– prayed amid rubble of destroyed churches
– condemns extremism in name of religion
By Ononye VC/Vatican/BBC News
Pope Francis has denounced religious extremism on his historic and risky visit to the volatile Islamic State of Iraq during the week.
The Pontiff also discussed the plight of the Christian minority in the entire region.
Hostility, extremism and violence are “betrayals of religion” he told an inter-faith prayer service.
Iraq has been wracked by religious and sectarian violence, both against minorities and between Shia and Sunni Muslims too.
Pope Francis also visited one of Shia Islam’s most powerful figures.
Receiving the head of the Roman Catholic Church at his home in the holy city of Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said Christians should be able to live in peace and security like all other Iraqis.
The meeting was seen as a highly symbolic moment in the Pope’s visit, which is his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago, and the first ever papal visit to Iraq.
Covid-19 and security fears have made this his riskiest trip yet.
The 84-year-old leader of the Catholic Church earlier told reporters that he had felt “duty-bound” to make the “emblematic” journey, which will see him visit several sites over four days in Iraq.
He delivered his message at the site of the ancient city of Ur, held to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, who is revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
An inter-faith service brought together representatives of Iraq’s religions, including Shia, Sunni, Christian and Yazidi clerics.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” the Pope said.
“Indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred.”
He singled out the suffering of the Yazidi community which had “mourned the deaths of many men and witnessed thousands of women, girls and children kidnapped, sold as slaves, subjected to physical violence and forced conversions”.
Later on Saturday, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral in central Baghdad. Security was tight with special forces deployed in the area and concrete barriers erected outside the church.
Pope Francis thanked the ayatollah for speaking up “in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted” amid the violence and hardships of Iraq’s recent history, the Holy See press spokesman said.
The Shia leader’s message of peace, he said, affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.
This has been a meeting years in the making: an encounter between the leader of the Catholic Church and one of the most powerful figures in Shia Islam: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
For a pope passionate about reaching out to other faiths, the meeting is arguably the most symbolic moment of his visit to Iraq.
The dwindling Christian community here has suffered violence at the hands of Sunni extremists but some also fear the presence of Shia armed groups – and the cleric is seen as a voice of moderation.
One of the world’s oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet over the last two decades from 1.4 million to about 250,000, less than 1% of the country’s population.
Many have fled abroad to escape the violence that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Tens of thousands were also displaced when militants from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State (IS) group overran northern Iraq in 2014, destroying their historic churches, seizing their property, and giving them the choice to pay a tax, convert, leave or face death.
A US state department report on religious freedom in Iraq in 2019 found that Christians, as well as Sunni Muslims, complained of harassment at checkpoints by Shia security forces and some discrimination in education.
On his arrival on Friday, the Pope said Iraq’s Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.
It would be recalled that at the end of Mass celebrated in Iraq’s northern city of Erbil, Pope Francis met with Abdullah Kurdi, the father of three-year-old Alan, who drowned with his brother and mother off the Turkish coast in September 2015 while trying to reach Europe.
Reporters say long conversation took place between Pope Francis and the father of three-year-old, Alan Kurdi, who became a symbol of the tragic crossings of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 when he drowned off the Turkish coast together with his mother and brother as they attempted to enter Europe.
The photograph of the tiny body lying face-down in the sand was published on international media and shook the consciences of the world.
A statement released by the Holy See Press Office on Sunday revealed that the Pope was able to converse with Mr. Kurdi with the help of an interpreter at the end of the Mass celebrated in Erbil’s “Franso Hariri” on the third day of his Apostolic Visit to Iraq.
“He was able to listen to the father’s pain for the loss of his family and express his and the Lord’s deep participation in the man’s suffering,” the statement said.
Mr. Kurdi expressed his gratitude to the Pope for his words of closeness to his tragedy and to that of all those migrants who seek understanding, peace and security when they leave their countries at the risk of their lives.
He then gifted the Pope of a framed drawing representing his son Alan.