ROME – Pope Francis’s recent meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husaymi al-Sistani while in Iraq earlier this month has been praised by a top papal aide as a further advancement of Catholic-Muslim relations, and a significant step forward for dialogue between the Catholic Church and Shia Islam.
Speaking to Crux, Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso said the “truly important” meeting between Pope Francis and al-Sistani “contributed to the building of this fraternity among Christians and Muslims.”
“For what concerns the relationship between Christianity and Shia Islam, the Najaf meeting is a further step forward for the dialogue of respect and friendship with the Shia community both in Iran and in Iraq,” where both the local Church and the Vatican have long been active, he said.
Head of the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Ayuso was part of the pope’s delegation during his historic March 5-8 trip to Iraq, which marked the first time a pope had set foot in the country.
During his visit, Francis made stops in Baghdad, Erbil, Qaraqosh, Mosul, the Plain of Ur, which is traditionally recognized as the birthplace of the biblical figure of Abraham, and Najaf, where he had a lengthy private meeting with al-Sistani, who is widely recognized as Shia Islam’s most influential leader.
In his interview with Crux, Ayuso reflected on the significance of the papal visit to Iraq, both from a personal and diplomatic point of view.
He praised Iraq’s unique blend of religions, cultures, and ethnicities, insisting on the need to strengthen interfaith ties if Iraq, and the Middle East generally, is ever going to achieve peace.
“We are aware of the need to move from mere tolerance to fraternal coexistence,” he said, stressing that this process requires “the full recognition of citizenship” for minorities who are often treated as second-class citizens.
“I hope that all Iraqis who have gathered together around the Holy Father will testify to human fraternity and the importance of interreligious dialogue,” he said.
Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s interview with Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso:
Crux: This trip held monumental significance on a variety of levels. From your perspective as a member of the pontifical delegation, what would you say was the most significant aspect of this visit?
Ayuso: The entire trip to Iraq was significant. Every moment was marked by gestures and words that leave a mark. Pope Francis went to Iraq as a pastor to tell Iraqis: ‘you are all brothers.’ The difficult situation in which that country finds itself made Pope Francis’s initiative very special. We all know that it is a country which today is still not pacified, and which must still recover from decades of war, violence, and destruction.
There is no doubt that I was privileged to have personally participated in the apostolic journey to Iraq, an event that many have defined ‘historic.’ I think that, without any rhetoric, it can be said that Pope Francis’s visit was another milestone in the path of interreligious dialogue.
As a Christian I suffered in seeing with my own eyes the devastation of that country. Everything still speaks of war and of the violence suffered not only by Christians. Participating in the eucharistic celebrations and in the various moments of prayer, I touched with my hand the strength and courage that sustain the Catholic community and the joy and gratitude towards Pope Francis.
Dialogue with Islam was obviously an emblematic aspect of this trip. In your view, what was the significance of the pope’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, and what impact could it have on relations between Christianity and Shia Islam? Could it help alleviate interreligious tensions in Iraq?
The courtesy visit to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husaymi al-Sistani, one of the most symbolic and significant personalities in the Shiite world, was truly important and contributed to the building of this fraternity among Christians and Muslims. Al-Sistani, who has always spoken out in favor of peaceful coexistence inside of Iraq, said that all ethnic groups, religious groups, are part of the country and the Holy Father thanked him for this. Pope Francis said (during the press conference on his return flight): ‘I felt the duty to make this pilgrimage of faith and penance, and to go find a great, wise man, a man of God.’
For what concerns the relationship between Christianity and Shia Islam, the Najaf meeting is a further step forward for the dialogue of respect and friendship with the Shia community both in Iran and in Iraq, in which both the local Church and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which I preside over, have been involved in for years.
The meeting in Ur, the city from which the patriarch Abraham left, was an opportunity to pray together with believers from other religious traditions, in particular Muslims, in order to rediscover the reasons for coexistence between brothers, so as to rebuild a social fabric beyond factions and ethnicities, and to send a message to the Middle East and to the entire world.
Also, on the Plain of Ur Pope Francis did not speak of a theoretical brotherhood but asked that everyone commit themselves ‘so that God’s dream may come true: that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming toward all of its children, who, looking at the same sky, walk in peace on the same earth.’
The path to take is that of human fraternity. In my opinion, the relationship between interreligious dialogue, human fraternity, and the prospect of peace is practically unavoidable and has become so close that we cannot even imagine these realities separate; that of religions that meet, speak to each other, know each other, recognize each other in a journey of common fraternity. This places each one of them as builders of peace wherever they find themselves working; that peace which needs now more than in the past that the Catholic Church and other religions act together to prevent, and eliminate, anything that can lead to divisions and conflicts.
During the visit to Mosul, Pope Francis said the exodus of Christians from the Middle East does ‘incalculable damage.’ What are some of the consequences of this Christian exodus? What would it mean not only for Iraq, but for the whole Middle East, if this exodus were to continue?
Pope Francis went to Iraq with the solicitude of the pastor who wishes to meet his people, not to defend the Christian community but to encourage them. The visit of the Holy Father was truly a very favorable occasion so that, even if they are a minority in this land, Christians do not feel marginalized, but actually part of the life of the whole universal Church and that they no longer feel like a closed minority fighting for survival or fleeing, but active citizens who have the right and duty to contribute to the development of society.
The Holy Father’s presence on Iraqi land not only encouraged the Catholic community but it also showed the real presence of Christians and the possibility of living side by side with believers of other religions. Pope Francis reaffirmed the principles of equality between all of the social, religious, and ethnic components of the country based on citizenship (in his speech to the diplomatic corps). On the same occasion the President of the Republic of Iraq, Mr. Barham Ahmed Salih Qassim, expressed his commitment to guaranteeing that Iraq becomes a place of harmony and not a place of conflict and rivalry.
We know that the Middle East cannot be understood without Christians, but it is also not possible without interreligious dialogue. I hope that all Iraqis who have gathered together around the Holy Father will testify to human fraternity and the importance of interreligious dialogue.
Iraq is an extremely diverse place with a complicated history where conflict between different religious and ethnic groups is normal. Yet surrounding the pope’s visit, we have seen different steps being taken by the Iraqi government to promote interreligious relations. (I’m thinking specifically of the declaration of Christmas as a national annual holiday and the ratification of the Yazidi survivor law). In your view, is Iraq ready to become a place of interreligious tolerance? If so, what impact could this have on the region?
Iraq, which is without doubt the richest Arab country from an ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic point of view, constitutes a beautiful mosaic to be carefully reassembled and guarded with care. Legitimate diversities, also from the religious point of view, are a wealth and should not be perceived as a threat.
We are aware of the need to move from mere tolerance to fraternal coexistence, which requires the full recognition of citizenship. Full citizenship is a fundamental element in preserving identity. Pope Francis said: ‘It is essential in this sense to ensure the participation of all political, social, and religious groups and to guarantee the fundamental rights as citizens. No one is considered a second-class citizen.’
I remember that at the of the meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced in a tweet that March 6 will become a ‘National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.’
In Iraq, and in the Middle East in general, it is important to regain awareness of the fact that we are citizens and believers and, as such, we must build society by enriching it with the values of our respective religious traditions, passing from respectful diversity to a communion of shared values. Starting from these, we can recreate that coexistence which is not tolerance but the ability to live in diversity.
God is the creator of everything and everyone, therefore we are members of one family, and we must recognize ourselves as such. This is the fundamental criteria that faith offers us to pass from mere tolerance to fraternal coexistence, to interpret the differences that exist among us, to defuse violence, and to live as brothers.
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