Pope Francis holds historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric

Pope Francis holds historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric

Pope Francis held a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-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 Shi’ite cleric. Children lined a street and waved Iraqi and Vatican flags at the leader of the world’s Catholics.

The pontiff has visited predominantly Muslim countries including Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian territories, using those trips to call for inter-religious dialogue.

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. Sistani is one of the most important figures in Shi’ite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond. He 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 against Islamic State in 2014 and toppled an Iraqi government under pressure from mass demonstrations in 2019.

Sistani, 90, rarely takes meetings, and has refused talks with Iraq’s current and former prime ministers, according to officials close to him. Sistani agreed to meet the pope on condition that no Iraqi officials would be present, said a source in the president’s office.

The meeting with Francis took place at Sistani’s humble home which he has rented for decades, located along a narrow alleyway in Najaf.

An ascetic cleric of almost mythical stature among millions of Shi’ite followers, Sistani intervened at critical junctures as Iraq lurched from one crisis to another. A gaunt figure, the reclusive Sistani worked from his spartan base near the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.

He was rarely seen in public. 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.

News Source: The Indian Express

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