BAGHDAD: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the top Shia clerics, told Pope Francis in an important meeting in Iraq on Saturday that the country’s Christians should live in “peace”.
The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked an important moment in modern religious history.
Pope Francis later addressed the rich spectrum of Iraq’s religious communities at Ur, where he made an impassioned plea for “unity” after conflict.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s trip to Iraq is an effort to both reassure the country’s ancient but dwindling Christian community and expand his dialogue with other faiths.
His meeting with the grand ayatollah in Najaf lasted 50 minutes, and Sistani’s office put out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Pope Francis for visiting the holy city.
Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”, it said.
His office published an image of the two, neither wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his wispy grey beard reaching down to his black robe and Pope Francis all in white, looking directly at the grand ayatollah.
Sistani is extremely reclusive and rarely grants meetings but made an exception to host Pope Francis. Pope Francis then headed straight to the desert site of the ancient city of Ur, where the Prophet Abraham is believed to have been born.
“It all started from here,” Pope Francis said, after hearing from representatives of Iraq’s diverse religious communities.
Iraq is a Muslim-majority country of 40 million whose Christian population has shrunk in the past two decades to just one per cent, with minorities still complaining of ostracism and persecution.
During his address, the pope said freedom of conscience and of religion were “fundamental rights” that should be respected everywhere.
“We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion,” Pope Francis said, in a message of solidarity with the minorities persecuted under rule of the militant Islamic State (IS) group.
“Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighbouring war-torn Syria,” he said.
Following the prayer service in Ur, the pope headed back to Baghdad to celebrate his first public mass in the country, at the Saint Joseph Cathedral.
In front of a sparse gathering of faithful and officials, with attendance limited by coronavirus precautions, he delivered his first-ever liturgy in the Eastern rite.
Pope Francis, a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue, has met top Sunni clerics in several Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Sistani, meanwhile, is followed by most of the world’s Shias and is a national figure for Iraqis.
In 2019, he stood with Iraqi protesters demanding better public services and rejecting external interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs. Pope Francis made a similar plea in Baghdad on Friday.
“May partisan interests cease, those outside interests who don’t take into account the local population,” he said.
In Abu Dhabi in 2019, the pope met Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and a key authority for Sunni Muslims.
They signed a text encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue, which Catholic clerics hoped Sistani would also back, but the meeting passed without such an endorsement.
While the pope has been vaccinated and encouraged others to get the jab, Sistani’s office has not announced his vaccination.
Iraq is currently gripped by a resurgence of coronavirus cases, recording more than 5,000 infections and more than two dozen deaths daily.