Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the top leaders of Shia Islam, in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq to deliver a message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace the Christian minority long besieged in Iraq.
Saturday’s historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home had been brewing for months, with every detail thoroughly discussed and negotiated between the Ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.
After the meeting, al-Sistani asserted that religious authorities had a role to play in protecting Iraqi Christians and said that they should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.
The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani and the Shia people for “raising their voices in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent periods in recent Iraqi history.
He said al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sanctity of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, driven by a bulletproof vehicle, had stopped for the meeting along the narrow, column-lined street of Najaf, Rasool Street, which culminates at Imam Ali shrine in golden dome, one of the most revered sites. in the world for Shia Muslims. He then walked the few yards to al-Sistani’s modest house, which the Shiite leader had rented for decades.
A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes greeted him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released as a sign of peace.
The closed-door meeting was to address the issues plaguing the Iraqi Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered figure in predominantly Shiite Iraq and his views on religious and other issues are sought after by Shia Muslims around the world.
For the declining Christian minority in Iraq, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and, they hope, facilitate the intimidation of Shiite armed groups against their community.
The visit was broadcast live on Iraqi TV and residents applauded the meeting of two respected religious leaders.
Osama Bin Javaid of Al Jazeera, reporting from Najaf, said it was “a story in the making”.
“[Al-Sistani] is a very important leader, and obviously the Pope is looking for some kind of support from the Iraqi Shiite community to ensure that the declining Christian population in Iraq is not only protected, but also thrives.
Brookings Institution researcher Marsin Alshamary told Al Jazeera it was a “very important” meeting.
“The Iraqi public is tired of the conflict and now is the right time for this visit,” she said.
“But it is important to recognize that this visit is nothing more than symbolic and it is more than enough. The Pope’s visit to Iraq for the first time in history is such an honor and it is such a great thing to happen. And the Iraqis are so happy to welcome him.
After his 55-minute encounter with al-Sistani, Francis traveled to the ruins of ancient Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is to deliver a speech at an interfaith meeting.
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 brotherhood 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 has met a Grand Ayatollah.
On the rare occasions when he has made his opinion known, the notoriously lonely al-Sistani has changed the course of modern Iraqi history.
In the years following the 2003 US invasion, he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack from al-Qaeda and other Sunni armed groups. Yet the country is plunged into years of sectarian violence.
His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in the fight against the ISIS (ISIS) group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many of which are closely linked to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government protests gripped the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqis praised the visit and the international attention it paid to the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over ISIS in 2017, but still experiences sporadic attacks.
He has also witnessed recent rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias against US military and diplomatic installations, followed by US airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The violence is linked to the standoff between the United States and Iran following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and its imposition of crippling sanctions against Iran.