Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence on Saturday, urging Muslims in the Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during an historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf, reported global news agency AP.
Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.
The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.
Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq. He is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shiites worldwide.
The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.
The meeting, according to reports, lasted 50 minutes, with Sistani’s office putting out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Francis for visiting the holy city of Najaf.
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, an outspoken proponent of interreligious dialogue.
The Pope had landed earlier at Najaf airport, where posters had been set up featuring 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.