The Pope's first visit to Iraq is the seminal moment of peace for global interfaith

Saturday marked a momentous occasion as Pope Francis visited Iraq for the first time to meet with the country’s most influential Muslim Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.

In defiance to extremists that once took hold of Christian-Iraqi settlements, targeting and killing innocent communities, the two global faith leaders will pledge interfaith solidarity to ensure a brighter more united future. 

The meeting, the first of its kind, was hugely exciting to not only those in Iraq but to communities in the UK. Inspirational leaders of the world’s two largest Abrahamic faiths came together face to face physically and spiritually to encourage others to do the same. 

As a Muslim British Iraqi this is particularly close to my heart and I want to speak to the UK community about how we, all faiths and none, must not use this moment in isolation but build on this gesture of interfaith leadership to move forwards as one society stronger and more inclusive.

Understandably given the years of suffering Christian communities had to endure at the hands of ISIS, the journey of Pope Francis is aimed to help heal the pain and loss of Iraqi-Christians. My work as director of a London based interfaith charity has brought me into close contact with fractured religious communities, and it is only after meeting those that have lost loved ones to terrorism that I came to realise what a difficult task it is to heal the pain and suffering caused. 

The damage and anguish that Iraqi-Christian citizens felt during ISIS reign was immense. In 2014, the terrorist group captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where militants began to single out Christian homes and businesses to destroy. The symbol “n”, Arabic shorthand for Nasrani, or Nazarene, was painted on doors and windows to intimidate and subordinate those held captive.

Christians in Iraq are considered one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and devastatingly more than 100,000 were forced to flee their homes. This destruction must never be tolerated and always wholly condemned. 

The meeting with Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in Iraq represents a powerful symbol of solidarity, to highlight Iraq’s fragmented history remains in the past and to show that faith cannot be tainted by those who seek to abuse it.

Today, Mosul looks a very different place to what it did three years ago, after its liberation, the city is now being rebuilt and has a hopeful and brighter future as Pope Francis led a prayer on Sunday for "victims of war" outside the centuries-old church in Mosul. 

Asian Image:

Pope Francis, center, walks with Iraqi President Barham Salih towards his plane upon concluding his visit to Iraq at Baghdad airport, Iraq, Monday, March 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

What makes this event even more unique is that it is taking place during a global pandemic. We have seen how our world has changed within the last year, and I have witnessed first-hand how faith communities were at the forefront to ‘love thy neighbour’ and help their ‘brothers in faith’ without hesitation. 

As someone who has met Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who are both committed to promoting peace and protecting minorities, giving me a sense of pride, optimism, and shows that after dark times, comes light. 

The meeting was also symbolic in that it changed traditions and protocol as the Pope removed his shoes before entering Sistani’s house and Sistani stood to greet Francis at the door which is inspiring to others to show that ultimately humanity prevails. 

There has been positivity across the board and it was humbling and heartwarming to see the welcome the Pope received on his arrival. 

Faith leaders in the UK have been the beacon of hope for many to promote a prosperous future, in good health and wellbeing, by endorsing the Covid-19 vaccine and to debunk harmful conspiracies as a matter of moral responsibility. Places of worship including Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and Temples have become vaccine hubs with the common aim to promote the sanctity of life - a value that we all share and binds us together. 

Pope Francis and Ayatollah al-Sistani‘s engagement brings to light all of the good that is in the world today. It highlights global shared values, hope during hardship, and promotes the brotherhood that epitomises humanity and is entrenched in the teachings of Islam and Christianity. In Iraq, we continue to see examples of Muslim and Christian communities coming together and uniting during these difficult times in the rebuilding of the Al Saa’a Church and other monuments in Mosul that were destroyed at the hands of ISIS for example. 

This type of accord is nothing new for Christians and Muslims, particularly in Iraq, as the country has a rich history of strong interfaith relationships coming together with neighbours and friends, to celebrate each other’s religious holidays and since the fall of ISIS this is a remerging practice. 

That is what I want us all to take away from this historical moment - interfaith solidarity does not stop with leadership but must filter down through regional and local societies, and granular communities to take some difficult but tangible steps beyond just rhetoric to ensure our future is as bright and peaceful as it can be.

Mustafa Field OBE is Director of Faiths Forum for London, an interfaith charity which brings together leaders from across nine different faiths to work collaboratively.