not. The aging ayatollah, who underwent surgery for a fractured thigh bone last year, looked tired.

The pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani’s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water. Al-Sistani spoke for most of the meeting.

The pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Iraq violently purged its Jewish population in the lead up to and following the establishment of the State of Israel. Prior to that, Jews faced Nazi-inspired pogroms and massacres in Iraq (“Farhud”), which was ruled by Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gaylani during World War II, an anti-Semite who made an alliance with Adolf Hitler. During the holocaust, the Iraqi government tried to force the nation’s Jews into a ghetto.

Despite the fact that Iraq had been home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world for centuries, few Jews remained there as of the 1970s.

While the Vatican claimed Iraqi Jews were invited to the event on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, it said none attended, without providing further details. In 2020, the U.S. State Department reported that there are less than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, with an estimated 70 to 80 Jewish families in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

“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,” Francis said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

Religious leaders stood to greet him. While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The meeting was held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.

Ali Thijeel, a resident of the nearby city of Nasiriyah who attended the event, said he hoped the pope’s visit would encourage investment in the area to attract pilgrims and tourists. “This is what we were waiting for,” he said. “This is a message to the government and politicians. They should take care of this city and pay attention to our history.”

In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.
Iraqis cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

“We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is a historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.

On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.

It has also seen recent rocket attacks linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran.

President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the deal.

Francis’ visit to Najaf and nearby Ur traverses provinces that have seen recent instability. In Nasiriyah, where the Plains of Ur are located, protest violence left at least five dead last month. Most were killed when Iraqi security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds.

Protest violence was also seen in Najaf last year, but abated as the mass anti-government movement that engulfed Iraq gradually petered out.