Pope Francis is in Iraq, reports coming in indicates that the Catholic pontiff has met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam. The two religious leaders met in Najaf, Iraq’s holy city.
Pope Francis, in a video message ahead of his trip to Iraq, said, “I am coming among you also as a pilgrim of peace… seeking fraternity and prompted by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews and Christians.”
The meeting of the two religious leaders has been months in the making. Details had been discussed by offices of the Pope and the Ayatollah. The 84-year-old pontiff arrived in a convoy led by a bullet-proof vehicle at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine and walked a few metres to al-Sistani’s home, which the cleric has been renting for decades.
At the entrance of the Imam Ali Shrine, the Pope was received by Iraqis in traditional clothes and a few white doves were released as a sign of peace. The meeting with the deeply revered Shiite leader was aimed at addressing concerns of Iraq’s Christian minority. Tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced from Iraq 2014-2017 during the Islamic State’s reign. Before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein’s reign, there were over 1.5 million Christians. Currently, there are less than 250,000 Christians in Iraq.
On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history. In the years after the 2003 US.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm as the Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists, an AP report reads.