Pope Francis condemned violent religious extremism Saturday during an interfaith prayer service at the site of the ancient city of Ur, where the Prophet Abraham is thought to have been born.
Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq to reinforce his message of inter-religious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” he told the congregation, which included members of religious minorities persecuted under the Islamic State group’s three-year rule of much of northern Iraq.
The pope urged Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside animosities and work together for peace and unity.
“This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor,” he told the gathering.
Earlier in the day, Pope Francis held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, making a powerful appeal for coexistence in a country torn by sectarianism and violence.
Their meeting in the holy city of Najaf was the first time a pope has met with such a senior Shia cleric.
After the meeting Sistani, one of the most important figures in Shia Islam, called on world religious leaders to hold great powers to account and for wisdom and sense to prevail over war.
Pope Francis’s Iraq schedule
- The pope’s program in Iraq includes visits to the cities of Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil. He will traverse some 1,445 kms in a country where tensions still linger and where more recently the scourge of Covid-19 has led to record numbers of infections.
- Pope Francis will travel in an armored car through the customary crowds that flock to catch a glimpse of the leader of the Catholic Church. At times he will be required to travel either by helicopter or plane over areas where jihadists belonging to the Islamic State group are still present.
- Proceedings kicked off Friday with a speech to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, addressing the security and economic difficulties confronting Iraq’s 40 million people. The pope also discusses the persecution of the country’s Christian minority.
- On Saturday he was hosted in the holy city of Najaf by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest authority for many Shiites in Iraq and the world.
- The pope also made a trip to the ancient city of Ur, which according to the Bible is the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, a figure common to the three monotheistic religions. There he prayed with Muslims, Yazidis and Sanaeans (a pre-Christian monotheist religion).
- Francis will continue his journey on Sunday in the province of Nineveh in northern Iraq, the cradle of Iraqi Christians. He will then head to Mosul and Qaraqoch, two cities marked by the destruction of Islamic extremists.
- The pontiff will conclude his tour by presiding over an open-air mass on Sunday in the presence of thousands of Christians in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. This Kurdish Muslim stronghold has offered refuge to hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who fled the atrocities of the Islamic State group.