PLAINS OF UR, Iraq — Pope Francis and Iraq’s prime Shiite cleric delivered a strong message of peaceable coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims within the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority throughout a historic assembly within the holy metropolis of Najaf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani stated non secular authorities have a task in defending Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians ought to stay in peace and revel in the identical rights as different Iraqis. The Vatican stated Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in protection of the weakest and most persecuted” throughout a few of the most violent occasions in Iraq’s latest historical past.
Al-Sistani, 90, is among the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam and his uncommon however highly effective political interventions have helped form present-day Iraq. He’s a deeply revered determine in Shiite-majority Iraq and his opinions on non secular and different issues are sought by Shiites worldwide.
The historic assembly in al-Sistani’s humble dwelling was months within the making, with each element painstakingly mentioned and negotiated between the ayatollah’s workplace and the Vatican.
Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, travelling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up alongside Najaf’s slim and column-lined Rasool Road, which culminates on the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the crucial revered websites in Shiite Islam. He then walked the few meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest dwelling, which the cleric has rented for many years.
A bunch of Iraqis sporting conventional garments welcomed him exterior. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, just a few white doves had been launched in an indication of peace. He emerged just below an hour later, nonetheless limping from an obvious flare-up of sciatica nerve ache that makes strolling tough.
The “very constructive” assembly lasted a complete of 40 minutes, stated a non secular official in Najaf, who spoke on situation of anonymity as a result of he was not licensed to transient media.
The official stated al-Sistani, who usually stays seated for guests, stood to greet Francis on the door of his room — a uncommon honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat shut to 1 one other, with out masks. Al-Sistani, who hardly ever seems in public — even on tv — wore black robes and a black turban, in easy distinction to Francis’ all-white cassock.
The official stated there was some concern about the truth that the pope had met with so many individuals the day earlier than. Francis has obtained the coronavirus vaccine however al-Sistani has not. The getting old ayatollah, who underwent surgical procedure for a fractured thigh bone final yr, appeared drained.
The pope eliminated his sneakers earlier than coming into al-Sistani’s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water. Al-Sistani spoke for a lot of the assembly. Francis paused earlier than leaving al-Sistani’s room to have a final look, the official stated.
The pope arrived later within the historical metropolis of Ur for an interfaith assembly within the conventional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.
“From this place, the place religion was born, from the land of our father Abraham, allow us to affirm that God is merciful and that the best blasphemy is to profane his title by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis stated. “Hostility, extremism and violence aren’t born of a non secular coronary heart: they’re betrayals of faith.”
Non secular leaders stood to greet him. Whereas Francis wore a masks, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The assembly was held within the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological advanced close to the trendy metropolis of Nasiriyah.
The Vatican stated Iraqi Jews had been invited to the occasion however didn’t attend, with out offering additional particulars. Iraq’s historical Jewish neighborhood was decimated within the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli battle, and solely a handful stay.
Ali Thijeel, a resident of the close by metropolis of Nasiriyah who attended the occasion, stated he hoped the pope’s go to would encourage funding within the space to draw pilgrims and vacationers. “That is what we had been ready for,” he stated. “This can be a message to the federal government and politicians. They need to deal with this metropolis and take note of our historical past.”
The Vatican stated the go to to al-Sistani was an opportunity for Francis to emphasise the necessity for collaboration and friendship between totally different non secular communities.
In an announcement issued by his workplace after the assembly, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians ought to “stay like all Iraqis, in safety and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He identified the “position that the non secular authority performs in defending them, and others who’ve additionally suffered injustice and hurt within the occasions of previous years.”
Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the difficulty to go to him in Najaf, the assertion stated.
For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a present of solidarity from al-Sistani may assist safe their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen in opposition to their neighborhood.
Iraqis cheered the assembly of two revered religion 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,” stated Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It’s a historic go to and hope it will likely be good for Iraq and the Iraqi folks.”
Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior authorities officers on the first-ever papal go to to the nation. It is usually his first worldwide journey for the reason that begin of the coronavirus pandemic, and his assembly Saturday marked the primary time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.
On the few events the place he has made his opinion recognized, the reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s trendy historical past.
Within the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint because the Shiite majority got here underneath assault by al-Qaida and different Sunni extremists. The nation was nonetheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.
His 2014 fatwa, or non secular edict, calling on able-bodied males to affix the safety forces in preventing the Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many carefully tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the nation, his sermon led to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqis have welcomed the go to and the worldwide consideration it has given the nation because it struggles to get better from many years of conflict and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 however nonetheless sees sporadic assaults.
It has additionally seen latest rocket assaults linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran. President Joe Biden has stated he needs to revive the deal.
Francis’ go to to Najaf and close by Ur traverses provinces which have seen latest instability. In Nasiriyah, the place the Plains of Ur are situated, protest violence left at the very least 5 lifeless final month. Most had been killed when Iraqi safety forces used stay ammunition to disperse crowds.
Protest violence was additionally seen in Najaf final yr, however abated because the mass anti-government motion that engulfed Iraq step by step petered out.
Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Related Press journalists Anmar Khalil in Najaf, Iraq, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed.