Mark Hambley – a trustee of the Next Century Foundation – recently made the following comment regarding Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq: “There is little doubt that the visit of the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to war-torn Iraq is significant, both as a gesture of the common roots of the world’s three great, monotheistic religions and as an attempt to forge a safer future for the currently beleaguered and dwindling religious minorities not only in Iraq but in other areas of the Middle East, as well.”
The accuracy of Ambassador Hambley’s assessment is underlined by Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi‘s decision to commemorate the occasion by declaring the 6th March a ‘National Day of Tolerance’. The significance of the papal visit is underscored by the following article contributed by Ragheb Malli, a Next Century Foundation member based in London.
After a 50 minute sit-down that took months to organise, history was made as Pope Francis visited Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – a senior Shia Islam religious leader – to discuss the importance of unity in the conflict ravaged region, as well as, to reaffirm the security and place of the declining Christian minority in Iraq.
The historic meeting may have served as nothing more than a symbol, however, symbols have the power to create a substantial domino effect. The two were pictured siting next to each other, with no face masks, the Pope in white and Sistani in black. Opposites united with no barriers. The message was clear and strong.
According to the Vatican, the Pope thanked Sistani for raising “his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” amidst Iraq’s destructive conflict. Sistani also affirmed ‘’his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”.
Notably, the visit was honoured by both and carried out in the utmost respect and humility from both sides. The meeting was held in Sistani’s modest home and witnessed the release of white doves symbolising peace, the Pope entered it by removing his shoes and thanked him; to which Sistani stood up in greeting, which he does not do for visitors. Each gesture emblematic and eloquent.
On his planned 3 day trip to Iraq, Francis re-asserted his dedication to interfaith dialogue; whilst Sistani re-affirmed his dedication to coexist. During the bloody Shia-Sunni conflict, Sistani stated, “don’t say Sunnis are our brothers, they are ourselves.” A statement that resonated with the Pope and materialised on this trip. The Pope came with his message that the Christians in the region are not forgotten and that they have a right to live in peace with their full rights, as Sistani verbally stated. Diversity can, and should, co-exist in peace and prosperity.
The following day, Pope Francis proceeded to visit Ur, the ancient Iraqi city known for being the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a crucial prophet in Judaism, Christianity and Islam -another symbolic event. He stated his message of unity and peace in religions, “we believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion’’. The event was observed by the representatives of Iraq’s religions, including Shia, Sunni, Christian and Yazidi clerics.
Amidst a sea of blackened and tarnished politics, the world needs to see more of these symbols of unity and peace. The more historic milestones achieved through religious leaders, as well as, politicians, the more chance there is for a sustainable peace framework to be put in place. For now, this is a historic milestone.
Ragheb Malli – London