Pope Francis, Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani name for unity in historic assembly

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Mar 7, 2021

NAJAF, Iraq — On the second day of his go to to Iraq, Pope Francis, the best authority within the Catholic church and the sovereign of the Vatican City State, flew to Najaf, to carry a historic assembly with the nation’s high Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Starting within the early morning of March 6, kids lined up on Rasul Street subsequent to Najaf’s Imam Ali Shrine, waving Iraqi and Vatican flags whereas patiently ready for the pontiff’s motorcade to arrive.

The pope’s motorcade lastly pulled onto Rasul avenue, which ends on the gates of the shrine of Imam Ali, who just isn’t solely a extremely regarded religious determine amongst all sects of Shiite and Sunni Islam, but in addition a revered determine amongst Christian Arabs. Sayings attributed to the central determine of Shiite Islam are written on banners all around the metropolis of Najaf, with one banner proclaiming, “Our enemies are not the Jews or the Christians, our enemy is our own ignorance.”

Francis’ automobile stopped just a few steps earlier than the gates of the shrine in entrance of an alley the place the ayatollah has a rented a modest home for many years. Upon his arrival, white doves had been launched as image of peace after which the pontiff walked by way of the slender alley in direction of Sistani’s home.

Sistani, who’s 91 years outdated and nonetheless therapeutic from a fractured thigh bone since final 12 months, is never receiving company as of late. Despite his well being situation, the highest cleric determined to face up and greet the 84 years outdated pope on the door to his room.

With no media current, the 2 had a dialog which “underlined the importance of collaboration,” in keeping with a assertion from the Vatican. The “very positive” assembly lasted a complete of 45 minutes. A assertion launched by Sistani’s workplace stated, “His Eminence (Sistani) wished the Supreme Pontiff, the followers of the Catholic Church, and the general public of humanity good and happiness, and thanked him for making the effort to travel to Najaf to make this visit.”

Sistani spoke concerning the pressing have to work towards eradicating “injustice, oppression, poverty and especially religious persecution and the wars, acts of violence, economic blockade and displacement of many peoples in the region.” He then reaffirmed the suitable of “Christian citizens to live like all other Iraqis in safety and peace, and with their full constitutional rights.” Sistani pointed out the function that the Marjayaa — a time period used to discuss with Iraq’s high Shiite non secular institution — performed in defending Christians, referring to his 2014 fatwa calling on Iraqis to take up arms in opposition to the Islamic State and to defend native minorities from the ruthless persecution carried out by the fear group.

In response, Francis thanked Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.” At the end of the private meeting, the pope prayed to God “for a peaceable and fraternal future for the beloved land of Iraq and the Middle East.”

Sistani wore his black cloak and black turban — an indication among Shiite Muslims that his ancestral lineage traces back to the Prophet Muhammad. The pope, for his part, wore all white cassocks. Yet despite the contrast in clothing, the two men share many common traits and beliefs. Both men are known to embrace humility in their everyday lives and push back against extremism within their own religion. In 2013, Francis replaced a conservative cardinal with a moderate one on the Vatican’s panel that names bishops. He is constantly calling for social justice and displaying humanity toward all people from different religions and cultures. In a similar manner, Najaf’s Shiite Hawza under Sistani’s patronage believes in a civil state, equal citizenship and separation of religion and politics, competing with Iran’s more extreme views on theocracy.

The pope’s visit to Najaf highlights two main strategic goals he is trying to achieve. First, to help preserve the local Christian community of Iraq and the Middle East, by showing support and fulfilling a promise he made to Arab Christians seven years ago that he would visit them. And second, to establish an official relationship between Najaf and the Vatican to discuss helping minorities and Arab Christians of the region.

Jawad al-Khoei, the general secretary of Al-Khoei Institute, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The visit is important and historic because it is between two great personalities who are considered pillars of peace in the world.” Back in 2014, Khoei showed his support for Christians when he offered aid and accommodation for displaced Christian refugees fleeing IS. In an interview with Oasis, he said, “The Pope is not just the leader of Catholics but also an icon of peace.”

In a show of appreciation for his visit, Khoei gifted the pontiff a necklace carved in with a portrait of Jesus.

Zaid Bahar al-Uloom, the director of Al-Balaghi Academy for Interfaith Dialogue, told Al-Monitor, “The visit was a significant step to empower moderation in the region and support the Iraqi government in its reform path, emphasizing the principle that all citizens are equal in the eyes of law and no race or religion is better than another.”

After the pope left Najaf to travel to Dhi Qar, to hold an interfaith religious meeting next to the historical Ziggurat of Ur, mentioned in the Bible to be the birthplace of Abraham, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kadhimi tweeted, “In celebration of the historic meeting in Najaf between Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Pope Francis, we declare March 6 a national day of tolerance and coexistence in Iraq.”