Fahim Abed contributed reporting.

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Pope Francis Meets Iraq’s Top Ayatollah as Both Urge Peace

UR, Iraq — First Pope Francis showed up at the modest residence of Iraq’s most reclusive, and powerful, Shiite religious cleric for a delicate and painstakingly negotiated summit. Hours later, he presided over a stage crowded with religious leaders on the windswept Plain of Ur, a vast and, now arid, expanse where the faithful believe God revealed himself to the Prophet Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

In settings both intimate and theatrical, in gestures both concrete and symbolic, Pope Francis on Saturday sought to protect his persecuted flock by forging closer bonds between the Roman Catholic Church and the Muslim world, a mission that is a central theme of his papacy and of his historic trip to Iraq.

By meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, Francis threaded a political needle, seeking an alliance with an extraordinarily influential Shiite cleric who, unlike his Iranian counterparts, believes that religion should not govern the state.

There is a fear among many Iraqi Christians, who as recently as the mid-20th century made up about 10 percent of the population, that they may face the same fate. Between 2003, the year of the U.S.-led invasion, and 2010, more than half of Iraq’s Christians left the country, leaving about 500,000 from a high of as possibly many as 1.4 million.

In 2014, the expansion of the Islamic State, or ISIS, led to more persecution and migration, and Christians today constitute little more than one percent of the population.

As strong winds across the Ur Plains lifted the red carpets in the air and blew sand over a small crowd and several empty seats, Francis made an unadulterated cry for peace and brotherly love. In doing so, he realized a dream harbored by John Paul II, who had tried to come here 20 years ago and “wept,” Francis has said, when political tensions forced him to cancel.

Francis argued that “the greatest blasphemy is to profane” God’s name “by hating our brothers and sisters.”

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” he added. “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.”

He referred to himself and the others as “descendants of Abraham and the representatives of different religions,” and said that, like “the great Patriarch, we need to take concrete steps” toward peace.

Later Saturday, Francis delivered a sermon at the Chaldean Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, invoking similar themes of common good. “Love is our strength,” he told the crowded congregation, and as he walked out of the cathedral people chanted, “Viva, viva Papa!”

Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako called the pope’s visit “a turning point in Christian-Muslim relations.”

In 2019 in Abu Dhabi, Francis signed a joint declaration on human fraternity with Sunni leaders from Al-Azhar University and Mosque in Cairo, one of the major centers of Sunni Islamic learning. His efforts this time to add Shiites to the equation by meeting with Ayatollah Sistani in Shia-majority Iraq upset some Sunni officials.

A senior Iraqi official said the Pope agreed to a brief meeting Friday that had not been previously scheduled with Mohammed al-Halbousi, the speaker of Iraq’s Parliament and a Sunni Muslim Arab, to assuage the concerns of many in the sect that their concerns were being ignored. t. Vatican officials on Saturday evening confirmed the meeting took place.

But it was the Shiites who were Francis’ focus Saturday and the thrust of his trip, officially themed “You Are All Brothers.”

“It is a way to find again a deep sense of unity that must exist between these three religions and of the collaboration that must be created between members of these religions,” Cardinal Parolin said.

Najaf is the site of the tomb of Imam Ali, considered by Shiite Muslims the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. The shrine was closed to pilgrims for the first time in years because of the pope’s visit.

The pope walked down an alley barely wide enough for his entourage near the ayatollah’s home. Makeshift electricity lines dangled from the houses, some with windows covered by bent metal bars. There was no cheering or singing. But in many ways the meeting between Francis and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric was one of the most critical aspects of the pontiff’s whirlwind tour of Iraq.

The two elders, Ayatollah Sistani, 90 and clad in black robes, and Francis, 84, in his white cassock, each the highest religious authority among their followers and both in stockinged feet — sat across from one another on a small table adorned with a tissue box. Neither was pictured wearing a mask. Francis is vaccinated. Ayatollah Sistani is not. His office said he believes vaccination is religiously permitted but he did not want to jump in front of others.

The Vatican, in its statement about the meeting, said the pope had thanked the cleric “for speaking up — together with the Shiite community — in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships.”

The visit signaled to Shiite Muslim leaders that Christians are to be respected.

Although Ayatollah Sistani is Iranian-born, his pronouncements on Iraq carry great weight. He has been able to set elections in motion, and his withdrawal of support for Iraq’s previous prime minister, whom he felt was failing the people, left the prime minister little choice but to resign.

Ayatollah Sistani’s 2014 religious edict urging able-bodied men to join the security forces to combat the Islamic State group resulted in a recruiting boom for Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. But unlike his rival, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Sistani believes in a separation between politics and religion — as long as politics does not break Islamic tenets. He is in some ways an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.

The meeting between the two religious leaders ran longer than expected. A statement released by Ayatollah Sistani’s office said the cleric had stressed that Christian citizens deserve to “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.”

Jason Horowitz reported from Ur, Jane Arraf from Erbil.

