The pontiff met Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in holy city of Najaf to urge Muslims to embrace Iraq’s beleaguered Christians.
Pope Francis has met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior leaders in Shia Islam, in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf to deliver a message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.
The historic meeting on Saturday in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.
When the time came, the 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof vehicle, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in the world for Shia Muslims. He then walked the few metres to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the Shia leader has rented for decades.
A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered figure in Shia-majority Iraq and and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shia Muslims worldwide.
For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shia armed groups against their community.
The visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Najaf, said it was a very significant meeting and “history in the making”.
“[Al-Sistani] is a very important leader, and obviously the pope is looking for some sort of support from the Iraqi Shia community to make sure that the dwindling Christian population of Iraq is not just protected, but gets to flourish as well.”
Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi told The Associated Press that he welcomed the pope’s visit.
“It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country, aimed at promoting his call for greater fraternity among all peoples. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting on Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.
On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history.
In the years after the 2003 US-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shia majority came under attack by al-Qaeda and other Sunni armed groups. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.
His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the ISIL (ISIS) group swelled the ranks of Shia militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over ISIL in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.
It has also seen recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against US military and diplomatic facilities, followed by US air strikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
The violence is linked to the standoff between the US and Iran following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran.