NAJAF, IRAQ – Pope Francis began a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Saturday (March 6), in a powerful appeal for coexistence in a land torn by sectarianism and violence.
The Pope’s meeting in the holy southern city of Najaf, during a whirlwind and risky tour of Iraq, marked the first time a pope has met with such a senior Shi’ite cleric. State-owned Ekhbariya television showed the Pope’s large convoy moving through Najaf.
The Catholic leader has visited predominantly Muslim countries, including Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian territories, using those trips to call for inter-religious dialogue.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most important figures in Shi’ite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond. He wields enormous influence over politics. His edicts sent Iraqis to free polls for the first time in 2005, rallied hundreds of thousands of men to fight Islamic State in 2014 and toppled an Iraqi government under pressure from mass demonstrations in 2019.
The 90-year-old rarely takes meetings, and has refused talks with Iraq’s current and former prime ministers, according to officials close to him. Grand Ayatollah Sistani agreed to meet the Pope on condition that no Iraqi officials would be present, said a source in the president’s office.
The meeting with Pope Francis took place at Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s humble home which he has rented for decades, located in a narrow alleyway in Najaf. An ascetic cleric of almost mythical stature among millions of Shi’ite followers, Grand Ayatollah Sistani intervened at critical junctures as Iraq lurched from one crisis to another. A gaunt figure, the reclusive cleric works from his spartan base near the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. He is rarely seen in public.
Pope Francis began his most risky foreign trip on Friday, flying into Iraq amid the tightest security ever seen for a papal visit to appeal to the country’s leaders and people to end militant violence and religious strife. The country has deployed thousands of security personnel to protect him during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks and a spike in Covid-19 cases.
The 84-year-old Pope, limping from what appears to be a fresh flare-up of his painful sciatica, made an impassioned call for Iraqis to finally give peacemakers a chance during a gathering of Iraqi officials and diplomats at the presidential palace. He later paid tribute to people killed in attacks motivated by religion, visiting a Baghdad church where Islamist gunmen killed about 50 worshippers in 2010.
Iraq’s security has improved since the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2017, but the country continues to be a theatre for global and regional score-settling, especially a bitter US-Iran rivalry that has played out on Iraqi soil. The US invasion of 2003, after years of international sanctions and a devastating war with Iran instigated by former leader Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, plunged Iraq into sectarian conflict and chronic mismanagement that has plagued it since.
Following his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Pope Francis is due to visit the ruins of ancient Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.