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Pope Francis Meets Iraqi Shiite Leader, Seeking to Build Ties With Islam

UR, Iraq— Pope Francis met with Iraq’s most influential Shiite Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a historic encounter aimed at building bridges between Christians and Muslims.

The two leaders invoked religion for the cause of peace and protection of the vulnerable, including Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority. Saturday’s summit at Mr. Sistani’s residence in the city of Najaf was the first-ever meeting between a Catholic pope and a Shiite grand ayatollah in Iraq.

Building relations between Christianity and Islam is a major theme of Pope Francis’s trip, as well as of his pontificate. Iraq is the 10th majority-Muslim country he has visited as pope. Previously, Pope Francis’ most prominent Muslim interlocutors have been leaders of Islam’s Sunni majority.

“It’s historic,” said Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based analyst with the Century Foundation, a think tank. “For Shiite Muslims it’s important to see one of their leaders recognized on a global stage.”

Mr. Sistani is one of the world’s most prominent Islamic religious leaders and a giant in Iraqi society, commanding almost universal respect across sects and political factions. He is regarded as a force for stability and has played the role of arbiter in a series of crises since the 2003 U.S. invasion, urging an end to internecine violence. In 2014 he urged Iraqis to enlist in the fight against Islamic State as it overran vast areas of Iraq.

The meeting comes during a period of violence between the U.S. and predominantly Shiite militant groups in Iraq that are backed by Iran. The papal trip, which began Friday in Baghdad, is taking place days after a rocket attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq that led to the death of a U.S. civilian contractor who suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering during the assault. In February the U.S. carried out airstrikes on Iran-backed militant groups in Syria in response to another attack on an American air base in northern Iraq.

For his first international trip during the pandemic, Pope Francis is visiting Iraq as the country struggles with the virus and terrorist attacks. WSJ’s Francis X. Rocca reports from the highly sensitive trip that is fraught with public-health and security risks. Photo: Ayman Henna/AFP

The two religious leaders didn’t explicitly address the recent flare-up in violence but the pope stressed the importance of “collaboration and friendship between religious communities” for the good of Iraq and the region, according to the Vatican.

Even some of Iraq’s Iranian-allied militant factions said they would cease fire during the pope’s visit, citing in part their respect for Mr. Sistani. “We in the Guardians of the Blood Brigade, stop all kinds of military action during the pope’s visit out of respect for Imam Sistani,” said one of the militias, which only weeks earlier claimed responsibility for the deadly rocket attack on the U.S. air base in Erbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.

A statement from the grand ayatollah’s office said he told the pope that religious leaders should work against poverty, oppression and war. “He also stressed mobilizing efforts to consolidate values of peaceful coexistence and human solidarity in all societies based on mutual respect among followers of all religions and intellectual trends,” the statement said.

The Shiite cleric also emphasized that “Christian people should live like other Iraqis in peace and safety with their full constitutional rights,” and he recalled the role of religious leaders in protecting Christians and other minorities from Islamic State during its partial occupation of Iraq from 2014-2017.

Pope Francis, who on Friday called on Iraq’s political leaders to guarantee the equal rights of the country’s Christians, thanked Mr. Sistani “for speaking up—together with the Shiite community—in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years,” the Vatican said.

After the meeting in Najaf, the pope spoke at an interfaith event at the archaeological site of ancient Ur, traditionally believed to be the home of Abraham, forefather of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” the pope said, and specifically recalled the suffering of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, and particularly of Yazidi women forced to be sex slaves, under Islamic State.

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In Iraq’s Christian Heartland, a Feud Over a Town’s Identity

BARTELLA, Iraq — Near the entrance to a small town in northern Iraq, a huge, artificial Christmas tree stands year-round as a symbol of the area’s centuries-old Christian character.

But just down the road, a different kind of symbol illustrates the shift underway in the town of Bartella: a poster with Iran’s Islamic revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gazing down on images of Shiite Muslim fighters who died battling the Islamic State. Nearby, a large iron cross is surrounded by more photos of dead Iraqi fighters, their images often superimposed over pictures of Shiite shrines.

“When you enter, you don’t feel you are entering a Christian area,” said the Rev. Yacoub Saadi, a Syriac Orthodox Christian priest. “You feel you are entering Karbala or Najaf,” he said, referring to the Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq.

As Pope Francis visits Iraq this week in the first ever papal trip to the country, there are growing fears among Christians that the string of ancient Christian towns across northern Iraq are losing their traditional Christian character, and that their faith is in danger of disappearing from the Muslim-majority country.

The steady exodus of Christians that began after the U.S. invasion in 2003 has only accelerated since ISIS was driven out of Iraq in 2017. The pope’s visit is a show of solidarity with the country’s remaining Christians, whose numbers have shrunk to less than one-third of the 1.5 million who lived here in Saddam Hussein’s time.

Bartella is one of about a dozen historically Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains, where the apostle Saint Thomas is said to have converted the polytheistic population just decades after the death of Jesus. Many Christians there still speak a form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

In Bartella, they are now a minority, fewer than 3,000 in a town of 18,000. As in most of Iraq, Shiite Muslims predominate.

