ROME — Pope Francis met with the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani in southern Iraq early Saturday and thanked him for his vocal defense of human life.
The meeting took place at the home of Sistani, one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam, in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, on the second day of the pope’s historic visit to the country.
The director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, released a communiqué Saturday noting that the courtesy visit between the two leaders lasted about forty-five minutes.
During the meeting, the pontiff “stressed the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities,” Bruni stated, in a common endeavor to promote mutual respect and dialogue and so to “contribute to the good of Iraq, the region, and all humanity.”
Bruni said that the meeting provided the pope with an opportunity to thank the ayatollah for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted, affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people” in the face of the ongoing conflicts and violence of recent years.
For his part, al-Sistani also released a statement following the meeting in which he defended the rights of Iraq Christians in Iraq to enjoy full citizenship and human rights.
Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights,” the ayatollah said. He underscored the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”
Al-Sistani, a highly venerated figure in Shiite-majority Iraq, wished happiness to Francis and the members of the Catholic Church, and thanked the pope for making the effort to visit him in Najaf.
When the Islamic State captured Mosul in 2014 and took control of much of Iraq, Sistani called on the Iraqi people to take up arms against the caliphate. Tens of thousands of Shia Muslims answered his call, which resulted in the birth of the Hashd al-Shaabi, Iraq’s Shia militias.
In taking his leave of the ayatollah Saturday, the pope reiterated his prayers to God, creator of all, “for a future of peace and fraternity for the beloved Iraqi land, for the Middle East and for the whole world,” the Vatican Press Office said.
On Friday, the pope noted that “Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts often grounded in a fundamentalism incapable of accepting the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups, different ideas and cultures.”
“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family, will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world,” he declared in his first major address after arriving to Iraq.