Pope Francis met with a top Shia cleric in Iraq on Saturday as part of his historic three-day visit to the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most influential clerics in Shia Islam, took place in the holy city of Najaf.
It was meant to deliver a message of coexistence and fraternity during his visit in support of Iraq”s Christian minority that has faced years of war and persecution.
The meeting took place at al-Sistani’s home in Najaf and was months in the making with details negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy was led by a bullet-proof vehicle and when he arrived at the home on Saturday, a few doves were released in a sign of peace.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority including years of displacement. A show of solidarity from the deeply revered al-Sistani could help them secure their place in Iraq.
The visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday for his first-ever papal visit to the country. It also marked his first international trip since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. His meeting on Saturday was the first-ever between a pope and a grand ayatollah.
Al-Sistani’s role in Iraq
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.
He preached calm and restraint after the 2003 US-led invasion 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 as the country struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks including recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against US military and diplomatic facilities.
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.