by WorldTribune Staff, March 8, 2021
Pope Francis on Saturday met with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric to plead for peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians of Iraq.
During a four-day visit to Iraq, Francis traveled to the Shia holy city of Najaf to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. It was the first ever such trip by the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The 90-year old Sistani is among the most senior Shi’ite clerics in the world and is seen as a top regional rival to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Related: Saudis hit Iran’s key role as Iraqi offensive targets Fallujah; ISIL car bombs Baghdad, May 30, 2016
Sistani “has been a consistent counterweight to Iran’s influence. With the meeting, Francis is implicitly recognizing him as the chief interlocutor of Shi’ite Islam over his rival, Khamenei. News of the meeting heightened long-standing rivalries between the Shi’ite seminaries of Najaf and Iran’s city of Qom over which stands at the center of the Shi’ite world,” an Associated Press report noted.
In the meeting with Francis, Sistani “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens [who] should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,” a press release detailing the meeting said.
A Vatican statement further said the Pope thanked Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.”
The meeting took place in close vicinity to the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, among the most revered sites in Shi’ite Islam. The shrine was the target of a major twin car bombing in August of 2003 which killed 95 people, and was later claimed by Al Qaida in Iraq.
On Sunday, the pope visited parts of northern Iraq that were once held by Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists.
Christians were among those targeted by ISIS when they seized the region in 2014. Tens of thousands of Christians fled ISIS control while those who remained faced having their property stolen and choosing between paying a tax, converting to Islam, or facing death.
Celebrating Mass at a stadium in Irbil, Francis said Iraq would remain in his heart.
In Mosul, the pope visited Church Square to pray for the victims of ISIS.
Surrounded by the ruins of the square’s four churches, Francis said the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East had done “incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind.”