Pope Francis met Saturday with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam, in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf to deliver a joint message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq and and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shiites worldwide.
For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.
The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home was month in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.
When the time came, the 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof vehicle, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in the world for Shiites. He then walked the few meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades.
A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping heavily from an apparent flare-up of the sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.
The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.
The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room, a rare honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks, with their hands on their laps. A small table was between them with a box of tissues on it. SOVEREIGNPH