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The editorial office
March 5, 2021, 6:42 p.m. ET
Security surrounds Pope Francis as he leaves the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad on March 5.
Ayman Henna / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images
Pope Francis made history this week when he became the first Pope to visit Iraq, a risky journey amid heightened security risks and rising coronavirus infections. The Holy Father undoubtedly values Iraq as the biblical birthplace of Abraham – revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims – and for its rich religious diversity, which is now threatened by extremists.
The first benefit of his pastoral visit is the hope he brings to Iraqi Christians, whose presence there is almost as old as Christianity. But the community has been attacked by extremists like the Islamic State, which killed, raped and enslaved them. The State Department estimates that Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from 1.4 million Christians before the war to 250,000 today.
Similar attacks have been made against the Yazidis in Iraq, another religious minority targeted by ISIS. The Jews in Iraq have almost completely disappeared. The precarious position of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq is a reminder that the real test for countries in the Middle East goes beyond holding democratic elections and whether their minorities are safe. Because of this, the Pope’s meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s leading clergyman of the so-called quietest school of Shia Islam and a moderating force in Iraq, could be the most important meeting on his agenda.
The Ayatollah knows that Shiites are a minority in most of the other Muslim countries in the region. Shiites also know what it is like to be persecuted. Tolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities will not come to the Middle East tomorrow. However, it would be a strong message to the world if Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani joined forces on this idea.
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