As part of Pope Francis' official visit to Iraq, the long-awaited meeting between the head of the Catholic Church and Ali al-Sistani, the great Shiite leader in Iraqi territory, took place. The meeting was one of the highlights of the Pope's stay in the Arab country, a fact that consolidates relations between the Vatican and the Islamic world to form a common front against all types of religious extremism.
Pope Francis met this Saturday in the holy city of Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, leader of Iraq's Shiite community. A remarkable meeting that serves to further strengthen ties between Christianity and Islam and to make a common front against religious extremism. The meeting, behind closed doors and defined as a cordial visit, joins the initiative that the Pope also led with the agreement for human fraternity reached in 2019 in the United Arab Emirates with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, leader of the Sunni branch of Islam.
The official programme described the meeting with the 90-year-old al-Sistani as a courtesy encounter. But its magnitude transcended mere protocol. The posters in the streets of Najaf, with a photograph of each of the leaders who were to meet, demonstrated the significance of the event itself. The Shia leader does not appear in public and receives few visitors; and since Saddam Hussein was overthrown, he has become one of the Iraqi nation's leading figures.
The meeting, which lasted around 50 minutes, was not broadcast. The Pope could only be seen entering a humble house in a poor neighbourhood of Najaf, surrounded by security forces. Francis respected Islamic rules at all times in the modest residence of the Shia leader, who was instrumental in 2014 through his messages to combat Daesh. Al-Sistani issued religious edicts in 2014 against Daesh, and in January 2019 the Shia representative called for an investigation into the "heinous crimes" perpetrated by the jihadists against some minorities in Iraqi society, such as Yazidis in Sinjar, Christians in Mosul and Turkmen in Tal Afar.
The communiqué issued by the Vatican after the meeting noted that the Pope "thanked him and the Shiite community for their defence of the weakest and most persecuted in the face of violence and the great difficulties of recent years, reaffirming the sacredness of human life and the unity of the Iraqi people", in reference to the persecution suffered by Christians at the hands of jihadist extremism.
In the statement distributed by the Vatican press office, it was reported that the Pope stressed "the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities so that, by cultivating dialogue with mutual respect, they can contribute to the good of Iraq, of the region and of the entire community".
A statement from Al-Sistani's office explained that they discussed the great "challenges facing humanity" and that the Ayatollah spoke of "injustices and oppression, religious and intellectual persecution (...) the economic blockade and the displacement of many peoples in the region, including the Palestinian people". The ayatollah also pointed out to the Pope that Christians must "live in peace and security" and benefit from "all constitutional rights". The top Shia authority expressed "his interest in Christians living like Iraqis, in peace and security and with all their rights".
Statements that demonstrate that the main purposes of the trip have been fulfilled with a view to continuing to strengthen ties between different religions in order to confront extremism and religious radicalism.
It was the first official act of the day for the Pope, who arrived in Iraq on Friday for a three-day visit, becoming the first pontiff to set foot in the country. In Baghdad he was received by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kazemi, and by the President of the Iraqi Republic, Barham Saleh; and after the capital of the Middle Eastern country his next destination was Najaf to meet with Ali al-Sistani.
Francis travelled to the holy city of Najaf, some 160 kilometres south of Baghdad, the main Shia religious centre and a pilgrimage destination for followers of this branch of Islam from around the world. The city is home to the tomb of one of Islam's most revered figures, Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and the first man to convert to Islam.
This time there was no common document like the one signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the Pope and the Egyptian Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the largest Sunni institution, which was one of the biggest steps taken towards closer relations between Islam and Catholicism.
Later, after leaving Najaf as part of the first visit by a Pope to Iraq, Francis headed for the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldees, where the Bible says Abraham, the father of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was born, and which is one of the oldest sites in Mesopotamia.
Pope Francis said on Saturday that believers "cannot remain silent when terrorism abuses religion", in a meeting with representatives of other religions present in Iraq that took place this Saturday in the plain of Ur and in which he recalled the atrocities committed against minorities such as the Yazidis.
In this biblical city and in front of the so-called house of Abraham and the monumental Ziggurat, an imposing Sumerian pyramid shrine, Francis said that "the most blasphemous offence is to profane the name of God by hating one's brother". "Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious spirit; they are betrayals of religion," Francis said. And believers, he added, "cannot remain silent when terrorism abuses religion. Indeed, it is up to us to resolve misunderstandings with clarity".
Pope Francis was surrounded by representatives of the various religions present in Iraq, including Sunnis, Shiites, Zoroastrians and Yazidis. The leader of the Catholic Church recalled the persecution suffered by many communities during the 2014 invasion by Daesh terrorists.
And in particular, as he had already done in his speech to the authorities, he recalled the Yazidi community, "which has mourned the death of many men and seen thousands of women, young people and children abducted, sold into slavery and subjected to physical violence and forced conversions". He asked to pray for "all those who have endured such suffering and for those who are still missing and kidnapped, so that they may soon return to their homes", as reported by Efe news agency.
Surrounded by representatives of the various confessions, the Pope also asked for prayers that everywhere "freedom of conscience and religious freedom be respected, which are fundamental rights, because they make man free to contemplate the heaven for which he was created".
He noted that in the face of the terrorism that entered the north of the country, referring to the Daesh jihadists, and brutally destroyed part of Iraq's wonderful heritage, "there are young Muslim volunteers from Mosul who helped rebuild churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together".