TEHRAN (Dispatches) — Iran’s foreign ministry on Monday called Pope Francis’ trip to neighboring Iraq "very good” and "constructive,” and described his meeting with the country’s top Shiite official as conveying inter-religious peace.
Pope Francis met Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — the religious authority for many Shia Muslims around the world — in the Iraqi city of Najaf during the first-ever visit to the country by a pontiff.
"The Pope’s visit to Iraq was a very good and important visit,” ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters at a press conference.
The "constructive” trip was made possible thanks to a "calm and secure Iraq,” he said.
"Iraq, with the braveries of the Iraqi people, the wisdom of the religious authority, and the pure blood that was shed in the face of extremism and foreign conspiracies, has now reached a state of security,” he added.
Tehran, with Hashed al-Sha’abi and other popular forces, helped Iraqi troops fight the takfiri menace. Iraq proclaimed victory over Daesh in late 2017.
"The meeting with Iraq’s high religious authority, Ayatollah Sistani, on its own showed interreligious dialogue and closeness between religions,” Khatibzadeh said.
He noted that it conveyed "no other message than dialogue, peace, and friendship between religions and cooperation between civilizations, in contrast to those who seek violence and bloodshed”.
Following the meeting, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.