Papal visit is momentous not just for Iraq but the entire world

Pope’s tour of the country offers renewed hope to both Iraq's Muslim and Christian communities

A billboard showing Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with Arabic that reads, "You are a part of us and we are a part of you," hangs on a street in Baghdad, Iraq,  prior to the upcoming Pope visit, Monday, March 1, 2021. (AP/Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
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For the first time in history, the head of the Catholic Church and the leader of the Shiite Islamic clerical establishment are meeting in Iraq, the very cradle of civilisation.

As a British Muslim Iraqi interfaith leader, who has had the good fortune to meet both these figures during the course of my work, I believe that this unprecedented meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani comes at a crucial time.

With politics increasingly polarised in the midst of a global pandemic, amid an unprecedented economic downturn stoking extremism from all sides, the coming together of these two leading figures from the Islamic and Christian worlds offers a profound symbol of the inherent unity of these two great faiths.

That this is the first meeting Pope Francis has undertaken since the beginning of the pandemic signals its momentous significance. Before meeting Mr Al Sistani, the Pope will have met Iraq’s top political leaders. But he is visiting many Christian communities: in Baghdad, the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation – the site of the devastating 2010 terrorist attack which killed 58 people; in Erbil, he will hold Holy Mass; and in Mosul, he will offer prayers for the fallen and victims of terrorism.

These visits are a sobering reminder of the carnage from which Iraq emerged, when the terrorist group ISIS rampaged across the country, singling out Christian homes and businesses. The terrorists painted the symbol “n” – Arabic shorthand for Nasrani, or Nazarene – on front doors and shutters, and targeted them ruthlessly.

To Iraqi Christians, the world must have looked bleak with little hope in sight. Now, seven years on with the ISIS reign of terror behind us, the Pope’s tour of the country offers renewed hope to both its Muslim and Christian citizens.

That is why Pope Francis’s meeting with Mr Al Sistani in the Holy City of Najaf represents such a significant step forward – not just for Iraq and its diverse faith communities, but for the entire world.

Najaf is the final resting place of Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, who would regularly refer to the sayings of Jesus when teaching his followers. It is also the home of the 1,000-year-old Islamic religious seminary headed by Mr Al Sistani, from where he issued his famous fatwa calling on Iraqis to volunteer to join the armed forces against ISIS.

Mr Al Sistani, too, spearheaded efforts to house thousands of displaced Iraqi Christians who had been driven out of their homes, with his vast humanitarian network providing aid and shelter for hundreds of thousands of orphans and bereaved families.

Indeed, it may surprise many to learn that the common ground between the Pope and the Ayatollah encompasses not just their social and humanitarian outreach, but their shared religious values. Mr Al Sistani’s desire to protect Christians against ISIS terrorists harks back to the core teachings of the Islamic faith, which sees protecting the freedom of religious practice as central to its mission.

Pope Francis meets with with bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of 'Our Lady of Salvation' in Baghdad, Iraq March 5, 2021.  Vatican Media//Handout via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Pope Francis visits the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of 'Our Lady of Salvation' - the site of the devastating 2010 terrorist attack which killed 58 people - in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 5. Vatican Media/Handout via Reuters  

In one authoritative tradition of the Prophet Mohammed, he said: “No bishop is to be removed from his diocese, nor any monk from his monastery … No house belonging to churches or synagogues is to be demolished. No money belonging to the Church is to be used in building a mosque.”

Having worked for years with grassroots communities attempting to strengthen interfaith relations, it is heartening to know that Pope Francis’s effort to heal the pain and loss of Iraqi Christians extends to the indigenous Yazidi and Shiite communities who faced extermination from ISIS militants.

His historic visit demonstrates that no matter how hard the extremists may try to tear communities apart, by holding fast to our shared values, by insisting on working together on our common challenges – we will stand resilient and united.

This is a message that our diverse communities here in Britain will welcome and from which we will learn. Because if Iraq, plagued by decades of war and violence, can preserve and strengthen its rich heritage of diversity, then so can we.

Mustafa Field MBE is Director of Faiths Forum for London, an interfaith charity which brings together leaders from across nine different faiths to work collaboratively.