Christian and Muslim leaders: Pope Francis’ Iraq trip still bearing good fruit, but more dialogue needed

Jonah McKeown   By Jonah McKeown for CNA

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, Iraq, March 7, 2021. / Vatican Media

Denver Newsroom, Sep 28, 2021 / 12:59 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis’ March visit with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, has already helped to foster some peace in Iraq, but religious and political leaders must continue to “invest” in dialogue if the meeting is to produce long-term positive effects, panelists said in a livestreamed discussion this week.

During a panel discussion on Christian-Muslim relations Sept. 28, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, co-chair of the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, said religious leaders need to take the “risk of dialogue” in their own communities, spurred by the example of Pope Francis and the ayatollah.

Cardinal Cupich also said that he believes some Christians in the United States have not acted on the principles of engagement with other faiths, and warned that Christians must not “allow the forces of politics to invade our attitudes as a Church.”

Georgetown University sponsored the event, through its Office of the President, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Pope Francis’ meeting with the ayatollah was one of the most talked-about moments of his historic March 2021 trip to Iraq. The two men spoke for almost an hour during a private meeting at al-Sistani’s residence in Najaf, central Iraq.

Al-Sistani is one of the most influential leaders in the Shiite Muslim world, and is believed to have played a critical role in the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq, as he urged all Iraqi citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or religious beliefs, to take arms to defend the country against ISIS in 2017.

Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, March 6, 2021. Credit: Vatican Media.
Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, March 6, 2021. Credit: Vatican Media.

The grand ayatollah reportedly said during the meeting that he believed that Christians should be able to live in peace — a statement which reverberated across the Muslim world. March 6th was then established as Iraq’s National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence, to be celebrated every year hence.

Father George Toma, leader of the Diocese of Eastern United States of the Assyrian Church of the East, said he could “already see the difference” for Iraq’s Christians during a recent visit he took to Iraq.

“There is, and was, persecution, suffering. At this present time, and especially immediately after the meeting, we can experience that there is this kind of peace. It’s much better than before,” Fr. Toma said.

Fr. Toma said “embracing and implementing” the dialogue started by high-level religious leaders is crucial, otherwise the meetings will simply be “part of the history.”

Fr. Toma said clergy have a responsibility to articulate “love, unity, respect.” In addition, religious and political leaders must have a “vision” for peace, and must be willing to take risks for that vision, he said.

“I believe if we don’t make a real change, Christianity will not survive there. So the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq and meeting with Ayatollah Al-Sistani, I think that really sends a big message, not just to Christians but to Muslims as well, that we are close together.”

Imam Sayyid Kashmiri, the grand ayatollah’s representative in North America, said the message of the meeting was that interreligious violence must cease, and religious leaders have an important role to play in making that happen.

“[The meeting] gave a strong message not only for peace but for the future of Iraq,” Imam Kashmiri said during the seminar.

“The peace since this visit until now, we have seen that there is a big change and moving forward we see more peace in Iraq,” adding that he also has seen many Christians returning.

As recently as 2003, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, but today there are fewer than a quarter of a million, as many have emigrated, fleeing persecution and violence. Many who have returned have faced continuing harassment and unemployment.

Imam Kashmiri reiterated that religious scholars and leaders have a role to play in advocating for a long-term plan to help Christians to return. Christians wanting to return to their hometowns “have nothing,” he said, and they need support from the Iraqi government, and from the international community.

“Keeping this mosaic [of faith and culture] in Iraq is highly important…we believe strongly that Iraq must keep the diversity of people and we shouldn’t give any opportunity to our enemies to filter Iraq with one religion or one school of thought,” Kashmiri said.

Educating the next generation in the values of peace and tolerance is important for this “investment” in the Pope-ayatollah meeting, he noted.

“Enough is enough. We have to stop war wherever it may be…religious leaders have the power to bring some influence on political leaders, to bring the peace again to this world.”

Cardinal Cupich agreed, saying that, “Religious leaders have a particular responsibility to step forward, because religions can have their extremists, religions can be manipulated by people.” He added that religious leaders have a responsibility to not allow “extremists to dominate the discussion.”

Cardinal Louis Rafael Sako, the leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, recently gave a speech in Budapest at the International Eucharistic Congress, in which the cardinal said he has observed the ways that the pope’s trip, and his dialogue with Muslim leaders, already has changed the atmosphere in Iraq.

“The pope touched the hearts of all Iraqis by his messages, especially Muslims. And now, something has changed in the streets, in the mass, the population,” he commented.

“Christians are proud of that and now they are very appreciated also,” he said.


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