The head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis and Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani held a landmark interfaith meeting in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday 6 of March 2021. The religious leaders delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence between Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation and their long-beleaguered Christian minority.
The 84-year-old pontiff arrived at the cleric's small home in a bullet-proof vehicle. As he entered the house, white doves were released, reflecting the themes of this four-day visit to Iraq - peace, reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue. The meeting which was the first of its kind between two such senior leaders in the Christian and Muslim world was held privately and holds huge symbolism.
Grand Ayatollah 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 defence 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 he is revered by the Shia majority in Iraq, also his influence across different sects and across the Muslim world runs deep. In a statement, Sistani said, "Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role to put a stop to tragedy... and urge sides, especially great powers, to make wisdom and sense prevail and erase the language of war".
Speaking, the Pope spoke of his desire for interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance at a time of increasing religious polarisation "Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as one human family, will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world."
From Najaf, the Pope travelled to Ur, the ancient archaeological site believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the three monotheistic religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism. On Sunday the Pope will fly to the Kurdish city of Erbil before taking a helicopter to Iraq's second city, Mosul. Day two of the visit ends with mass at the Chaldean Cathedral in the capital, Baghdad.