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03/17/2021 Iraq (International Christian Concern) – With the conclusion of the papal visit to Iraq earlier this month came hopes that the visit will foster greater interreligious dialogue within the country. The visit was received well by the rest of the Arab world as well, with many publications and news outlets in the region running live feeds of the visit. Many top figures within the Islamic world, including Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, and a leading figure within Sunni Islam, welcomed the Pope’s visit and wished him well in his trip, expressing desires that it would achieve its desired outcome to continue down the path of human fraternity.

Dania Koleilat Khatib, an analyst affiliated with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut captured the sentiment of many Muslims throughout the region. “Did you see anyone on the news protesting?” she asked in a phone interview with Catholic News Service. The Pope’s visit has been very well received by Muslims in the region. I am Muslim, and we are very excited.” She explained that while no official survey had been released to gauge Muslim sentiment about the visit, she felt that it was well received.

A top papal aide expressed just how important the visit, and a meeting with Shia Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, really was, saying, “for what concerns the relationship between Christianity and Shia Islam, the Najaf meeting [between the pope and ayatollah], is a further step forward for the dialogue of respect and friendship with the Shia community in both Iran and Iraq, where both the local Church and the Vatican have long been active.”

During the meeting with al-Sistani, the cleric issued a statement affirming his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights. This affirmation from the cleric, who is followed by most of the world’s 200 million Shiites is a massive step in building respect between the Shiite and Christian groups, not only in Iraq but throughout the middle east. The statement echoed the pope’s sentiment that “human fraternity” does not aim simply at promoting tolerance among different religions and ethnic groups, but ultimately pushes for a recognition of the full citizenship rights of all minorities. The Vatican thanked al-Sistani for having raised his voice for in defense of the weakest and most persecuted during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

The visit is a beacon of hope for Iraqi Christians living under repressive conditions, provides a foundation for more widespread religious cooperation, something vitally necessary in a country so scarred by widespread conflict and the Islamic State. Iraq still has a long way to go in terms of peaceful religious coexistence and recognition of minority rights, but the papal visit has, perhaps, helped begin the dialogue necessary to bring about that change. How the country reacts in the coming months and even years will determine just how effective the visit really was, but for now, it is all positivity.

Mohamed Ali Bahr al-Ulum, a senior Shiite cleric in Najaf expressed this positivity, saying, “We feel proud of what this visit represents, and we thank those who made it possible.”

For interviews, please contact Alison Garcia: [email protected]