BAGHDAD: Pope Francis on Saturday met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Shiite Islam religious establishment in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, where he denounced extremism in the country and pushed for peace.
What they’re saying: “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” the pope said. “Dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence have gathered over this country. All its ethnic and religious communities have suffered.”
“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.”
Al-Sistani, in a statement issued by his office after the meeting, maintained that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights,” noting 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.”
The Vatican said Francis expressed thanks to al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” amid violence in Iraq’s recent history, adding the meeting “underlined the importance of collaboration” between religions.
But, the Washington Post notes, “Some of the challenges were evident even Saturday: At the interreligious event occurring in the founding land of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, no Jews were present onstage.”
The big picture: The four-day visit to Iraq, which is heavily featured in the Old Testament, is largely intended to reassure the Christian minority living in Iraq who have been violently persecuted by the Islamic State. Francis’ tour represents the first-ever papal trip to Iraq.