The Vatican's ambassador to Iraq and a number of monks held the first mass in 1,500 years in one of the oldest monasteries in the Iraqi city of al-Hira (south of Najaf), and met with the top Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Hira had been a spiritual capital for Christians, and was a destination for monks for more than 500 years before the introduction of Islam to the country. There are 33 monasteries between Najaf and Kufa, some of which were only discovered recently. However, the majority of the monasteries in this region have yet to be rediscovered.
The Christian delegation — which included the Vatican's ambassador Giorgio Lingua, the head of Iraq's Christian Endowment, the endowment's general inspector and 15 pastors — met with Sistani.
During a press conference, Archbishop Lingua said Pope Benedict XVI "is very concerned with the situation of Christians in Iraq, and has urged them to stay in the country and live their lives naturally."
He added that "the Iraqi Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to live anywhere within the country, regardless of religion."
Lingua said: "The visit to Najaf was religious and fraternal, aimed at creating a spirit of love between all religions. It was a positive visit."
He added: "I delivered a message from the Pope to Sistani, filled with words of brotherhood and love, and thanking him for his positions regarding the situation in Iraq, particularly relating to forced displacement suffered by the Christians."
Furthermore, the head of the Christian Endowment in Iraq Raad Kajaji said that the delegation "expressed its thanks to the religious authorities for its sympathy and for protecting the Christians."
He added that the delegation "denounced, on behalf of the church and the council of church leaders, the insults directed at the Prophet Muhammad, which go against our customs and traditions."
The pastor of the Chaldean Church of St. Joseph, Father Saad Syrop, said to Al-Hayat that "the papal ambassador wanted to express his gratitude to Sistani and thank him for his positions. He also wanted to deliver a message from the Pope that was addressed to all the people of the Middle East."
He emphasized that "Sistani was very happy and warmly welcomed the delegation, expressing great esteem for its mission."
The director of the Department of Antiquities in Najaf, Mohammed Hadi Mayali, told Al-Hayat that "there are more than 60 Christian archaeological sites scattered throughout al-Hira and Najaf and the surrounding desert. People visit these sites on a weekly basis."
After Mass was performed at the site of one of the oldest churches in al-Hira — which had only been discovered recently — the pastor of the Chaldean Rising Church said that "this is the first [Christian] prayer performed in Hira in 1,500 years," adding that "it will be followed by other visits to all of the Christian sites, where we will hold prayer and introduce this city to the world."