Pope Francis will tomorrow meet Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a moment that the Archbishop of Westminster said will “reverberate around the world”.
His meeting with the global leader of Shia Muslims, a vital potential counterweight to the sectarian extremism espoused by many of the Iranian Shia clergy, will be occurring behind closed doors, in the Ayatollah’s home in the city of Najaf, and is perhaps the most historic moment of the Pope’s visit.
Speaking of the occasion, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “As a direct descendant from the Prophet himself, the meeting of Ayatollah al-Sistani with Pope Francis, the revered Bishop of Rome, leader of the Catholic Church and the most readily recognised Christian figure in the world, is a unique moment, something that has never before happened in the last 1200 years history of Christian – Muslim relations.”
The Cardinal was speaking in a joint statement with Maulana Syed Ali Raza Rizvi, a prominent Islamic scholar and president of Majlis e Ulama e Shia (Europe).
Together, they said: “A simple photograph of the meeting of these two revered figures will mark a new step in the religious history of humanity. The sheer impact of this moment will reverberate around the world.
“It will add immense strength to all who wish to promote the true moderate voice of religion. It will encourage those who want to develop the fundamental unity of all people and the vital role of dialogue in the affairs of human progress. Their encounter will give support to the Christian minority in Iraq, indeed to religious minorities everywhere and to those who further the cause of religious tolerance and respect for the dignity of every person.
“The image of Ayatollah al-Sistani and Pope Francis standing together will be a powerful deterrent to all who seek to claim religious support and motivation for acts of terrorism. Their solidarity is instead a vital witness for peace and mutual respect.”
Following his meeting in Najaf tomorrow morning, the Pope is expected to visit the ruins of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, where Abraham was born, where he will be leading an interreligious prayer service alongside members of all the faiths of Iraq, including Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and Yazidis. Afterwards he will be returning to Baghdad to celebrate an evening mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph.
Security around the trip has been extremely tight, with thousands of troops deployed to the streets of Iraq, drones in the air monitoring the routes taken by the Papal delegation, and explosive and counterterrorist specialists on standby. So far things are proceeding smoothly on a visit that Iraq’s civilian leadership are determined to present as proof of their country’s return to normality.
Earlier today, speaking from the presidential palace in Baghdad, Pope Francis issued an impassioned plea for peace: “May the clash of arms be silenced... may there be an end to acts of violence and extremism.”
The Pope went on to say: “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups.”
The Pope met with both Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih. Speaking to the Pope, President Salih said: “We are healing our wounds, and here your Holiness is with us helping us to dress them.”
The Pope later visited Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad, where Islamic extremists murdered 50 worshipers in 2010, saying of the atrocity: “Violence or the shedding of blood is incompatible with authentic religious teachings.”