The meeting took place during Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq, the first ever for a Pope. It happened in spite of concerns for the Pope’s safety and warnings about crowds ignoring covid restrictions and the possibility of a spike in the virus. The Pope was committed to honouring his promise of a visit and the people of Iraq showed their delight by the warm welcome they gave him. The Christian community in Iraq includes a range of rites and traditions which include Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenian and Melkite and is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the first century and mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Now it is facing extinction after hundreds of thousands have fled the violence and destruction of the so-called Islamic State. Francis travelled to Iraq as a pilgrim of peace to show solidarity with a community whose spirit has been broken, an expression used by Yousif Kalian "What the pope's visit is doing is bringing back some of that hope again," said Kalian, "the visit is really going to be giving a huge vote of confidence from the pope to the people that they can handle and sustain themselves, despite the challenges."
The Pope, 84 years of and suffering from sciatica, had a gruelling three days, visiting war torn Mosul on the Nineveh plains and praying for peace, calling for hope to triumph over hate declaring “fraternity is more durable that fratricide”; celebrating the first papal mass in the Chaldean rite in St Joseph’s Cathedral Baghdad – significant because Chaldean is a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus; attending an interfaith meeting in Ur thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims. There Pope Francis told the gathering, which included Muslims and Christians but unfortunately no Jews whose numbers are in single figures, “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. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion. Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.”
The meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani was an image of such unity. The meeting was private and took place in Ayatollah Sistani’s home. The Vatican, however, said Pope Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history. And al-Sistani’s office released a statement that said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians and that the Shia leader “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”.
Marsin Alshamary, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera that it was “a very significant” meeting. “The Iraqi public is tired of conflict and it is an opportune moment to have this visit,” she said. “But it is important to recognise that this visit is nothing more than symbolic and that is more than enough. Having the pope visit Iraq for the first time in history is such an honour and it is such a great thing to be happening. And Iraqis are so happy to be hosting him.” “Nothing more than symbolic” sounds quite dismissive but if in this historic meeting there is a message it surely is one of unity and openness which offers the possibility of further dialogues, growing friendship and working together for the common good. There will be developments I’m sure and at some time in the future we will see what good seeds have been sown by this historic visit.