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The Pope and a top Iraqi Shiite cleric deliver a message of peace.

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The Pope and a top Iraqi Shiite cleric deliver a message of peace.

 

Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric met in a narrow alley in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday, and together they delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence in a country still reeling from back-to-back conflicts over the past decade.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani welcomed Francis into his spartan home with a simple but profound gesture. Afterward, the 90-year-old cleric, who is considered one of the most influential Shiites in the world, said Christians should live in peace in Iraq and have the same rights as other Iraqis. Francis thanked al-Sistani for “raising his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of Iraq’s most violent periods, according to the Vatican.

Later that day, the pope spoke to a group of Iraqi religious leaders in the deserts near a 6,000-year-old ziggurat in the Plains of Ur, which is also the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Given their societies’ frequently bitter divides, figures from across Iraq’s sectarian spectrum being together was almost unheard of.

The events of the day combined to give symbolic and practical weight to Francis’ central message, which called for Iraq to embrace its diversity. It’s a message he hopes would help maintain the tapestry’s position for the dwindling Christian community. Emotional worshippers sang hymns, ululated, and shouted “Viva la Papa!” or “Long live the pope!” at a Mass the pope celebrated later in Baghdad — a rare public moment of joy among a population beset by turmoil, economic woes, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, in a country where sectarian bloodshed and discrimination have traumatized every community, and politicians have tied their power to sectarian interests, his message will be difficult to sell.

Francis sought the assistance of an ascetic, respected figure in al-Sistani who is immersed in those sectarian identities while also being a powerful voice above them.

Al-Sistani is a senior cleric in Shiite Islam who is revered by Shiites in Iraq and around the world. His rare but effective political interventions have influenced the current state of Iraq. Their meeting in al-humble Sistani’s home, the first between a pope and a grand ayatollah, took months to plan, with every detail painstakingly negotiated ahead of time.

The 84-year-old pontiff arrived in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz early Saturday along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which leads to the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shiite Islam’s most revered sites.

He then walked down an alley a few meters (yards) to al-house. Sistani’s A few white doves were released as a masked Francis approached the doorway as a sign of peace.

The meeting was described as “very positive” by a religious official in Najaf. Since he was not allowed to brief the media, he spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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. Before entering al-office, Sistani’s the pope took off his shoes and was given tea and a plastic bottle of water.

According to footage broadcast on Lebanon’s LBC, at one point during their 40-minute meeting, the pope gingerly cradled the ayatollah’s two hands in his own as al-Sistani leaned in to speak. They didn’t wear masks and sat next to one another. According to the official, Al-Sistani spoke for the majority of the meeting. In stark contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock, Al-Sistani, who seldom appears in public or even on television, wore black robes and a black turban.

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. Last year, the ageing ayatollah had surgery for a broken thigh and seemed tired.

Francis paused before leaving the room after the meeting ended to take one more look, according to the official.

Al-Sistani later said in a statement released by his office that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace, with complete constitutional rights.” He emphasized the “role that religious authority plays in protecting them, as well as those who have experienced injustice and damage in recent years.”

According to the statement, Al-Sistani wished Francis and the Catholic Church happiness and thanked him for taking the time to visit him in Najaf.

Iraqis applauded the gathering, prompting the prime minister to declare March 6 as Iraq’s National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.

”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.”

Iraq’s Christians, who have been victimized by violence and bigotry, are hoping that a show of support from al-Sistani would help them protect their position in Iraq and reduce threats from Shiite militias.

Al-Sistani has a strong voice, which is often used to advocate for moderation.

His views forced American administrators to change their transition plans after the 2003 US-led invasion, and his approval enabled Iraq’s Shiites to vote in large numbers in post-Saddam Hussein elections. In 2019, as the country was gripped by anti-government protests, his sermon prompted Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign.

His title, however, is not law. As the Shiite majority came under attack by Sunni radicals after 2003, he consistently preached calm and restraint. Nonetheless, Shiite retaliation against Sunni civilians has fueled a years-long cycle of sectarianism.

His fatwa, or religious edict, issued in 2014, urging able-bodied men to join the security forces in combating the Islamic State group, contributed to the extremists’ defeat. However, it bolstered the ranks of Shiite militias, many of which are closely linked to Iran and are now accused of discriminating against Sunnis and Christians.

Later, at an interfaith meeting near the southern city of Nasiriyah, Pope Francis invoked traditional reverence for Abraham to speak against religious abuse.

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