UR, Iraq — First in a closed-door meeting with an Iraqi ayatollah, later on a desert stage overlooking ruins dating back to Abraham, Pope Francis on Saturday made a sweeping appeal for the kind of religious coexistence that has long eluded Iraq, while also testing the limits of his influence.
“We need one another,” Francis said from a stage on the desert plain of Ur, said to be the birthplace of Abraham, a patriarch for Muslims, Christians and Jews. In the audience for his message were Catholic prelates and leaders from other faiths.
But few countries have been more riven by sectarianism and conflict.
In Iraq, minorities — including Iraq’s tiny Christian population — have fled and faced targeted bloodshed. Grinding daily problems feed into religious grievances in a nation with deep rivalries between the majority Shiite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds.
In pressing his hallmark calls for unity when Iraq is dealing with so many forms of turbulence, Francis was gauging what can be accomplished with words in a single weekend before his departure Monday.
Even as the events unfolded, other Iraqis were thinking ahead to whether the papal visit could spur any changes.
Many were thankful — optimistic even — that a world leader would come under considerable risk, trying to improve ties between faiths that have spent centuries spilling one another’s blood.
In particular, they hoped that Francis’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent religious figure for Iraqi Shiites, might mark a turning point in relations between Christians and the Shiite militias that have sometimes threatened them.
But other Iraqis felt that, behind the day’s stagecraft, there were problems that hand-holding among leaders could not easily change.
In Nasiriyah, a city several miles away from the pope’s interreligious event in Ur, people wondered why Iraq’s government had paved roads for the pope while leaving theirs potholed. Others mentioned nonreligious problems that abet the country’s instability like corruption, electricity cuts and poor investment. The education system is so overwhelmed that students take classes in shifts.
“We were not allowed to go to Ur there because we are just regular people. They have spent so much money on this visit and yet here they spend nothing, look around you,” said Haider Khuder, a member of the city’s writers’ union, glancing at the trash that lined a row of shuttered shops.
Several streets away, two young men were unfurling a banner that showed the faces of activists killed by Iraqi militias and riot police.
“This was a moment to bring Iraq’s problems to the world and they wouldn’t even let us show them,” said Abbas al-Iraqi, whose brother Sajad, an activist, was kidnapped last year. His brother’s face was on the banner, with messages in Arabic and English asking Francis to appeal for his freedom.
“We tried to take it to Ur but they stopped us at a checkpoint when they saw the banner,” he said. “They didn’t want this to be seen.”
The pope had come to Iraq at a perilous but important time. The nation is recovered from the brutality of the Islamic State, but still facing violence, rocket attacks by militias and a swell of coronavirus cases.
Some worried that the pope’s arrival, in addition to raising security risk, would create crowds that could spread the virus — a fear that gained traction Saturday night at a packed papal Mass in Baghdad with singing and negligible social distancing.
The pope’s highest-profile events came earlier in the day, starting at Sistani’s modest home in the holy city of Najaf, in a neighborhood of narrow alleyways that, because of security reasons, few global figures would normally enter.
The meeting occurred with no media present. Afterward, the Vatican said in a statement that the conversation had “underlined the importance of collaboration.”
Sistani’s office put out a statement of its own saying that the ayatollah had wished the pontiff, and Roman Catholics, “happiness and peace.” According to the statement, Sistani said that spiritual leaders of the “great religions” should make an effort to curb the tragedies of oppression, persecution and violence.
The encounter between the two figures — Sistani in black, Francis in white — by itself amounted to a symbolic show to their followers about the importance of cooperation.
“I think this meeting will change things in Iraq,” said Iraqi Bishop Basel Yaldo. “We hope the Christians come back after this visit of Pope Francis.”
One of Sistani’s local representatives in the city of Nasiriya, Sheikh Haider al-Dubaisi, described the sight of Francis walking through Najaf’s alleyways as a dream come true.
“Those steps were historic, they reflected so much,” he said. “He came even though he could barely walk. He sent a message not only to Iraqis, but to the whole world that Islam and other religions can sit together peacefully.”
Sistani, 90, is seen as a moderating figure in Iraq, and over the years his pronouncements have demonstrated his sway. He has mobilized Iraqis to vote. He has brought down a prime minister. He helped turn the tide against the Islamic State, issuing a fatwa that called on Iraqis to join the fight against the group.
That intervention had unexpected consequences, though, as it also allowed Iran-backed Shiite groups — involved in the fight — to deepen their power and influence over the country.
After meeting with Sistani, Francis traveled to across southern Iraq, arriving on the outskirts of a desert archaeological site, now lined with Vatican and Iraqi flags. On the horizon, military members paced the top of a 4,000-year-old mud-brick Mesopotamian ziggurat, the lone remnant of the ancient civilization.
Speaking to the interreligious gathering in a place where “faith was born,” Francis said groups needed to work together to end extremism and hostility.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” he said. “Dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence have gathered over this country. All its ethnic and religious communities have suffered.”
Francis has made outreach to different faith leaders a central point of his eight-year papacy.
Two years ago, visiting Abu Dhabi, Francis met with the grand imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar mosque, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, signing a peace manifesto — what they described as a “Document on Human Fraternity.” That deal amounted to a peace agreement from the head of the Roman Catholic Church and an influential Sunni figure that called for an end for “hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism” in the name of religion
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that he hoped Francis’s trip to Iraq would “help promote religious harmony and understanding among members of the different religions in Iraq and around the world.”
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The Washington Post’s Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.