06 March 2021, The Tablet

Pope meets Grand Ayatollah in Iraq

Pope meets Grand Ayatollah in Iraq

Pope Francis meeting top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Independent Photo Agency Srl/Alamy

Pope Francis began the his second day of his historic visit to Iraq with a private meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni al-Sistani.

The 45-minute meeteing took place at al-Sistani’s home in Najaf, 160 kilometres south of Baghdad. Before the meeting, the Pope was met by his son Mohammed Rida.

Matteo Bruno, director of the Holy See press office, said in a statement: “This morning, in Najaf, the Holy Father met Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani. During the courtesy visit, which lasted about forty five minutes, the Holy Father stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family .

“The meeting was an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up, together with the Shiite community, in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.

“In taking leave of the Grand Ayatollah, the Holy Father stated that he continues to pray that God, the creator of all, will grant a future of peace and fraternity for the beloved land of Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world.”

In a statement read out after the meeting in Iraq, Grant Ayatollah al-Sistani thanked the Pope for taking the trouble to visit him, and wished him and the world's Catholics happines, blessings and prosperity. 

According to the translation provided by Dr Abbas Kadhim, Iraqi initiative director the Atlantic Council and author of Reclaiming Iraq, on Twitter, al-Sistani “emphasised the importance of securing a peaceful and secure life for Iraqi Christians and protecting their constitutional rights, explaining the measures he took for this purpose.”

He also “emphasised the role of religious and spiritual leaders in easing the suffering of oppressed people worldwide and called on great powers to adopt reason and wisdom rather than war”. He went on to highlight the lack of social justice and oppression of religious rights in many countries around the world.

He referred in particular to the Palestinian people, talking about war, violence, displacement and economic sanctions.

Before the meeting, the Archbishop of Westminster 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.”

Najaf is Iraq's main Shiite religious centre and a place of Shiite pilgrimate. It is home to the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the first man to convert to Islam.

The tomb of the first Imam of the Shiites, located inside the Imam Ali Mosque, is considered one of the holiest places in Islam. 

Al-Sistani is leader of Iraq's Shiites who make up more than 60 per cent of the population. In 2004, he supported free elections in Iraq.

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