Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top religious authority for most Shiite Muslims, hosted the head of the world’s Catholics, Pope Francis, on Saturday in the shrine city of Najaf.
Sistani, 90, almost never holds meetings but made an exception for 84-year-old Francis, who is making the first-ever papal trip to Iraq to encourage dwindling Christians and extend his hand to Shiite Muslims
For its part, the Vatican said Francis thanked Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the Shiite people for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.
The Pope said Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.” The Vatican said the historic visit was a chance for Francis to emphasise the need for collaboration and friendship between different religious communities.
The two elderly, respected men of religion met at Sistani’s humble home in the shrine city of Najaf early on Saturday, the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.
The 84-year-old pontiff is defying a second wave of coronavirus cases and renewed security fears to make a “long-awaited” trip to Iraq, aiming to comfort the country’s ancient Christian community and deepen his dialogue with other religions.
He landed at the Najaf airport, where posters had been set up featuring a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Mohammed’s relative, who is buried in the holy city.
“People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity,” read the banners.
A convoy of cars carried Francis into the Old City, which was under extremely tight security.
No press was allowed inside the meeting as the 90-year-old grand ayatollah is highly reclusive and almost never seen in public.
The Vatican office published a photo of the meeting that showed neither men wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his wispy grey beard reaching down to his black robe and Francis all in white, looking directly at the grand ayatollah.
The meeting is one of the highlights of Francis’s four-day trip to war-scarred Iraq, where Sistani has played a key role in tamping down tensions in recent decades.
It took months of careful negotiations between Najaf and the Vatican to secure the one-on-one meeting.
“We feel proud of what this visit represents and we thank those who made it possible,” said Mohamed Ali Bahr al-Ulum, a senior cleric in Najaf.
After meeting Sistani, the pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting aimed at urging Iraq’s Muslims, Christians and other believers to put aside historic animosities and work together for peace and unity. Religious leaders stood to greet him.
While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The meeting was being held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah. Ur is also the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.