Iraqi Sunni and Shiite clerics denounced divisions along religious and ethnic lines and emphasised the country’s unity at a meeting intended to find common ground between Islam’s two main sects in the war-torn nation.
The meeting on Wednesday was organised by the Muslim World League in Islam’s holiest city, Makkah, and brought together a group of clerics from the two sects to help bridge the gap between them.
The League's secretary general, Mohammed Al Issa, said the meeting was exceptional and was held in a "brotherly and understanding" atmosphere.
However, the meeting was not attended by any of Iraq's senior and influential religious leaders with considerable sway over the country's many political and paramilitary groups, or their representatives.
After the meeting, the clerics issued a statement on the need to activate what is known as the Charter of Makkah, which was signed in 2006 by Iraqi religious leaders and meant to end the bloodshed in the country.
The 10-point charter calls for an end to sectarian violence and attacks on places of worship, to safeguard the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, the release of innocent detainees and to allow displaced people to return to their homes.
The 2006 meeting was organised by the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference, but the document did not affect the security situation in Iraq and retaliatory killings between Sunni and Shiite extremists groups persisted.
The latest statement stressed the need to preserve Iraq’s “unity, stability and prosperity to contribute to regional and world stability and prosperity”.
The participants agreed to denounce sectarianism and urged coexistence, moderation, mutual respect and tolerance.
They also called for “opening constructive dialogue channels” among the clerics to deal with various issues.
“The priority in our religious and media messages must focus on unity, preserve the country’s identity, make sure to build it, reject terrorism and violence in all forms,” the statement said.
Iraqis have faced sectarian violence since 2004 when Al Qaeda in Iraq declared Shiites as renegades, launching attacks against them and their places of worship, including the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine north of Baghdad in 2006.
That attack spurred Shiite militias to fight back, plunging the country into a bloody civil war.
Death squads from the two communities singled out people from rival sects in Baghdad from 2006 to 2008, kidnapping, killing and dumping bodies in the streets. Many neighbourhoods in the capital became off limits to people depending on their sect membership.
The civil war ended only after Shiite militia leader Moqtada Al Sadr announced a ceasefire, along with a Sunni revolt against Al Qaeda during a series of US-Iraqi offensives that helped to stop the fighting.
In June, a radical Shiite group called for the shrine of a revered Sunni cleric in Baghdad to be demolished, prompting fears of renewed sectarian tensions in Iraq.
In response, the government stationed security forces around the Abu Hanifa Al Numan shrine and mosque.