Pope Francis holds historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shia cleric

Pope Francis meets top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf, Iraq, March 6, 2021.

SULAIMANI (ESTA) — Pope Francis arrived in Najaf on Saturday for a symbolic meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during his risky, historic tour to the country.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani greeted Francis at his humble home in Najaf, the seat of the Iraqi Shia clergy, on the second day of the pontiff’s historic tour of Iraq.

It is the Pope’s first international trip since the start of the pandemic – and the first ever papal visit to Iraq.

Sistani’s office said in a statement that the top Iraqi Shia cleric had thanks the pope for taking “the hardship of the trip to Najaf to visit him”.

The pope and Sistani discussed struggles of “injustice, oppression, poverty, religious, and ideological persecution”, according to a statement released by Sistani’s office.

The top Iraqi Shia cleric also pointed out “the role that the great religious and spiritual leaders should play in curbing these tragedies,” the statement read.

He also empathized “the importance of securing a peaceful life for Iraqi Christians and protecting their constitutional rights,” according to the statement.

Sistani, 90, wields enormous influence over politics. His edicts sent Iraqis to free polls for the first time in 2005, rallied hundreds of thousands of men to fight Islamic State (ISIS) militants in 2014 and toppled an Iraqi government under pressure from mass protests in 2019.

Reuters cited officials close to Sistani as saying that the top Shia cleric has refused talks with Iraq’s current and former prime ministers.

A source in the president’s office told Reuters that Sistani agreed to meet the pope on condition that no Iraqi officials would be present.

Meanwhile the Vatican said in a statement that Francis discussed with Sistani cooperation between all regions and dialogue for the good of Iraq and the region.

After his 55-minute meeting with 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 interreligious meeting.

After flying back to Baghdad, he is expected to deliver mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph.

Pope Francis began his most risky foreign trip on Friday, flying into Iraq amid the tightest security ever seen for a papal visit to appeal to the country’s leaders and people to end militant violence and religious strife.

The country has deployed thousands of security personnel to protect him during the visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks and a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The 84-year-old Francis, limping from what appeared to be a fresh flare-up of his painful sciatica, made an impassioned call for Iraqis to finally give peacemakers a chance during a gathering of Iraqi officials and diplomats at the presidential palace.

*This story was updated at 10:53 a.m. EBL time 

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