Pope Francis extended his hand to the world’s Shiite Muslims on Saturday, meeting top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in a landmark moment in modern religious history.
The two elderly, respected men of religion met at Sistani’s humble home in the shrine city of Najaf early on Saturday, the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.
The 84-year-old pontiff is defying a second wave of coronavirus cases and renewed security fears to make a “long-awaited” trip to Iraq, aiming to comfort the country’s ancient Christian community and deepen his dialogue with other religions.
A convoy of cars carried him into the Old City, which was under extremely tight security. He stepped out in one of Najaf’s tiny alleyways and moved into Sistani’s office.
No press were allowed inside the meeting as the 90-year-old grand ayatollah is highly reclusive and almost never seen in public.
The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of millions of Shia Muslims, said the talks had emphasised peace.
The meeting between the two elderly men lasted 50 minutes, with Sistani’s office putting out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Francis, 84, for visiting the holy city of Najaf.
Iraq’s Christian minority have been hit by waves of violence since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
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.
His office published an image of the two, neither wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his wispy grey beard reaching down to his black robe and Francis all in white, looking directly at the grand ayatollah.
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.
Pope Francis will later travel to the ancient city of Ur, where the Prophet Abraham – central to Islam, Christianity and Judaism – is believed to have been born.
It is the Pope’s first international trip since the start of the pandemic – and the first ever papal visit to Iraq.