The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home lasted months, and every detail was carefully discussed and negotiated between the Ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.
Early Saturday, the 84-year-old Pope stopped in a bulletproof Mercedes-Benz on the narrow, columned Rasool Street in Najaf, which culminates at the golden-dome Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered places in Shiite Islam. Then he walked the few yards to al-Sistani’s modest house, which the clergyman had rented for decades.
A group of Iraqis in traditional clothing greeted him outside. When a masked Francis entered the door, a couple of white doves were released as a sign of peace. He showed up less than an hour later, still limping from an obvious flare-up of sciatic nerve pain making walking difficult.
The “very positive” meeting lasted 40 minutes in total, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to inform the media.
The official said al-Sistani, who usually remains seated for visitors, got up to greet Francis at the door of his room – a rare honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close together without masks. Al-Sistani, who rarely appears in public – even on television – wore black robes and a black turban, in simple contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock.
The official said there were concerns about the fact that the Pope had met so many people the day before. Francis received the coronavirus vaccine, but al-Sistani did not. The aging ayatollah, who had surgery for a broken thigh bone last year, looked tired.
The Pope took off his shoes before entering al-Sistani’s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water. Al-Sistani spoke for most of the meeting. Francis paused before leaving al-Sistani’s room for one last look, the official said.
The Pope later came to the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch venerated by Christians, Muslims and Jews.
“From this place where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, we want to affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to desecrate his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” said Francis. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
Religious leaders rose to greet him. Few of the leaders on the tent stage did so while Francis wore a mask. The meeting took place in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000 year old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.
The Vatican said Iraqi Jews were invited to the event but did not attend without providing further details. The ancient Jewish community in Iraq was decimated in the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and only a handful of them remain.
Ali Thijeel, a resident of the nearby town of Nasiriyah, who attended the event, hoped the Pope’s visit would encourage investment in the area to attract pilgrims and tourists. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” he said. “This is a message to the government and politicians. You should take care of this city and pay attention to our history. “
The Vatican said the historic visit to al-Sistani was an opportunity for Francis to highlight the need for cooperation and friendship between different religious communities.
In a post-meeting statement, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians “like all Iraqis should live in security and peace and with full constitutional rights”. He noted the “role that religious authority plays in protecting themselves and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in recent years.”
Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church luck and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf.
For the dwindling Christian minority in Iraq, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and they hope to ease the intimidation of Shiite militiamen against their community.
The Iraqis welcomed the meeting of two distinguished religious leaders.
“We welcome the Pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Haidar Al-Ilyawi, who lives in Najaf. “It’s a historic visit and I hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials for the first papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the coronavirus pandemic began, and his meeting on Saturday marked the first time a Pope met a great ayatollah.
In the few cases in which he has given his opinion, the reclusive al-Sistani has changed the course of modern Iraqi history.
In the years following the US-led invasion of 2003, he repeatedly preached calm and restraint when the Shiite majority was attacked by al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. Yet the country had plunged into years of sectarian violence.
His 2014 fatwa or religious edict calling on men of age to join the security forces in the fight against the Islamic state group increased the ranks of Shiite militias, many of which were closely linked to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations swept across the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention they have given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic state group in 2017 but is still seeing sporadic attacks.
There have also been recent missile attacks related to the U.S.-Iran stalemate following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and crippled sanctions against Iran. President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the deal.
Francis’ visit to Najaf and near Ur traverses provinces that have recently experienced instability. In Nasiriyah, where the plains of Ur are located, at least five people were killed in protest violence last month. Most were killed when Iraqi security forces used live ammunition to disperse the crowd.
Violence of protest was also seen in Najaf last year but subsided as the anti-government mass movement that engulfed Iraq gradually subsided.