Iraq’s top Shiite cleric has affirmed that religious authorities have a role in protecting the country’s Christians after a historic meeting with Pope Francis.
The Vatican said Francis thanked Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shiite people for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.
He said al-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 visit was a chance for Francis to emphasise the need for collaboration and friendship between different religious communities.
Francis met with 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, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.
In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights”.
He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years”.
Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.
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 Shiite militiamen 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 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.
The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room, which is a rare honour. 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 shown live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.