Baghdad: Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr reached out to Iraq’s religious minorities on Friday, visiting a Baghdad church desecrated in a deadly 2010 attack and a prominent Sunni mosque as public opposition spread against his rival, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.
The anti-US cleric’s stops at the holy sites — a rare public appearance outside predominantly Shiite parts of Iraq — came as tens of thousands of primarily Sunni protesters angry over perceived second-class treatment rallied to maintain pressure against Al Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
Al Sadr seems to be trying to capitalise on the political turmoil by attempting to portray himself as a unifying figure ahead of provincial elections in the spring. He spoke up for the Sunni protesters’ right to demonstrate last week, and echoed that sentiment again on Friday.
“We support the demands of the people, but I urge them to safeguard Iraq’s unity,” he said.
Wearing his signature black cloak and turban, the cleric said he visited the Our Lady of Salvation church to express sorrow at the attack and send a message of peace to Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, which is estimated to number about 400,000 to 600,000.
He sat quietly in the front pew, listening and nodding as Father Ayssar Al Yas described recent renovations to the church. The priest then led Al Sadr on a tour, pointing out places where attackers killed more than 50 people, including priests and worshippers, in an ambush during a 2010 Mass.
Al Sadr’s visit took place at a time of rising sectarian tensions a year after the US withdrawal from Iraq. Al Sadr grudgingly backed fellow Shiite Al Maliki following elections in 2010. But last year he joined Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for Al Maliki to resign.
After visiting the church, Al Sadr’s heavily protected convoy made its way to the Abdul Qadir Al Gailani mosque, one of Baghdad’s most prominent Sunni places of worship, shortly before midday Friday prayers.
As he entered the mosque, one worshipper called out that he is “the unifier of Sunnis and Shiites”. Another hailed him as “the patriot, the patriot”. Women in the courtyard ululated and showered him with candy on the way out.