Pope Francis meets religious leader, Ayatullah Ali Al-Sistani, in a landmark visit  

19th Mar 2021
Pope Francis meets religious leader, Ayatullah Ali Al-Sistani, in a landmark visit  

Ayatullah Ali Al-Sistani meeting  Pope Francis (Credit: Distributed by Al-Sistani office)

Harun Nasrullah

Pope Francis concluded a four-day tour of Iraq on March 8 after a landmark meeting with Iraq’s Shi’a Muslim leader, Grand Ayatullah Ali Al-Sistani, who is followed by millions of Shi’a Muslims across the world. The tour was the first visit of a Pope to the country.

The 84-year-old leader of the Catholic Church was granted a highly symbolic meeting with the Al-Sistani in the city of Najaf.

Audiences with the spiritual leader of millions of Shi’a Muslims are rare, but he received the Pope for 45-minutes.

During the meeting at the Grand Ayatollah’s home, the Pope thanked the 90-year-old “for speaking up — together with the Shia community — in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted”.

A statement issued by Al-Sistani’s office said the meeting “focused on challenges facing humanity and the role of faith in overcoming these challenges”.

“Many people in different countries suffer from injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual discrimination, suppression of basic freedoms and absence of religious justice,” the statement quoted Al-Sistani as saying during the meeting.

“Many of the people in our region suffer from wars, violence, economic blockade and displacement, particularly the Palestinian people in the occupied lands,” he added.

Al-Sistani is the “closest Shia Islam has to a Pope,” according to Hayder al-Khoei, Director of Foreign Relations at the al-Khoei Institute. “They are both champions of dialogue, they both stress the need for social cohesion, condemning violence in the name of religion,” said al-Khoei, who has met both men.

The Pope then visited the site of the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, who is revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Mosul, he visited Church Square to pray for the victims of the war with ISIS, which left thousands of civilians dead, before meeting Christians in Qaraqosh. Celebrating Mass at a stadium in Irbil, the last big set-piece of his visit, he said Iraq would remain in his heart.

Referring to the historic region of Mesopotamia, which covered much of modern Iraq, Pope Francis said “how cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilisation, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people – Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others – forcibly displaced or killed. Today, however, we reaffirm our conviction that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace more powerful than war.”

In the nearby town of Qaraqosh, the Pope met Christians in the ancient Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was once torched by IS and has now been restored. Many were concerned about his security and increase in Covid-19 illness due to a large number of people attending the events.

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