Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Sistani received on Saturday Pope Francis in the holy city of Najaf, the office of the senior Iraqi cleric announced.
Religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians and that the Shia leader “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,” the office said.
The Vatican said Francis thanked Ayatollah Al-Sistani and the Shia people 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.
The Pope said Al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.
The historic 50-minute meeting on Saturday in Ayatollah 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 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof vehicle, had pulled up for the meeting along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in the world for Shia Muslims. He then walked the few meters to Al-Sistani’s modest home, which the Shia leader has rented for decades.
A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace.
It is the Pope’s first international trip since the start of the pandemic – and the first ever papal visit to Iraq.
About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel are being deployed to protect the Pope during his visit, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus.