Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s top clerics, told Pope Francis in a historic meeting in Iraq on Saturday that the country’s Christians should live in ‘peace’.
The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history and in terms of Francis’s efforts to deepen interfaith dialogue.
Pope Francis later addressed the rich spectrum of Iraq’s religious communities at Ur, traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, a central figure in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, where he made an impassioned plea for ‘unity’.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s trip to Iraq is an effort to both reassure the country’s ancient but dwindling Christian community and expand his dialogue with other faiths.
His meeting with the grand ayatollah in Najaf lasted 50 minutes, and Sistani’s office put out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Francis for visiting the holy city.
Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”, it said.
Sistani is extremely reclusive and rarely grants meetings but made an exception to host Francis.
The pontiff had landed earlier at Najaf airport, where posters featured a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Mohammed’s relative, who is buried in the holy city. “People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity,” read the banners.
Francis then headed straight to the desert site of the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham is believed to have been born in the second millenium BC.
“It all started from here,” Francis said, after hearing from representatives of Iraq’s diverse religious communities.
There were Yazidis, whose ancestral heartland of Sinjar was ravaged by the Islamic State group in 2014, as well as Mandeans, Kakais, Bahais and Zoroastrians.