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CurrentMiddle East

Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani: Two of the World’s Most Influential Religious Leaders Meet in Iraq

“[We] must prioritize reason and wisdom and to reject the language of war, and not to promote self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity, and… consolidate the values ​​of harmony, peaceful coexistence and human solidarity in all societies, based on fostering rights and mutual respect among followers of different religions and intellectual trends.”

Pope Francis, head of the Catholic world, and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is one of the top Shia Muslim leaders, was arguably one of the most symbolic and powerful meetings between the Christain and Muslim worlds in living memory.

Firmly stating the necessity in meeting with Ayatollah Sistani during his historic visit to Iraq, Pope Francis visited Sistani’s humble home in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday. The meeting between the two lasted almost an hour, in which it was reported that they spoke about interfaith dialogue, peace, and brotherhood between Christian and Muslim people of faith.

While Pope Francis is immensely well-known and highly popular in comparison to his predecessors in the West, not much is known about Ayatollah Sistani outside of Shia Muslim communities. Sistani is one of the most senior leaders and clerics in Shia Islam and currently lives in Najaf, Iraq next to the holy shrine of Imam Ali, who was the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed.

Ayatollah Sistani’s powerful role in Iraq post-US invasion is noteworthy, especially when he called upon the Americans to change their transition plans to enable more Iraqi Shia Muslims to participate in post-Saddam elections – Shia Muslims who were heavily targeted, tortured, and killed under Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule. Despite the horrendous escalation of sectarian violence after 2003, he continuously called for peace, calm, and restraint from all sides.

Sistani’s 2014 fatwa also called on all able-bodied men to join in the fight against ISIS to ensure the defeat of these terrorists who brutalized Iraqi society, in a show against extremism, terrorism, and sectarianism. In 2019, during the anti-government protests that gripped Iraq, Sistani’s powerful sermon led to the resignation of the then-Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, leading to an opening of new governance. With his delicate balance between being a religious cleric and a powerful societal figure, Ayatollah Sistani continues to be revered by Shia Muslims across the world.

His meeting with Pope Francis, therefore, was immensely historical and symbolic – reporters noted that the 90-year-old cleric, who usually remains seated when inviting guests into his small home, stood up and greeted Pope Francis at the entrance. When Pope Francis walked towards the home, officials also released white doves into the sky to symbolize peace. This meeting marked the first-ever in history between a pope and a grand ayatollah.

During their 40-minute meeting, in which Sistani was said to be speaking enthusiastically with Pope Francis, the Pope even cradled Sistani’s hands as they spoke. The Pope is said to have thanked Sistani during the meeting for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during Iraq’s recent tumultuous times. Ayatollah Sistani is also said to have thanked the Pope in coming to Najaf, and affirmed that Iraqi Christians “should live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights”.

Ayatollah Sistani also issued a statement afterward about the meeting, stating:

[We] must prioritize reason and wisdom and to reject the language of war, and not to promote self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity, and… consolidate the values ​​of harmony, peaceful coexistence and human solidarity in all societies, based on fostering rights and mutual respect among followers of different religions and intellectual trends.”

In an era of heightened extremism and sectarianism, it remains essential that historic visits like the one by Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani are celebrated and discussed – as head of the Catholic world and as one of the top clerics of the Shia Muslim world, both leaders remain heavily influential towards their followers around the world with a powerful duty towards interfaith dialogue and social justice.

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