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.”