By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY, March 10 (Reuters) – Pope Francis condemned weapons manufacturers and traffickers for selling arms to “terrorists” in comments on Wednesday reflecting on his recent trip to Iraq.
He said he was grateful to have been able to make a visit that eluded his predecessors and described it as a “sign of hope after years of war and terrorism and during a harsh pandemic” for both Christians and Muslims.
“The Iraqi people have a right to live in peace, they have a right to rediscover the dignity that belongs to them,” he said in his weekly Vatican audience, held online due to COVID-19.
Iraq suffers from chronic mismanagement, corruption and a steady level of violence often linked to rivalry between Iran and the United States in the region 18 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
On Sunday the 84-year-old pope saw ruins of homes and churches in the northern city of Mosul that was occupied by Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.
“And I asked myself (during the trip), ‘who sold the weapons to the terrorists?, who sells weapons to terrorists today who are carrying out massacres elsewhere, for example, in Africa?,'” he said, departing from his prepared address.
“It is a question that I would like someone to answer.”
Francis has said in the past that weapons manufacturers and traffickers would have to answer to God one day.
Calling for fraternity throughout the world, he described his meeting on Saturday in the holy city of Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most influential figures in Shi’ite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond, “unforgettable”.
He said he felt compelled to make the visit to Iraq, which saw the tightest security ever for a papal trip, to be close to “that martyred people, that martyred Church”.
Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, fell to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion and the Islamist militant violence that followed.
Hours after the pope left on Monday, Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi urged rival political groups to use dialogue to solve their differences, a move he said would reflect the “love and tolerance” shown by the pope.
Many in Iraq hope the papal visit will garner more international support for Kadhimi’s government to handle sensitive crises, including reining in Iran-backed militias whose power and influence Kadhimi has sought to curb since taking office in May 2020. (Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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