NAJAF (IRAQ): Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam, in Iraq's holy city of Najaf on Saturday to deliver a message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq's long-beleaguered Christian minority.
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, pull 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 meters (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.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq's Christian minority. 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 visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders. "We welcome the pope's visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people," said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi.
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 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 Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists.
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 Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite 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 Adil 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 the Islamic State group 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 airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring 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.