Pope Francis on Saturday urged Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside animosities and work together for peace and unity during an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of Abraham.
He told the gathering: “This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor.”
Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq to reinforce his message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions.
With a magnificent ziggurat nearby, Francis told the faith leaders that it was fitting that they come together in Ur, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to pray together for peace as children of Abraham.
He said: “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. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
He said there could never be peace as long as Iraqis viewed people of different faiths as the “other.”
He said: “Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.”
“It all started from here,” Pope Francis said, after hearing from representatives of Iraq’s diverse religious communities.
There were Yazidis, whose ancestral heartland of Sinjar was ravaged by the Islamic State group in 2014, as well as Mandeans, Kakais, Bahais and Zoroastrians.
Shiite and Sunni sheikhs, as well as Christian clerics, were in attendance.
Each were wearing their traditional religious garb, with a dozen different types of robe and headdress on display in the red-carpeted pavilion set up for the visit.
Iraq is a Muslim-majority country of 40 million whose Christian population has shrunk in the last two decades to just one percent, with minorities still facing ostracism and persecution.
During his address, Pope Francis said freedom of conscience and of religion were “fundamental rights” that should be respected everywhere.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Francis said, in a message of solidarity with the minorities persecuted under Islamic State rule.
He also made an impassioned plea for “unity” after conflict.
“Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighboring war-torn Syria,” he said.
Following the prayer service in Ur, Pope Francis is to head back to Baghdad to preside over a mass at the St. Joseph Cathedral.