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 Shia Muslims, talked for almost an hour during the first ever papal visit to Iraq, the pontiff’s first trip abroad since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sistani, dressed in black, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”, according to a statement.
Francis, dressed in white, thanked Sistani 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 man wore a face mask during the intimate encounter at Sistani’s modest rented home in the holy city of Najaf, despite a recent rise in Covid infections in Iraq. Francis has been vaccinated against the virus, but Sistani has not.
The pope removed his shoes before entering Sistani’s room. The Muslim cleric, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room – a rare honour.
The meeting, on the second day of the three-day trip, is a landmark moment in modern religious history and a milestone in Francis’s efforts to deepen dialogue with other religions.
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, he and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and an important authority for Sunni Muslims, signed a text encouraging Christian-Muslim dialogue.
After meeting Sistani, Francis travelled to the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, is believed to have been born.
Francis met representatives of Iraq’s diverse religious communities, including Yazidis, whose ancestral heartland of Sinjar was ravaged by Islamic State 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.”
He also made an impassioned plea for “unity” after conflict. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
Francis was later due to preside over a mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Baghdad.
On Sunday, he will visit Christian communities in Mosul, Erbil and Qaraqosh in the north of the country.
Father Thabet, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Karamles, near Qaraqosh, said the pope’s visit would encourage the community to remain in the country and “continue the Christian mission here”.
There were 880 Christian families in Karamles before Isis took control of the area. Houses were destroyed and looted, and the parish church was badly damaged, although it 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 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”.
Source: The Guardian