AMMAN, JORDAN - Pope Francis has addressed an interfaith gathering of Iraq's religious and ethnic groups in Ur, said to be the birthplace of Abraham, the common patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims. He drove home the need for respect and unity, and he used the opportunity to condemn violent religious extremism.
Pope Francis traveled to the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, considered the cradle of civilization, to remind people that what binds them is more powerful than what divides. Faithful from the Christian, Muslim, Yazidi and Mandean communities were present Saturday. The pope reinforced his call for inter-religious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, where religious and ethnic divisions and conflict have torn apart the social fabric for decades.
The pontiff said that all of Iraq’s communities have suffered too long from terrorism and war. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: They are betrayals of religion,” he said. His remarks in Italian were translated into English.
“We are believers and as believers mustn’t stand silent when we see terrorism, when terrorism takes hold of religion for its own gain. It is up to us as religious men and women to destroy evil. We cannot have the light of God be darkened as it has been in this country, where war, violence and terrorism has brought darkness,” the pontiff said.
Pope Francis also drew attention to the genocide perpetrated by Islamic State militants against Iraq’s minority Yazidi community and their continuing plight.
“Yazidi men and women, young children were taken from their homes and sold into slavery, subjected to violence. We must remain hopeful for the future. But there are still people to this very day, who are held captive. People who cannot return to their homeland. We pray for freedom of thought, of mind, freedom of religion to be upheld everywhere,” the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics said.
Pope Francis has sought to support Christians in Iraq, whose numbers have dwindled from 1.5 million in 2003 to less than 300,000 in this majority Shiite Muslim country, by calling on leaders to protect all minority rights.
During his speech, the pope praised “the young Muslim volunteers of Mosul, who helped to repair churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and those Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together.”
He called “the greatest blasphemy” the act of “hating our brothers and sisters.”