Today was dedicated to dialogue between faiths. It began with a visit to the leader of Iraqi Shias, Al-Sistani, and continued with the interfaith meeting in Ur of the Chaldeans, a blessed place that “brings us back” to “the birth of our religions”. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – On the second day of his visit to Iraq Pope Francis started out in what probably embodies the spirit of his presence in the Mideast country, namely interreligious dialogue and the meeting of faiths.
For the pontiff, believers have a duty to uphold brotherhood among peoples, deny the possibility that faith justifies violence, and commit themselves to fighting the domination of money and the spread of weapons.
The morning began with the flight to the Shia holy city of Najaf. Here Francis met Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani, leader of Iraqi Shias. Najaf hosts the tomb of the first Shia Imam, Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. In addition to mosques, shrines and religious schools, the holy city of Iraqi Shiism is known for the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, the largest in the world, because Shias believe that being buried in Najaf guarantees entry into heaven.
Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani welcomed the Pope standing, a sign of deference. According to a press release by the Holy See Press Office , “During the courtesy visit, which lasted about forty five minutes, the Holy Father stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family.
“The meeting was an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up – together with the Shiite community – in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.
“In taking leave of the Grand Ayatollah, the Holy Father stated that he continues to pray that God, the Creator of all, will grant a future of peace and fraternity for the beloved land of Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world.”
Significantly, banners set up on the road from the airport to the residence of the Grand Ayatollah, inside the Shrine dedicated to Imam Ali, read “You are part of us and we are part of you”, with the pictures of the Pope and Al-Sistani. The latter’s office said that during the meeting, al-Sistani thanked Francis for making an effort to come to Najaf and told him that Christians in Iraq should live “like all Iraqis in security and peace, and with full constitutional rights.”
From Najaf the pontiff travelled to Ur of the Chaldeans, which John Paul II was prevented from visiting. The place is the birthplace of Abraham, the Patriarch who unites Jews, Christians and Muslims, where God asked Abraham to leave to go to the land destined for him.
Francis spoke of Ur as “This blessed place [which] brings us back” to “the birth of our religions”, the venue chosen for the interfaith meeting. Representatives of all the religions present in the country were in attendance; people sang, read from the Bible and the Qurʼān, bore witness to the closeness between people of different faiths.
For Francis, “those who follow the ways of God, cannot be against someone, but [are] for everyone.” “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. We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred!”
“It was here that Abraham heard God’s call; it was from here that he set out on a journey that would change history. We are the fruits of that call and that journey.”
“It is up to us, today’s humanity, especially those of us, believers of all religions, to turn instruments of hatred into instruments of peace. It is up to us to appeal firmly to the leaders of nations to make the increasing proliferation of arms give way to the distribution of food for all.
“It is up to us to silence mutual accusations in order to make heard the cry of the oppressed and discarded in our world: all too many people lack food, medicine, education, rights and dignity! It is up to us to shed light on the shady maneuvers that revolve around money and to demand that money not end up always and only reinforcing the unbridled luxury of a few.
“It is up to us preserve our common home from our predatory aims. It is up to us to remind the world that human life has value for what it is and not for what it has. That the lives of the unborn, the elderly, migrants and men and women, whatever the colour of their skin or their nationality, are always sacred and count as much as the lives of everyone else! It is up to us to have the courage to lift up our eyes and look at the stars, the stars that our father Abraham saw, the stars of the promise.
Today as he did yesterday, the pontiff spoke about the “Dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence” that struck every ethnic and religious community in the country, especially the Yazidis who have wept for the death of their men and seen “thousands of [their] women, girls and children kidnapped, sold as slaves, subjected to physical violence and forced conversions.
“Today, let us pray for those who have endured these sufferings, for those who are still dispersed and abducted, that they may soon return home. And let us pray that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion will everywhere be recognized and respected; these are fundamental rights, because they make us free to contemplate the heaven for which we were created.”
“There will be no peace unless peoples extend a hand to other peoples. There will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us. There will be no peace as long as our alliances are against others, for alliances of some against others only increase divisions. 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. Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighbouring war-torn Syria.”
Finally, “May we – the descendants of Abraham and the representatives of different religions – sense that, above all, we have this role: to help our brothers and sisters to raise their eyes and prayers to heaven. We all need this because we are not self-sufficient.” (FP)