SULAIMANI (ESTA) — Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani agreed to hold a meeting with Pope Francis on condition of no presence of Iraqi officials, Reuters cited an Iraqi source as saying.
Francis held a historic meeting with Sistani on Saturday, in a powerful appeal for coexistence in a land torn by sectarianism and violence.
Francis’s meeting in the holy southern city of Najaf, during a whirlwind and risky tour of Iraq, marked the first time a pope has met with such a senior Shia cleric.
Reuters cited a source in the president office as saying that Sistani, 90, agreed to meet the pope “on condition that no Iraqi officials would be present”.
Officials close to Sistani also told Reuters that the top Shia cleric had also refused talks with Iraq’s current and former prime ministers.
The meeting with Francis took place at Sistani’s humble home which he has rented for decades, located along a narrow alleyway in Najaf.
After the meeting, Sistani, one of the most important figures in Shia Islam, called on world religious leaders to hold great powers to account and for wisdom and sense to prevail over war, according to Reuters.
The pope also called for religious communities to work together.
“[He] underlined the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities so that, by cultivating mutual respect and dialogue, we can contribute to the good of Iraq, of the region,” the Vatican said in a statement after the meeting, which lasted about 45 minutes.
In a statement, Sistani said, “Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role to put a stop to tragedy … and urge sides, especially great powers, to make wisdom and sense prevail and erase the language of war”.
Great powers must “not sponsor their own self-interest at the expense of the right of people to live in freedom and dignity”, he said, adding that Christians should live like all Iraqis in peace and coexistence.
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.