Iraqi Shiite chief reaffirms coexistence after assembly with Pope

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) – After his historic assembly with Pope Francis on Saturday, the senior Iraqi Shiite cleric mentioned spiritual authorities had a job to play in defending Iraqi Christians and mentioned they need to stay in peace and revel in the identical rights as different Iraqis.

For its half, the Vatican mentioned Francis thanked Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shia individuals for “elevating their voices in protection of the weakest and most persecuted” throughout a few of the most violent intervals in historical past. current from Iraq.

He mentioned al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sanctity of human life and the significance of the unity of the Iraqi individuals”. The Vatican mentioned the historic go to was an opportunity for Francis to focus on the necessity for collaboration and friendship between completely different spiritual communities.

Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of many highest clerics of Shia Islam, on Saturday within the Iraqi holy metropolis of Najaf to ship a joint message of peaceable coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace the minority long-besieged Iraqi Christian.

In a press release launched by his workplace after the assembly, al-Sistani mentioned Christians ought to “stay like all Iraqis, in safety and peace and with all constitutional rights.” He underlined the “function that spiritual authority performs of their safety, and others who’ve additionally suffered injustices and prejudices within the occasions of current years. “

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the devoted of the Catholic Church happiness and thanked him for taking the difficulty to go to him in Najaf, the assertion mentioned.

Al-Sistani is a deeply revered determine in predominantly Shiite Iraq and his views on spiritual and different points are wanted by Shiites world wide.

For the declining Christian minority in Iraq, a present of solidarity from al-Sistani may assist safe their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and, they hope, facilitate the intimidation of Shiite militiamen towards their neighborhood.

The historic assembly within the humble home of al-Sistani was months in the making, with each element painstakingly mentioned and negotiated between the Ayatollah’s workplace and the Vatican.

When the time got here, the 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, pushed by a bullet-proof automobile, stopped alongside slim, column-lined Rasool Avenue, which culminates on the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine, the one of the vital revered. websites world wide for Shiites. He then walked the few yards to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric had rented for many years.

A bunch of Iraqis wearing conventional garments greeted him exterior. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a couple of white doves have been launched as an indication of peace. He emerged just below an hour later, nonetheless limping closely after an obvious flare-up of sciatic nerve ache that made strolling troublesome.

The “very optimistic” assembly lasted a complete of 40 minutes, mentioned a spiritual official from Najaf, who spoke on situation of anonymity as a result of he was not licensed to transient the media.

The official mentioned al-Sistani, who usually stays seated for guests, stood as much as greet Francis at his bed room door, a uncommon honor. Al-Sistani and Francis have been sitting subsequent to one another, with no masks, with their palms on their knees. A small desk was between them with a field of tissues on it.

The official mentioned there have been considerations that the Pope had met so many individuals the day earlier than. Francis obtained the coronavirus vaccine, however al-Sistani didn’t.

The go to was broadcast stay on Iraqi TV and residents applauded the assembly of two revered spiritual leaders.

“We welcome the Pope’s go to to Iraq and particularly to the holy metropolis of Najaf and his assembly with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” mentioned Haidar Al-Ilyawi, a resident of Najaf. “This can be a historic go to and I hope it will likely be good for Iraq and the Iraqi individuals.”

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior authorities officers on the first-ever papal go to to the nation, geared toward selling his name for better brotherhood amongst all peoples. Additionally it is his first worldwide journey for the reason that begin of the coronavirus pandemic, and his assembly on Saturday marked the primary time a pope has met a Grand Ayatollah.

Almost 25,000 safety forces have been deployed in Najaf earlier than the arrival of the pope, based on the governor of the province. Rasool Avenue was emptied of its typical bustle to pave the best way for the arrival of the Pope. As quickly as his procession left, a swarm of individuals rushed into the road, filling it once more to see him go.

On the uncommon events when he has made his opinion recognized, the notoriously lonely al-Sistani has modified the course of recent Iraqi historical past.

Within the years following the 2003 US invasion, he repeatedly preached calm and restraint because the Shiite majority got here below assault from al-Qaida and different Sunni extremists. But the nation is plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or spiritual edict, calling on able-bodied males to affix the safety forces within the struggle towards ISIS swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, a lot of that are intently linked to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government protests gripped the nation, his sermon led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis praised the go to and the worldwide consideration it has given to the nation because it struggles to get better from many years of conflict and unrest. Iraq declared victory over ISIS in 2017, however nonetheless experiences sporadic assaults.

He has additionally witnessed current rocket assaults by Iranian-backed militias towards US navy and diplomatic amenities, adopted by US airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The violence is linked to the standoff between the US and Iran following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran.

Francis’ go to to Najaf and close by Ur crosses provinces which have skilled current instability. In Nasiriyah, the place the Plains of Ur are positioned, protest violence left a minimum of 5 individuals lifeless final month. Most have been killed when Iraqi safety forces used stay ammunition to disperse crowds.

Demonstrations of violence have been additionally seen in Najaf final 12 months, however they declined because the mass anti-government motion that engulfed Iraq step by step died out.

A robust safety presence additionally awaited Francis in Ur, the place the Pope was on account of chair an interfaith assembly in a while Saturday. Ur, with its historic ziggurat, is the normal cradle of Abraham, a prophet frequent to Christians, Muslims and Jews.


Winfield reported from Ur, Iraq, and Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Related Press author Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed.

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