Pope Francis has urged Iraqi Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside hostility and work together for peace and unity during an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of Prophet Abraham, the father of their faith.
“That is true religiosity: to worship God and love our neighbors,” the Pope told the meeting on Saturday.
Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq to reaffirm his message of interfaith tolerance and brotherhood during the first papal visit to Iraq, a country marked by religious and ethnic divisions.
With a splendid ziggurat nearby, Francis told the faith leaders that it was appropriate for them to come together in Ur, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to work together as children for peace pray to Abraham, the prophet who is common to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
“From this place where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, we want to affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to desecrate his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” said he. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
The Pope said there could never be peace as long as Iraqis viewed people of different faiths as “the other”.
“Peace does not require winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who travel from conflict to unity despite all the misunderstandings and injuries of the past,” he said.
Although Abraham is considered the father of Christians, Muslims and Jews, no Jewish representative was present at the interfaith event in Ur.
In 1947, a year before Israel was born, the Jewish community in Iraq numbered about 150,000. Now your numbers are in single digits.
A local church official said Jews had been contacted and invited, but the situation was “complicated” for them, especially as they did not have a structured fellowship. However, in similar events in the past in predominantly Muslim countries, a high-ranking foreign Jewish figure has participated.
The Pope, who began his three-day visit to Iraq in Baghdad on Friday, was due to hold mass later on Saturday in the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in the capital.
Earlier on Saturday. Francis and Iraq’s chief Shiite Muslim leader delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence and urged Muslims in the war-weary 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 that religious authorities play a role in protecting Iraqi Christians and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for “raising his voice in defense of the most vulnerable and persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.
Al-Sistani, 90, is deeply revered in Iraq by Shiite majority, and his views on religious and other issues are sought out by Shiite Muslims around the world.
On Sunday, Francis travels north to Mosul, a former ISIS stronghold, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict.
Renad Mansour, project leader for the Iraq Initiative and senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera, London, that the Pope’s words are considered “symbols”.
“It is good for Christians in Iraq and for all Iraqis that high-level leaders and high-level religious leaders come together and emphasize the importance of living together. But how does that translate into basic human rights, basic civil rights for these Iraqis? ” he said.
“From the perspective of the Iraqi leadership, this is a story of Iraq that we haven’t heard often since at least 2003, if not before, a story of conflict, a story of sectarianism. This is a story that tries to look to a brighter future, but of course challenges remain. “