The highest Shiite priest Sistani tells Pope Francis that Iraqi Christians should live in “peace”

Iraqi Chief Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani told Pope Francis in a landmark interfaith meeting in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday that the country’s Christians should live in “peace.”

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani “reaffirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security and with their full constitutional rights,” a statement from his office said.

For his part, the Vatican said Francis thanked Sistani and the Shiite people for “raising their voices in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

The pope said Sistani’s message of peace reaffirmed “the sanctity of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.

The two elderly, respected religious men met at Sistani’s home in the shrine of Najaf early on Saturday, the second day of the first papal visit to Iraq.

The 84-year-old pope defies a second wave of coronavirus cases and renewed security fears to make a “long-awaited” trip to Iraq, in order to comfort the country’s ancient Christian community and deepen his dialogue with other religions.

He landed at Najaf Airport, where posters had been created with a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and relative of the Prophet Muhammad, who is buried in the holy city.

“People are of two kinds, either your fellow believers or your equal humanity,” read the banners.

A convoy of cars carried Francis into the old city, which was under extremely tight security.

No pressure is allowed inside the meeting because the 90-year-old grand ayatollah is very withdrawn and is almost never seen in public.

The Vatican Office published an official photo of the meeting that showed neither men wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his handsome gray beard that stretched down to his black cloak and Francis all in white and looked directly at the big ayatollah.

The meeting is one of the highlights of Francis’ four-day trip to war-torn Iraq, where Sistani has played a key role in reducing tensions in recent decades.

It took months of careful negotiations between Najaf and the Vatican to secure a one-on-one meeting.

“We are proud of what this visit represents and we thank those who made it possible,” said Mohamed Ali Bahr al-Ulum, a senior priest in Najaf.

‘High moral authority’

Pope Francis, a strong advocate of interfaith efforts, has met with the best Sunni priests in several Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, Sistani is followed by most of the world’s 200 million Shia Muslims – a minority among Muslims but the majority in Iraq – and is a national figure for Iraqis.

“Ali Sistani is a religious leader with high moral authority,” said Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, head of the Papal Council for Interfaith Dialogue and a specialist in Islamic studies.

Sistani began his religious studies at the age of five and rose through the priests of the Shiites to the great ayatollah in the 1990s.

While in power, Saddam Hussein disappeared under house arrest for several years, but emerged after the US-led invasion that overthrew the repressive regime to play an unparalleled public role.

In 2019, he sided with Iraqi protesters, demanding better public services and avoiding external interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs.

On Friday in Baghdad, Pope Francis made a similar statement.

“May party interests cease, the external interests that do not take into account the local population,” Francis said.

Pope Francis Iraq Schedule

The pope’s program in Iraq includes visits to the cities of Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil. He will cross about 1445 km in a country where tensions are still lingering and where more recently the Covid-19 plagues have led to a record number of infections. Pope Francis will travel in an armored car through the usual crowds that flock to catch a glimpse of the leader of the Catholic Church. Sometimes he will have to travel by helicopter or plane over areas where jihadists belonging to the Islamic State group are still present. The process began on Friday with a speech to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, addressing the security and economic difficulties facing Iraq’s 40 million people. The pope also discusses the persecution of the country’s Christian minority. On Saturday, he hosted the holy city of Najaf by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest authority for many Shiites in Iraq and the world. The pope also made a trip to the ancient city of Ur, which according to the Bible is the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a common figure of the three monotheistic religions. There he prayed with Muslims, Yazidis and Sanari (a pre-Christian monotheistic religion). Francis continues his journey on Sunday in the province of Nineveh in northern Iraq, the cradle of Iraqi Christians. He will then travel to Mosul and Qaraqoch, two cities plagued by the destruction of Islamic extremists. The pope ends his tour by leading an outdoor mass on Sunday in the presence of thousands of Christians in Erbil, the capital of Iraq Kurdistan. This Kurdish Muslim stronghold has offered refuge to hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who fled the atrocities of the Islamic State.

‘Great prestige’

Sistani has had a complicated relationship with his birthplace, Iran, where the Shiite religious authority’s second headquarters is located: Qom.

While Najaf reaffirms the separation between religion and politics, Qom believes that even the highest priest – Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – should rule.

Iraqi priests and Christian leaders said the visit could strengthen Najaf’s position compared to Qom’s.

“The Najaf school has great prestige and is more secular than the more religious Qom school,” Ayuso said.

“Najaf attaches greater importance to social issues,” he added.

In Abu Dhabi in 2019, Pope Sheikh Ahmed met al-Tayeb, the imam from the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo and an important authority for Sunni Muslims.

They signed a text encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue, which Catholic priests hoped Sistani would also support, but clerical sources in Najaf told AFP that it was unlikely.

While the pope has been vaccinated and encouraged others to take action, Sistani’s office has not announced its vaccination.

Iraq is currently gripped by a resurgence of coronavirus cases and registers more than 5,000 infections and more than two dozen deaths daily.

After his visit to Grand Ayatollah, the pope will travel to Ur, where he will host an interfaith service, with many of Iraq’s other religious minorities present.

( Jowharwith AFP, AP and REUTERS)