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After meeting with Pope Francis, Iraq’s Shiite leader reaffirms coexistence.

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After meeting with Pope Francis, Iraq's Shiite leader reaffirms coexistence.

 

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric said after his historic meeting with Pope Francis on Saturday that religious authorities have a role to play in protecting Iraq’s Christians and that they should live in peace and have the same rights as other Iraqis.

Francis thanked Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shiite people, according to the Vatican, for “raising his voice in support of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of Iraq’s most violent periods.

Al-message Sistani’s of reconciliation, he said, reiterated “the sacredness of human life and the value of Iraqi people’s unity.”

According to the Vatican, Francis’ landmark visit was an opportunity for him to highlight the importance of interfaith cooperation and friendship.

 

In Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most senior clerics, to deliver a joint message of peaceful coexistence, encouraging Muslims to accept Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.

The meeting was held behind closed doors to discuss problems affecting Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a respected figure in Shiite-majority Iraq, and Shiites around the world seek his advice on theological and other matters.

A display of solidarity from al-Sistani could help Iraq’s shrinking Christian minority protect their position in the country after years of displacement — and, they hope, reduce harassment from Shiite militiamen.

Every detail of the historic meeting in al-modest Sistani’s home had been painstakingly debated and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican for months.

When the time came, the 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy arrived along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which leads to the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shiites’ most revered sites in the world. He then proceeded to walk the few meters (yards) to al-modest Sistani’s home, which the cleric has leased for decades.

Outside, a group of Iraqis dressed in traditional garb greeted him. A few white doves were released as a masked Francis approached the doorway as a sign of peace. He reappeared just under an hour later, still limping heavily from what seemed to be a flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that made walking difficult.

According to a religious official in Najaf who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to brief the media, the “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes.

According to the official, al-Sistani, who usually sits for guests, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room, which is a rare honor. Al-Sistani and Francis stood next to each other, hands on their laps, without masks. Between them was a small table with a box of tissues on it.

The fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before caused some alarm, according to the official. The coronavirus vaccine has been given to Francis, but not to al-Sistani.

Residents cheered the meeting of two revered faith leaders, which was broadcast live on Iraqi television.

”We welcome the Pope’s visit to Iraq, especially to Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Haidar Al-Ilyawi, a Najaf resident. “This is a historic visit, and I hope it will be beneficial to Iraq and its people.”

On the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, Francis arrived on Friday and met with senior government officials to promote his call for greater fraternity among all peoples. It’s also his first foreign trip since the coronavirus outbreak began, and his meeting with the grand ayatollah on Saturday was the first time a pope has met a grand ayatollah.

According to the governor of the province, nearly 25,000 security forces were stationed in Najaf ahead of the pope’s arrival. To make space for the pope’s arrival, Rasool Street was devoid of its normal bustle. A crowd of people rushed to the street as soon as his motorcade departed, filling it up again to see him off.

The famously reclusive al-Sistani has changed the direction of Iraq’s modern history on the few occasions that he has voiced his opinion.

As the Shiite majority was attacked by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists in the years following the 2003 US-led invasion, he consistently preached calm and restraint. Despite this, the country was engulfed in years of sectarian violence.

His fatwa, or religious edict, issued in 2014, urging able-bodied men to join the security forces in combating the Islamic State, bolstered the ranks of Shiite militias, many of which are closely linked to Iran. In 2019, as the country was gripped by anti-government protests, his sermon prompted Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit, as well as the international attention it has brought to the country as it works to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq claimed victory over the Islamic State in 2017, but attacks continue on a sporadic basis.

Recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias on US military and diplomatic installations, as well as US airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria, have been witnessed. The violence is related to the standoff between the US and Iran that erupted after the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran.

Francis’ journey to Najaf and Ur passes through provinces that have recently experienced unrest. Last month, protest violence in Nasiriyah, where the Plains of Ur are situated, killed at least five people. When Iraqi security forces used live fire to disperse protesters, the majority were killed.

Last year, protest violence was seen in Najaf as well, but it subsided as Iraq’s massive anti-government movement faded.

In Ur, where Francis was to preside over an interfaith meeting later Saturday, a large security presence awaited him. Ur, with its ancient ziggurat, is thought to be the birthplace of Abraham, the prophet revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike.

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