Iran says the recent visit by Pope Francis to Iraq, where he met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, shows security has returned to the Arab country, thanks to “the bravery of the Iraqi people and the wisdom of its religious leadership”.
“The message that is conveyed by this trip and similar trips is that Iraq is secure and that calm has returned” to the country,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Monday.
“The very essence of this journey is that Iraq, owing to the bravery of the Iraqi people and the wisdom of the religious authority and the pure blood which was shed against extremism and foreign conspiracies, has become a safe haven where such a good and constructive journey can be made.”
Pope Francis concluded his four-day journey to Iraq on Monday. He was accompanied by President Barham Salih to his flight.
The pontiff met with Iraq’s senior Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Saturday, following which two statements were released by their offices, which caught the attention of many observers.
Ayatollah Sistani, according to the statement, laid emphasis on the observance of equity and the role of belief in God in resolving the predicaments which aggrieve humanity.
He touched on the role played by the religious authority in protecting Christians and all those who have suffered from the criminal acts of terrorists over the past years.
The cleric also expressed his outright rejection of sanctions, and underlined the need to address the plight of the Palestinian people, who have been suffering from decades of Israeli occupation and aggression.
The statement, issued by the pope’s office, did not mention the Palestinians, however.
The pope, it said, expressed gratitude to Ayatollah Sistani and Iraq’s Shia Muslims for supporting the Arab country’s Christian minority.
On the first day of his historic trip, the head of the Catholic Church handed his rosary to Rayan al-Kaldani, a commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) better known as Hashd al-Sha’abi, as a token of appreciation.
The PMU, which is mainly comprised of Shia fighters but also includes members from Sunni, Christian and Izadi communities, played an indispensable role in Baghdad’s uphill battle against Daesh after the foreign-backed Takfiri terrorist group took on the country in 2014.
Kaldani, who also leads the Babylon Movement, a Chaldean Catholic political party, said, “We conveyed a real and proper image of the PMU to the Pope” during the visit.
He said the pontiff was appropriately notified about the role that the PMU played in the liberation of the Arab country’s Christian-populated areas from the scourge of terrorists.
He also noted how senior Iranian anti-terror commander Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani and the PMU’s second-in-command Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis played a prominent role in protecting the Iraqi Christians and their churches.
Both men were assassinated in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020.
Amid the journey, Iraq’s Saraya Awliya al-Dam published a poster, featuring General Soleimani’s severed hand after the US drone airstrike and the Arabic words, “Does the Pope know this is the hand that brought the ringing of bells back to churches?”
“We, Arabs, warmly receive our guests. Unlike the United States which betrayed the official guest of Iraq and warrior of Islam, General Soleimani, we will never follow such an approach,” the group said in a statement.
Khatibzadeh said the pope’s visit to Iraq showed the undercurrent of convergence among divine faiths.
“Unlike those who only seek violence and extremism, the visit carries no message other than dialog, peace, friendship, and inter-civilizational cooperation,” the spokesman said.