Pope Francis meets the best Shiite cleric in Iraq and visits the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham By Reuters

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© Reuters. Pope Francis visits Iraq

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By Philip Pullella

UR, Iraq (Reuters) – Pope Francis stepped down a narrow alley in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq for a historic meeting with the county’s top Shiite minister, and visited the birthplace of Prophet Abraham on Saturday to conduct violence in the name of God condemn as “the greatest blasphemy”.

The successive interfaith events about 200 km apart, one in a dusty, built-up city and the other on a desert plain, heightened the main theme of his risky trip to Iraq – the country has suffered far too much.

“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 Francis in Ur, where Abraham was born.

As the desert wind blew his white cassock, Francis spoke to Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi guides within sight of the archaeological excavation of the 4,000-year-old city, which includes a pyramid-style ziggurat, residential complex, temples, and palaces.

Hours earlier in Najaf, Francis Grand Ayatollah met Ali al-Sistani, a visit that sent a strong signal for coexistence in a country torn by violence.

The 2003 US invasion plunged Iraq into years of sectarian conflict. Security has improved since the Islamic State was defeated in 2017, but Iraq continues to be a venue for global and regional settlements, particularly for a bitter rivalry between the US and Iran that unfolded on Iraqi soil.

The 90-year-old Sistani is one of the most influential figures in Shiite Islam, both inside and outside Iraq, and their meeting was the first between a Pope and such a senior Shiite clergyman.

After the meeting, Sistani urged the world’s religious leaders to hold great powers accountable and gain wisdom and sense for the war. He added that Christians, like all Iraqis, should live in peace and coexistence.

In a statement, Sistani said, “Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role in stopping the tragedy … and urging sides, especially great powers, to rule wisdom and purpose and erase the language of war.”

Their meeting took place in the humble house that Sistani has rented for decades and which is near the golden-dome Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. An official Vatican photo showed Sistani in his traditional black Shiite robe and turban across from Francis.

A meeting of patrons

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 around 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 community. However, in similar events in the past in predominantly Muslim countries, a high-ranking foreign Jewish figure has participated.

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are a betrayal of religion,” said the Pope in Ur. “We believers cannot remain silent when terrorism abuses religion. In fact, we are clearly called to clear up all misunderstandings,” he said.

Islamic State militants trying to establish a caliphate for several countries devastated northern Iraq from 2014 to 2017, killing both Christians and Muslims who opposed the insurgents.

The Christian community in Iraq, one of the oldest in the world, was particularly devastated, falling from about 1.5 million before the US invasion and the brutal Islamic violence that followed it to about 300,000.

“A TRIUMPH OF VIRTUE”

In Ur, Francis praised young Muslims for helping Christians repair their churches “when terrorism invaded the north of this beloved land”.

Rafah Husein Baher, a member of the small, ancient Sabean Mandaic religion, thanked Francis for the trip despite the many problems in the country, including an increase in COVID-19 cases and a recent spate of rocket and suicide bombings.

“Your visit is a triumph of virtue, it is a symbol of appreciation for the Iraqis. Blessed are those who uproot the fear of souls.”

The Pope, who began his four-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.

On Sunday he travels north to Mosul, a former stronghold of the Islamic State, where churches and other buildings there still bear the scars of conflict.

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