Hassan Hamid Al-Baldawi..Today, Saturday, Iraq witnessed an unprecedented meeting between Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Christians in the world, and the supreme Shiite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf, in one of the most important stops of the pontiff’s historic visit to the country.
After the Pope met with leaders of the Catholic communities Friday in Baghdad, he reached out to Shiite Muslims by visiting Sistani, who is 90 years old and never appears in public, in his modest home in the city of Najaf, 200 km south of Baghdad.
The two men held a closed meeting for an hour, which comes two years after Pope Francis signed the Human Fraternity Document with the Imam of Al-Azhar, one of the most prominent institutions affiliated with Sunni Muslims based in Egypt. Sunnis make up ninety percent of the world's Muslims, while Shiites make up ten percent, and most of them are concentrated in Iraq and Iran.
An official statement issued by Sistani's office stated that the supreme Shiite authority assured the Pope of his concern for Christian citizens to live like all Iraqis in security and peace, and with full constitutional rights.
In this unprecedented historic meeting, the Pope extends a hand to Shiite Islam, after he signed two years ago a document on "human brotherhood" with the Imam of Al-Azhar, one of
the most prominent institutions of the Sunni sect
The media was not allowed to attend the meeting, which began at 8 am (0600 GMT), but nevertheless it was a source of pride for many Shiites in a country that for 40 years has been experiencing crises and conflicts, including a bloody civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
In some Najaf streets, paintings were erected with pictures of Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani, with the phrase in English "The Historical Meeting" Shiite cleric Muhammad Ali Bahr al-Ulum told AFP that this visit is a source of "pride," adding: "We value this visit, which undoubtedly will give another dimension to Najaf."
Najaf reference and Qom reference
At Baghdad International Airport, where the pontiff landed on Friday, a large banner was raised in which an invitation to coexistence and interfaith dialogue included a quote from one of Imam Ali's famous sayings, "They are of two categories: Either your brother in religion, or your peer in creation."
Al-Sistani is the highest authority on the majority of the world's 200 million Shiites, who are in the minority of 1.8 billion Muslims in total. Sistani, who was born in Iran, represents the Najaf authority, which advocates that the role of the authority be an advisor to politicians and not a rapporteur, in contrast to the reference point in Iran, which affirms that the clerics have a role in giving political directives similar to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Khamenei.
The Spanish cadral, Miguel Angel Ayuso, who heads the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, believes that "the school of jurisprudence in Najaf is more secular than the school of Qom, which has a more religious orientation," adding that Najaf "gives more importance to the social dimension" as well.
The Grand Ayatollah threw his weight in 2019 to topple the government at the time after months of youth-led demonstrations protesting corruption and the deterioration of social conditions in their country.
"Weapons Silent!"
The Pope, like Sistani, tends to launch mostly political positions, but both of them adopt a balanced approach in launching such stances. In his Friday speech in Baghdad, the Pope touched upon sensitive issues and issues from which Iraq suffers during his meeting with President Barham Salih. Peace!".
And the Pope added, "Stop violence, extremism, partisanship and intolerance! To give way to all citizens who want to build this country together in the neighborhood and in a frank, honest and constructive confrontation." The Pope also called for "confronting the scourge of corruption, abuse of power, and everything that is illegal."
The Pope's visit takes place amidst tight security measures, and in light of a complete closure caused by the high number of infections with the Coronavirus, with more than five thousand infections per day. The Pope received an anti-virus vaccine, while Sistani's office did not indicate that the Grand Ayatollah had received a vaccine from his side.
After Najaf, Pope Francis will also travel south to Ur, the archaeological site believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, the father of the monotheistic religions, and there will participate in joint prayers with Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi and Sabian clerics.