Pope Francis held a historic meeting with a senior Shiite cleric in Iraq on Saturday and called for a larger interfaith unit to visit the birthplace of Abraham as part of his hurricane tour of the Middle Eastern country.
The 84-year-old Francis met with the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani at his home in the holy city of Najaf in central Iraq, where the two older men of faith represented a symbolic moment of tolerance for a country steeped in sectarianism and Sectarianism was marked by violence.
“Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role in stopping the tragedy,” said Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, in a statement following the meeting.
He also called for “wisdom” to prevail and “erase the language of war”.
The Pope met for 45 minutes in Sistani’s modest house in a narrow alley near the Imam Ali shrine with the golden dome with the ascetic and somewhat withdrawn spiritual figure.
An official Vatican photo showed Sistani in his traditional black Shiite robe and turban across from Francis in his white cassock.
With an almost mythical stature among millions of followers, Sistani rarely appears in public, but has intervened at critical points in Iraq’s history. Its edicts sent Iraqis to free elections for the first time in 2005 and in 2014 gathered in the hundreds of thousands to fight against ISIS.
“The Holy Father stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities,” said the Vatican in a statement following the visit.
The meeting was an opportunity for the Pope to “thank” Sistani, who “raised his voice in defense of the most vulnerable and persecuted” during the violence of recent years, the statement said.
After the meeting, Francis traveled to the desert plains of Ur in southern Iraq, which was revered as the birthplace of Abraham – the patriarch of monotheism and a unifying prophet in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Francis praised young Muslims for helping Christians repair their churches and in his speech emphasized the importance of interfaith coexistence and brotherhood.
“From this place where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, we want to confirm that God is merciful,” he said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” he added.
While the desert wind blew, Francis sat next to Muslim, Christian and Yazidi guides and spoke within sight of the ancient archaeological ruins of the 4,000-year-old city.
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The Pope’s journey, which began on Friday, will last four days. It comes amid a second wave of coronavirus cases in Iraq and a spate of missile attacks as a fierce rivalry between the US and Iran unfolds on Iraqi soil.
The visit of Francis, who is greeted with white doves, folk dances, an honor guard and colorful street graffiti, increases national pride and provides Iraqis with a rare opportunity to be the center of positive news. The oil-rich country is still fighting after the US-led invasion in 2003 left it in chaos.
Francis said he was also making the trip to show solidarity with the Christian community in Iraq – one of the oldest in the world – which has fallen from about 1.5 million 20 years ago to about 300,000.
“I’m very excited about the pope’s visit,” Christian Feras Ramzi, 46, told NBC News. “This is a message from the Vatican that it will not forget its sons and daughters in Iraq.”
Christian Fadi Slewa, 39, a cook in Baghdad, also welcomed the visit.
“The Pope came to Iraq and offered peace,” he said. “Peace is the language that all Iraqis should speak, whether they are Christians, Muslims or other religions.”
Francis flies back to Baghdad later on Saturday and is expected to hold mass in a central cathedral. He will then travel north to Mosul, a former stronghold of the Islamic State, on Sunday.
Iraqi President Barham Salih thanked Francis for the first papal visit to Iraq, although he was asked to postpone the trip.
“Iraq has had a tough time,” Salih told NBC News on Friday. “He came to make us have a better day.”
Reuters contributed to this report.
Richard Engel and Saphora Smith contributed.