Pope Francis holds historic meeting with powerful Shia Islam cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistan

Pope Francis today held a historic meeting with the top Shia Islam cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on day two of his landmark visit to Iraq.

The 84-year-old, who defied security fears and the pandemic to become the first pontiff to travel to the Gulf, met with the Grand Ayatollah in Najaf as his four-day trip continued.  

Pope Francis, who said he was travelling to Iraq as a ‘pilgrim of peace’ on his first foreign trip since Covid-19 struck, was driven to the home of the Ayatollah in a bullet-proof vehicle on Saturday morning.

Children had lined the streets and waved Iraqi and Vatican flags to mark his arrival. 

The private meeting was unusual for al-Sistani, 90, who rarely sees world leaders.

The 84-year-old, who defied security fears and the pandemic to become the first pontiff to travel to Iraq, met with the Grand Ayatollah in Najaf today on the second of his four-day trip

The 84-year-old, who defied security fears and the pandemic to become the first pontiff to travel to Iraq, met with the Grand Ayatollah in Najaf today on the second of his four-day trip

The 84-year-old, who defied security fears and the pandemic to become the first pontiff to travel to Iraq, met with the Grand Ayatollah in Najaf today on the second of his four-day trip

Pope Francis arrives to meet with Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani today

Pope Francis arrives to meet with Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani today

Pope Francis arrives to meet with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani today

The Pope's convoy arrives to the house of al-Sistani ahead of the landmark meeting

The Pope's convoy arrives to the house of al-Sistani ahead of the landmark meeting

The Pope’s convoy arrives to the house of al-Sistani ahead of the landmark meeting

In the hour-long discussion, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani ‘affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights’. 

Al-Sistani is one of the most influential figures in Shia Islam, and has previously refused to meet with Iraq’s current and former Prime Ministers.  

It is understood he agreed to speak with the Pope on the condition that no Iraqi officials would be present. 

The meeting took place inside al-Sistani’s home, which he has rented for decades in Najaf. 

Following the discussion, Pope Francis travelled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

He will later fly back to Baghdad, where he is expected to deliver mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph. 

The Pope left Rome early on Friday for the four-day trip, his first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics saying he felt ‘caged’ inside the Vatican.

Pope Francis attends an interreligious meeting near the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, near Nasiriyah in Iraq

Pope Francis attends an interreligious meeting near the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, near Nasiriyah in Iraq

Pope Francis attends an interreligious meeting near the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, near Nasiriyah in Iraq

The pope was greeted today as he arrived at a meeting near the Sumerian city-state of Ur

The pope was greeted today as he arrived at a meeting near the Sumerian city-state of Ur

The pope was greeted today as he arrived at a meeting near the Sumerian city-state of Ur

He later delivered a speech at the site, which is considered the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews

He later delivered a speech at the site, which is considered the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews

He later delivered a speech at the site, which is considered the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews

Pope Francis speaks at the House of Abraham in the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq's Dhi Qar province

Pope Francis speaks at the House of Abraham in the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq's Dhi Qar province

Pope Francis speaks at the House of Abraham in the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province

The interreligious prayer took place on the second day of Pope Francis' trip to Iraq

The interreligious prayer took place on the second day of Pope Francis' trip to Iraq

The interreligious prayer took place on the second day of Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq

He will leave on Monday, following a four-day visit previously described as a 'pilgrim of peace'

He will leave on Monday, following a four-day visit previously described as a 'pilgrim of peace'

He will leave on Monday, following a four-day visit previously described as a ‘pilgrim of peace’

Later today Pope Francis will fly back to Baghdad, where he is expected to deliver mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph

Later today Pope Francis will fly back to Baghdad, where he is expected to deliver mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph

Later today Pope Francis will fly back to Baghdad, where he is expected to deliver mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph

He yesterday made an impassioned call for peace, as he pleaded with his hosts for an ‘end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance.’ 

The pontiff urged religious faiths to ‘look beyond our differences’ in a country ravaged by ISIS that is home to one of the world’s most persecuted Christian communities.   

Delivering a message of hope to worshippers in Iraq, he paid tribute to the ‘age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation’. 

But he also reached out to Yazidis who were killed and tormented by ISIS, saying that ‘here, among so many who have suffered, my thoughts turn to the Yazidis, innocent victims of senseless and brutal atrocities’.  

‘Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same 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,’ he said, describing religious minorities as a ‘precious resource’ to be protected. 

He also urged Iraqi officials to ‘combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law,’ in a country consistently ranked one of the most graft-tainted by global watchdogs.       

Pope Francis wore a face mask as he arrived at the small home in Najaf on the second of his four-day trip

Pope Francis wore a face mask as he arrived at the small home in Najaf on the second of his four-day trip

Pope Francis wore a face mask as he arrived at the small home in Najaf on the second of his four-day trip

The meeting was highly unusual for al-Sistani, 90, who rarely sees world leaders

The meeting was highly unusual for al-Sistani, 90, who rarely sees world leaders

The meeting was highly unusual for al-Sistani, 90, who rarely sees world leaders

Pope Francis, the first to meet with such a senior Shi'ite cleric, was driven to the home of the Ayatollah in a bullet-proof vehicle on Saturday morning

Pope Francis, the first to meet with such a senior Shi'ite cleric, was driven to the home of the Ayatollah in a bullet-proof vehicle on Saturday morning

Pope Francis, the first to meet with such a senior Shi’ite cleric, was driven to the home of the Ayatollah in a bullet-proof vehicle on Saturday morning

The Pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day trip, his first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic

The Pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day trip, his first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic

The Pope left Rome early Friday for the four-day trip, his first abroad since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic

Children had lined the streets and waved Iraqi and Vatican flags to mark his arrival

Children had lined the streets and waved Iraqi and Vatican flags to mark his arrival

Children had lined the streets and waved Iraqi and Vatican flags to mark his arrival

Pope Francis is welcomed to Najaf with the release of a dove as he arrived to meet al-Sistani

Pope Francis is welcomed to Najaf with the release of a dove as he arrived to meet al-Sistani

Pope Francis is welcomed to Najaf with the release of a dove as he arrived to meet al-Sistani

Pope Francis landed in the Gulf at 1.55pm on Friday, the plane flying the flags of both Vatican City and Iraq as it taxied on the tarmac at Baghdad International Airport, where Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi greeted him.

‘With love and peace, Iraq’s people and government are welcoming His Holiness Pope Francis and reaffirming the depths of this humanitarian bond,’ Kadhemi said ahead of the pope’s arrival.

Francis subsequently met Iraqi president Barham Salih and other authorities gathered at the Baghdad palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, telling them that no one should be considered a second-class citizen. 

He said Iraqis of all faiths deserve to have the same rights and protections as the Shiite Muslim majority, in a country facing turmoil beset by both political violence and the effects of the pandemic.  

While Francis has been vaccinated, Iraq has been gripped by a second wave of infection with 5,000 plus new cases a day, prompting authorities to impose a full lockdown during the pontiff’s visit.

Iraq's President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad, where the pontiff made a rousing call for peace and urged an end to religious factionalism

Iraq's President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad, where the pontiff made a rousing call for peace and urged an end to religious factionalism

Iraq’s President Barham Salih welcomes Pope Francis during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad, where the pontiff made a rousing call for peace and urged an end to religious factionalism 

A child gives a bouquet of flowers to Pope Francis during the official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad on Friday

A child gives a bouquet of flowers to Pope Francis during the official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad on Friday

A child gives a bouquet of flowers to Pope Francis during the official welcome ceremony at the presidential palace in Baghdad on Friday 

The papal mantle is blown into Francis's face by a gust of wind as he stands by Iraq's prime minister at Baghdad airport

The papal mantle is blown into Francis's face by a gust of wind as he stands by Iraq's prime minister at Baghdad airport

The papal mantle is blown into Francis’s face by a gust of wind as he stands by Iraq’s prime minister at Baghdad airport

Pope Francis walks on a red carpet with Iraqi premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives in Iraq on Friday for the start of a four-day visit to the country - the first ever by a pontiff

Pope Francis walks on a red carpet with Iraqi premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives in Iraq on Friday for the start of a four-day visit to the country - the first ever by a pontiff

Pope Francis walks on a red carpet with Iraqi premier Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he arrives in Iraq on Friday for the start of a four-day visit to the country – the first ever by a pontiff

Francis meets bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at a cathedral in Baghdad decorated with posters of him

Francis meets bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at a cathedral in Baghdad decorated with posters of him

Francis meets bishops, priests, seminarians and catechists at a cathedral in Baghdad decorated with posters of him  

‘I’ll try to follow directions and not shake hands with everyone, but I don’t want to stay too far,’ Francis said ahead of his arrival.  

Security will be tight in Iraq, which has endured years of war and insurgency, is still hunting for Islamic State sleeper cells, and days ago saw a barrage of rockets plough into a military base.

Francis will preside over a half-dozen services in ravaged churches, refurbished stadiums and remote desert locations, where attendance will be limited to allow for social distancing. 

Inside the country, he will travel more than 870 miles by plane and helicopter, flying over areas where security forces are still battling IS remnants.

Francis waves as he arrives to hold his first mass in Iraq at the Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad

Francis waves as he arrives to hold his first mass in Iraq at the Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad

Francis waves as he arrives to hold his first mass in Iraq at the Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad  

Francis was met at the airport by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (right) who delivered a greeting of 'love and peace'

Francis was met at the airport by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (right) who delivered a greeting of 'love and peace'

Francis was met at the airport by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (right) who delivered a greeting of ‘love and peace’

Francis waved as he and the prime minister left the airport flanked by Iraqi and Vatican flags waved by young children

Francis waved as he and the prime minister left the airport flanked by Iraqi and Vatican flags waved by young children

Francis waved as he and the prime minister left the airport flanked by Iraqi and Vatican flags waved by young children 

Francis is greeted by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi as he lands at Baghdad airport on Friday afternoon local time

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks with Pope Francis after the pontiff arrived at Baghdad airport

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks with Pope Francis after the pontiff arrived at Baghdad airport

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks with Pope Francis after the pontiff arrived at Baghdad airport

For shorter trips, Francis will take an armoured car on freshly paved roads that will be lined with flowers and posters welcoming the leader known here as ‘Baba Al-Vatican’.

The pope’s visit has deeply touched Iraq’s Christians, whose numbers have collapsed over years of persecution and sectarian violence, from 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000 today.

‘We’re hoping the pope will explain to the government that it needs to help its people,’ a Christian from Iraq’s north, Saad al-Rassam, told AFP. ‘We have suffered so much, we need the support.’ 

Pope Francis is the first to visit Iraq, after Pope John Paul II had to cancel a trip in 2000 when talks with the Government of then-leader Saddam Hussein broke down.  

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