In a historic meeting, two of the most influential leaders of religions in the world reached across their communal divide today to promote “peace and unity” as Pope Francis, 84, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, the spiritual leader of most of the world’s Shi’ah Muslims, talked. The almost an hour-long meeting happened during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq. It is the pontiff’s first trip outside the Vatican since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2019.
Dressed in black, al Sistani “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”.
Dressed in white, Francis thanked the Shi’ah leader for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history, the Vatican said.
Neither Pope nor the Ayatollah wore a face mask during the intimate encounter at Sistani’s decent rented accommodation in the Islamic holy city of Najaf. This, despite the renewed spike in Covid-19 infections in Iraq. Francis has received a Covid-19 vaccine but Sistani has not.
The pope removed his shoes before entering Sistani’s room. The Shi’ah head, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room.
The meeting, on the second day of the three-day tour of the pope, is a landmark moment in the modern history of religions. It is a milestone in Francis’s efforts to deepen dialogue with other religions.
Pope Francis, a strong advocate of interfaith dialogue, has met leading Sunni clerics in several Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Two years ago, the pope and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and an important authority for Sunni Muslims, had signed a text encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue.
After meeting Sistani, Francis travelled to the ancient city of Ur, the believed birthplace of biblical Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Francis met representatives of the diverse religious communities of Iraq, including Yazidis, whose ancestral heartland of Sinjar was ravaged by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014, Mandaeans, Kakais, Bahá’ís and Zoroastrians.
Shia and Sunni sheikhs, as well as Christian clerics, were also in attendance.
Iraq’s Christian population has dwindled from about 1.4 million before the US-led invasion in 2003 to an estimated 250,000 today. Christians were targeted by Isis between 2014 and 2017, and say they still suffer from discrimination and persecution.
In his address in Ur, Francis said freedom of conscience and of religion were “fundamental rights” that should be respected everywhere. “We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion.”
The pope made an impassioned plea for “unity” after conflict. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” he said.
The pope was later due to preside over a mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Baghdad.
On Sunday, Pope Francis will visit Christian communities in Mosul, Erbil and Qaraqosh in the north of Iraq.
Chaldean Catholic priest Father Thabet from Karamles, near Qaraqosh, said the visit of the pope would encourage the community to remain in the country and “continue the Christian mission here”.
There were 880 Christian families in Karamles before ISIS ravaged the area. The Islamic terrorists destroyed and looted houses and badly damaged the parish church.
The church is now about 60% restored. Only 345 Christian families have returned to the village in the past three years.
“We hope the visit of the Holy Father will encourage the government to protect Christians,” said Father Thabet. He was planning to attend a mass led by the pope on Sunday, “but numbers are limited and movement is difficult because of Covid and the security situation”.