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Pope's visit to Iraq will send message of coexistence, says Iraqi president

Barham Salih says meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani will be 'profound statement about moderation in religion'
Pope Francis is set to visit Iraq on 5 March
Pope Francis is set to visit Iraq on 5 March, and travel to areas previously under the control of the Islamic State group (AFP/File photo)
By in
Washington

Iraqi President Barham Salih has hailed the upcoming visit by Pope Francis to the country, which he said will send a message of peaceful coexistence to "bigots" and "extremists".

Speaking virtually at a Brookings Institution conference on Wednesday, Salih said the visit, which is scheduled to start on 5 March, will bolster the values of tolerance and peace globally - not only in Iraq.

During his visit, the pope will visit the ancient city of Ur, which is mentioned in the Bible as the birthplace of Abraham, the father of all three Abrahamic faiths. 

He is scheduled to hold a mass in the northern Nineveh Province, home to a sizable but dwindling Christian population. The area was under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group as recently as 2017.

He will also meet with top spiritual leader Ali al-Sistani, a figure revered by Shia Muslims across the world.

"The meeting between the pope and Ayatollah Sistani would represent a very, very profound statement about moderation in religion... These terrorists, these extremists, these bigots cannot invoke the name of God and the name of Abraham, our forefather of prophets as we say in Arabic, they cannot speak for that," Salih said.

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"That will be quite a historic meeting, I will be honoured in fact to be receiving the pope in this building here at Baghdad palace."

Salih added that Iraqis were "excited" to see and hear from the pope. "It will be a message of peace, tolerance, and what Iraq is about: Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation, the cradle of religions."

Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the country's Christian population has been in decline amid turmoil and violent attacks by militant groups, including IS.

Salih said targeting Christians aims to weaken the entire region by targeting its diversity. 

"This part of the world thrives on its pluralism, thrives on its diversity. Christians are an indigenous part of our culture and our history and our land," he said.

"Across the Middle East these extremists want, in the name of religious purity or whatever it is, to drive them out. This is not something against Christians, this is against every Muslim, every citizen of this part of the world."

He added that he hoped Pope Francis's stay, which will be his first foreign trip since the outbreak of Covid-19 and his first papal visit to Iraq, will unite Iraqis against extremism.

"We are all united in our humanity and in our belief in the divine values of religion in terms of tolerance and peace, and hopefully the visit is quite an opportunity not just for Iraqis but for the world at large," Salih said.