But in Bartella, there’s a demographic twist.

The majority there belong to another Iraqi minority, the Shabak, a small ethnic and linguistic group that is waging its own fight for recognition. Although most Shabak are Shiite Muslims, they have also long suffered from efforts to suppress their culture, including during the time of Saddam Hussein.

That leaves church officials in Bartella, in their effort to retain the town’s diminishing Christian identity, effectively discriminating against another marginalized group.

Worried that Christians could be squeezed out of the traditionally Christian town, the Iraqi government granted church officials the authority to approve building projects and land sales.

The church has used that power to halt development projects that could bring in more Shabaks and other non-Christians.

On the edge of town, a construction project that was to include homes, a shopping center and sports center, lies abandoned. Such a project would normally be welcomed in a region with high unemployment and a housing shortage.

“The project was stopped by the church,” said the Rev. Banham Lalo, a Catholic priest. “People from other areas will buy these houses, from Mosul and from Baghdad. It paves the way for demographic change.”

The project’s developer, Duraid Mikhael, a Christian from nearby Erbil, said he had sunk more than $200,000 into the project before he was ordered to stop in November. He said the development would have employed hundreds of workers over three years, most of them from around Bartella.

“I want to develop the Bartella area but they won’t let me work,” he said.

The divisions between the two ethnic groups can become heated and direct, unusual in a country where most officials are careful to minimize differences and to refer to Iraqis of other faiths as “our brothers.”

“The main problem is Shabak officials,” insisted Father Saadi, the Orthodox priest. “They are changing the identity of Bartella.”

The disagreement often boils down to a contest of which minority is the most disadvantaged.

“Christians ask for their rights and they call themselves oppressed but they are not,” said Saad Qado, director of the Voice of Shabak, a local radio station. “We are oppressed. They have everything.”

“I can take you to Shabak villages that don’t have clean water to drink or a hospital even,” he said. “Some of the villages don’t have schools, but no one cares about us.”

While religious conflict has a long history in Iraq, the current tensions in Bartella are rooted in the town’s capture by the Islamic State in 2014. Both Christians and Shiite Muslims there suffered under the rule of the Sunni terrorist group. Many fled.

The Shabak formed a militia that ultimately helped retake the town in 2016. By then much of it was in ruins.

Church officials say the majority of Christians have not returned.

“Many people came back after the liberation from ISIS and when they saw that their houses were burned and looted and destroyed, they decided to emigrate,” Father Lalo said.

In St. George Syriac Catholic Church, a glass case lined with white satin holds a face of the Virgin Mary with her nose broken, burned chalices and a plaster Jesus on the cross broken off at the torso, all reminders of the damage inflicted by the Islamic State.

“If anyone came to Bartella right after the liberation, he would think this city would never come back because of the level of destruction,” said Ali Iskander, a Shabak and chief of the Bartella district, the de factor mayor.

It was then that the Iraqi government, fearing that historic Christian towns could lose their identity, granted church officials in Bartella and another town, Qaraqosh, the power to regulate development. The pope is planning to visit a church in Qaraqosh on Sunday.

Shabak leaders called the special privilege for Christians unfair, saying they suffered at least as much in the fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, Mr. Qado said, it was the Shabak militia that protected Christians and other villagers from ISIS, and now they are being told they cannot buy houses here.

Mr. Iskander said that he has had trouble finding land to build a house for his family of three wives and 16 children.

“I am a mayor and I have three wives,” he said. “Don’t I deserve to live in Bartella?”

He is happy to live side-by-side with Christians. The continued existence of Christians in Bartella, he said, is “like a flower in the desert.”

But where are his rights? he asks.

“I go to Mosul, they tell you ‘you should go to your areas,’” he said. “I come here and there is no land. Where do I build a house? In the sky?”

Large families like his also represent a demographic threat to the town’s Christians.

“Christians get married and they have maybe a son and a daughter,” he said. “But the Shabak have 15 or 20 children. We have people who marry two or three wives and after a few years they become a tribe.”

Mr. Qado claimed that church officials had even barred women from giving birth at a hospital on the outskirts of town to prevent Shabak children from being issued Bartella identification documents. Church officials say the problem is that the hospital is not recognized by Iraq’s Health Ministry.

Across the street from St. George church, the sisters Amina and Mohinta Sha’ana were supervising Shabak construction workers. The sisters, who are Christian, are retired schoolteachers, and Amina Sha’ana is building a new house in a former olive grove burned by ISIS.

“This land is more precious than gold,” Amina Sha’ana said. “It is the land of my father and grandfather.”

The Shabak, she said, “are good people. But relations are complicated.”

Karam Rafael, 25, one of the few Christians who moved back to Bartella, is among a small minority of young people who do not want to leave. He and his friends scraped up the money to open a small coffee bar.

“My brother and sister are in the U.S., but when I think about emigrating my stomach hurts,” he said. “I can’t leave my traditions, churches and friends behind.”

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