Pope Francis met Saturday with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam, in Iraq's holy city of Najaf to deliver a joint message of peaceful coexistence.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq and and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shiites 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 members of the Shiite militia against their community.
The historic meeting 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 Shiites. He then walked the few meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric 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. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping heavily from an apparent flare-up of the sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.
The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.
The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room, a rare honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks, with their hands on their laps. A small table was between them with a box of tissues on it.
The official said there was some concern about the fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not.
The visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
”We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is a 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 Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.
Nearly 25,000 security forces were deployed in Najaf ahead of the pope’s arrival, according to the province’s governor. Rasool Street was emptied of its usual bustle to clear the path for the pope’s arrival. As soon as his motorcade left a swarm of people rushed to the street, filling it up again to see him off.
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 U.S.-led invasion, he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other 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 Daesh terror group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adil 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 Daesh in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.
It has also seen recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities, followed by U.S. airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The violence is linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following Washington's withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran.
Francis’ visit to Najaf and nearby Ur traverses provinces that have seen recent instability. In Nasiriyah, where the Plains of Ur is located, protest violence left at least five dead last month. Most were killed when Iraqi security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds.
Protest violence was also seen in Najaf last year but abated as the mass anti-government movement that engulfed Iraq gradually petered out.
A heavy security presence was also awaiting Francis in Ur, where the pope was to preside over an interfaith meeting later Saturday. Ur, with its ancient ziggurat, is the traditional birthplace of Abraham, a prophet common to Christians, Muslims and Jews.