Iraq declares March 6 'National Day of Tolerance' as Pope Francis tour continues

Pope Francis is in Iraq to encourage Christians to return home after years of persecution and violence

Iraq declared on Saturday that March 6 will be a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence following the landmark visit by Pope Francis to the country.

The pontiff is in Iraq to encourage Christians to return home after years of persecution and violence.

The historic visit is Pope Francis' first international trip since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – and the first papal visit to Iraq.

"In celebration of the historic meeting in Najaf between Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani and Pope Francis, and the historic inter-religious meeting in the ancient city of Ur, we declare March 6 a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence in Iraq," Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said.

Earlier on Saturday the Pope held a symbolic meeting with one of the most powerful figures in Shiite Islam, Mr Al Sistani. The two men released statements calling for greater tolerance between religions and an end to violence in Iraq, and elsewhere in the world.

During an interfaith meeting at the Iraqi ancient city of Ur, Pope Francis called for unity on Saturday as he denounced the association of terrorism and religion.

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” Pope Francis told the gathering.

“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," he said.

Terrorism "uses religion as a cover to inflict violence and horror", he said.

The interfaith service, called the Prayer for the Sons and Daughters of Abraham, focused on promoting peace and harmony between Iraq’s religious groups. Alongside Christians and Muslims, religious minorities including Yazidis, Bahais and Sabeans were represented at the meeting.

The meeting was held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, a 4,000-year-old archaeological complex located near the city of Nasiriyah in modern day Dhi Qar governorate, in southern Iraq.

Ur is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham – who is revered by all Abrahamic faiths.

The head of the Coptic Church in Iraq, Mina Al Ureshalimi, told The National he hoped the Pope's visit would bring peace to the country.

“We thank God and Pope Francis for giving us the opportunity to be here to witness this inter-religious prayer; we hope that God can save the world from the pandemic and save Iraq and its people,” he said.

The visit gives hope to the Iraqi people that peace can prevail, Suad Haddad, a member of Iraq’s Bahai community, said.

"We here to represent all of Iraq's religious and cultural sects, if we are not united then we will not be able to have peace and prosperity in our country," Ms Haddad told The National.

“Ur represents the hometown of our Father Abraham, the father of all religions. Nasiriyah is a source of all the prophets and messengers,” she said.

The Pope acknowledged the historical significance of the venue, saying he was "happy to be in the land of glory and the cradle of religion."

"The religious pilgrimage from this place reminds us of our father Abraham, and our presence in this holy place is to revive the memory,” he said.

Representatives from the nearby Marsh Arab minority were also present at the ceremony. Jassim Al Asadi, who represents Nature Iraq, an organisation dedicated to preserving Iraq's famed marshes, said the pope was given gifts representing the area's ancient Sumerian heritage.

"After the conclusion of Pope Francis' visit to the historic city of Ur, the governor of Dhi Qar presented him with a model of a Sumerian boat, a 'Taradah' and a hand-fan, or 'Mahfah', made of palm fronds with the woven phrase, 'welcome Pope Francis', he told The National.

"I think that the visit will contribute to refining the language of acceptance of the other, and social tolerance," he said, adding that he hoped the visit could create, "opportunities for investment in religious and archaeological tourism."

The House of Abraham 

Ur is also the site of a 4,000-year-old Sumerian temple, known as the Ziggurat, a residential complex and palaces.

The service took place next to the House of Abraham, near the Ziggurat.

For the Pope's visit, the site has been cleaned, with media tents and big screens ready to welcome the pontiff.

Nationwide curfews are currently imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus, and thousands of Iraqi security forces personnel have been deployed to protect the Pope during his visit.

While the Pope wore a mask, few others on the canopied stage did.

At the 45-minute meeting in the holy city of Najaf, in central Iraq, Mr Al Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians – that they should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.

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