World Pope Francis meets Iraq’s Shia leader al-Sistani
Francis prepares first-ever papal visit to Iraq
Pope Francis is to start the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday, an act of solidarity with an ancient but dwindling Christian community and a symbolic outreach to Muslims. At the time, Pope Francis endorsed military action against IS and considered visiting northern Iraq in solidarity with Christians there. Video: Iraqi Christians, decimated by Islamist violence, prepare for pope's visit (Reuters) Your browser does not support this video That trip never materialised, but Francis has kept a close eye on Iraq, condemning the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government rallies from 2019.
Pope Francis has met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior leaders in Shia Islam, in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf to deliver a message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.
The historic meeting on Saturday 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.
Pope Francis goes to Iraq to rally fading Christians amid pandemic
Pope Francis heads to Iraq on Friday to urge the country’s dwindling number of Christians to stay put and help rebuild the country after years of war and persecution, brushing aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to make his first-ever papal visit. Iraqis were keen to welcome him and the global attention his visit will bring, with banners and posters hanging high in central Baghdad, and billboards depicting Francis with the slogan "We are all Brothers" decorating the main thoroughfare.
After the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians and said they should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.
The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani and the Shia 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 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof vehicle, had pulled up for the meeting 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 Shia Muslims. He then walked the few metres to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the Shia leader has rented for decades.
Fact Check: Was Pope Francis Once a Nightclub Bouncer?
Pope Francis trended on Twitter Friday amid his visit to Iraq. The day prior, one social media user declared that he used to work an odd job that could be considered surprising for a pope."I come as a penitent, asking forgiveness from Heaven and our brothers for so much destruction and cruelty; a pilgrim of peace, in the name of Christ, Prince of Peace. How we have prayed, in these years, for peace in #Iraq! God always listens. It is up to us to walk His paths," the pope tweeted Friday.
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.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered figure in Shia-majority Iraq and and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shia Muslims 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 Shia armed groups against their community.
The visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Najaf, said it was a very significant meeting and “history in the making”.
“[Al-Sistani] is a very important leader, and obviously the pope is looking for some sort of support from the Iraqi Shia community to make sure that the dwindling Christian population of Iraq is not just protected, but gets to flourish as well.”
Historic meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani
© Anmar Khalil, AP Iraqis walk past a poster announcing, on March 3, 2021, the visit of Pope Francis and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani , right, in Najaf, Iraq. Pope Francis meets in Najaf, on the second day of his visit to Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a figure of Shiite Islam and in Iraq. The interview, in camera, should last about an hour. Iraq is, on Saturday March 6, the scene of an unprecedented summit meeting: Pope Francis, leader of the 1.3 billion Catholics in
Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi told The Associated Press that he welcomed the pope’s visit.
“It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
After his 55-minute meeting with al-Sistani, Francis headed to the ruins of ancient Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is scheduled to give a speech at an inter-religious meeting.
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 on Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.
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 US-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shia majority came under attack by al-Qaeda and other Sunni armed 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 the ISIL (ISIS) group swelled the ranks of Shia militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adel 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 ISIL in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.
It has also seen recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against US military and diplomatic facilities, followed by US air strikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
The violence is linked to the standoff between the US and Iran following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran.
Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq: Beyond the symbolism .
Interfaith dialogue is important, but the fate of Iraqi minorities is hinged on the success of state-building in Iraq.Remarkably, he went to Najaf where he visited Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia community. The meeting was a significant milestone in Iraqi history and the global history of interfaith dialogue. He also visited the ancient city of Ur, Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and Mosul, where he prayed at the ruins of four churches destroyed by ISIL (ISIS).