VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Speaking on Saturday (March 6) before the monumental remains of Ur, the once-great city where Muslims, Jews and Christians believe their common spiritual forefather Abraham first heard the voice of God, Pope Francis condemned religious hatred and mapped a path to peaceful coexistence among different faiths.
“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart; they are betrayals of religion,” the pope told a crowd of roughly 100 leaders of the three faiths gathered near the historic site on his second day in Iraq. “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.
“Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred!” he added.
The pope’s visit to Ur has been a much anticipated moment in his three-day apostolic visit to Iraq, the first by any pope. The day marked other papal firsts, including the first-ever encounter between a Roman pontiff and a Shiite religious leader and the first Chaldean Mass celebrated by a Roman Catholic pope.
The ancient Sumerian city of Ur, once located near the Euphrates River but now placed inland due to topographical changes, is thought to date back to 3800 BC. The city is mentioned in the Bible and the Quran as the homeland of Abraham, from which he set out for Canaan to serve as the patriarch of three monotheistic religions.
“The Bible’s sort of a young kid on the block in the ancient Middle East, by its own admission,” said Abraham Winitzer, Jordan H. Kapson associate professor of Jewish studies at the University of Notre Dame.
But, Winitzer said, “The Bible had a clear understanding that the beginnings of civilization, the beginnings of the world, took place in the southern part of Mesopotamia.”
Staging an appeal for common understanding among the three Abrahamic faiths is somewhat problematic, Winitzer added. For one thing not all historians agree that Abraham started in Ur, locating him instead to a city in neighboring Syria. Winitzer also noted that Abraham is remembered quite differently by Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Ur’s unifying power, the assyriologist said, stems from its seminal influence on humanity as a whole. The agricultural revolution and the creation of permanent settlements, the concept of minutes and seconds, writing and poetry and even the cornerstone of religion — the idea of a covenant of rules binding humanity to God — all stem from ancient Mesopotamia and places like Ur, he said.
“There’s a whole world that goes back thousands of years, which was crystallized in some ways into the Bible and then diverges out through the Quran and the Old and New Testaments,” Winitzer said. “If we can focus on the fact that Abraham is a symbol of a unity that runs thousands of years, I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
In the shadow of this symbol of humanity’s common roots, Francis spoke about the “dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence” that have marked the recent history of Iraq, and Francis raised up Abraham as an inspiration for “the way of peace.”
Mentioning the Yazidi community, which suffered greatly at the hands of the jihadist occupation of northern Iraq starting in 2004, the pope prayed for religious freedom and freedom of conscience to take root once again in Iraq.
“When terrorism invaded the north of this beloved country, it wantonly destroyed part of its magnificent religious heritage, including the churches, monasteries and places of worship of various communities,” the pope lamented. “Yet, even at that dark time, some stars kept shining.”
Other speakers told the gathering about their personal experiences in building unity in Iraq. A professor at the University of Nassiriya, Ali Zghair Thajeel, a Shiite Muslim, told the pope that the patient work of Christian and Muslim institutions “contributed to the arrival of successive groups of pilgrims who celebrated the Mass and prayed in this historical city.”
Best friends and entrepreneurs Dawood Ara and Hasan Salim, a Christian and a Muslim, respectively, shared their hope that their friendship would be reflected in Iraq society. “We don’t want war and violence and hatred; we want that all people in our country work together and be friends,” they told the pope.
Earlier on Saturday, Pope Francis had a historic meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, the third holiest pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims after Mecca and Medina. The meeting lasted 45 minutes and fueled hopes that the two religious leaders would sign a document promoting religious tolerance and dialogue.
During the meeting, the pope “stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing — through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue — to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family,” Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
In 2019, Pope Francis met in Dubai with Sunni leader Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb to sign a document on human fraternity condemning violence in the name of faith and promoting peace. Though no document was signed Saturday, Francis praised al-Sistani “for speaking up — together with the Shiite community — in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted,” and for standing up for the dignity of human life.
While a reserved figure, Al-Sistani is a force in Iraqi politics who opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein and had a pivotal role in the fight against Islamic State forces.
Francis’ last event on Saturday was a Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad. It marked the first time a Roman pontiff celebrated in a Mass in the Chaldean rite.
“For you who are afflicted, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are persecuted, the Lord promises you that your name is written on his heart, written in heaven!” the pope said.
“Today I thank God with you and for you, because here, where wisdom arose in ancient times, so many witnesses have arisen in our own time, often overlooked by the news, yet precious in God’s eyes,” he said. “Witnesses who, by living the Beatitudes, are helping God to fulfill his promises of peace.”