Pope Francis has met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior leaders in Shia Islam, in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf to deliver a message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority.
The historic meeting on Saturday in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.
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After the meeting, al-Sistani office released a statement that said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians and that the Shia leader “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”.
The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani and the Shia people 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.
He said al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof vehicle, had pulled up for the meeting 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 Shia Muslims. He then walked the few metres to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the Shia leader 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.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered figure in Shia-majority Iraq and and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shia Muslims 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 Shia armed groups against their community.
The visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Najaf, said it was “history in the making”.
“[Al-Sistani] is a very important leader, and obviously the pope is looking for some sort of support from the Iraqi Shia community to make sure that the dwindling Christian population of Iraq is not just protected, but gets to flourish as well.”
Marsin Alshamary, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Al Jazeera that it was “very significant” meeting.
“The Iraqi public is tired of conflict and it is an opportune moment to have this visit,” she said.
“But it is important to recognise that this visit is nothing more than symbolic and that is more than enough. Having the pope visit Iraq for the first time in history is such an honour and it is such a great thing to be happening. And Iraqis are so happy to be hosting him.”
After his 50-minute meeting with al-Sistani, Francis headed to the ruins of ancient Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In a speech, he urged Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside animosities and work together for peace and unity.
“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” he said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
Later on Saturday, the pontiff celebrated Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in the capital, Baghdad.
Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country, aimed at promoting his call for greater fraternity among all peoples. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting on Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.
On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history.
In the years after the 2003 US-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shia majority came under attack by al-Qaeda and other Sunni armed groups. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.
His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the ISIL (ISIS) group swelled the ranks of Shia militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over ISIL in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.
It has also seen recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against US military and diplomatic facilities, followed by US air strikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
The violence is linked to the standoff between the US and Iran following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran.