Pope Francis Meets Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s Globally Revered Shi’ite Leader
An encounter meeting sends a message of acceptance to the Shi’ite world, but respite for Christians, other minorities in the Middle East still uncertain
Pope Francis met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia Muslims, in Najaf on Sunday, as part of his four-day visit to the Middle Eastern country.
The ayatollah is one of the world’s leading Shi’ite scholars and a powerful figure in Iraqi inner dynamics.
Sistani later affirmed Iraqi Christians’ right to peace and equality.
The religious minority’s numbers have shrunk by some 80% over the last two decades.
“The real fruits and results will take a while to be seen,” says an expert.
On Sunday, Francis walked from his armored car to Sistani’s humble home in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. In a special gesture to the Christian leader, the 90-year-old Shi’ite cleric rose to meet the pope as he entered his house for a meeting that had been meticulously planned in advance.
The two men met for some 45 minutes, according to a statement released by the Holy See Press Office. “The Holy Father stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family,” the statement further said.
The reclusive grand ayatollah rarely leaves his home in Najaf, yet “he has a massive following throughout the world,” Father Christopher Clohessy, who teaches Muslim-Christian relations at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, and is a fellow at the London-based Shi’iah Institute, told The Media Line.
The ayatollah stands at the head of the Najaf Hawza, a Shi’ite seminary rivaled – but not surpassed – only by the center in Qom, Iran.
There were 86 grand ayatollahs as of 2017, mostly residing in Najaf and Qom. In the West, they are commonly referred to as ayatollahs, which is actually a lower title.
Sistani rose to prominence in Iraqi politics following the US-led invasion in 2003. The scholar famously encouraged Iraqis to vote in the 2005 elections. Later, he issued a fatwa urging his fellow Iraqis “to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places” against Islamic State.
A statement released by the ayatollah’s office said, “During the meeting, the discussion revolved around the great challenges that humanity faces in this era and the role of faith in God Almighty and His messages, and commitment to high moral values in overcoming them.”
Sistani “affirmed his interest in Christian citizens living like all Iraqis in peace and security while preserving all their constitutional rights,” the statement continued.
Iraq’s Christians have suffered violence and persecution since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the rise of Islamic State, driving their number down from almost 1.5 million to an estimated 250,000, with many leaving the country.
Meeting with Iraq’s beleaguered Christians and encouraging the community to persevere was a key feature of the papal visit, which included a mass service surrounded by Mosul’s demolished churches.
The meeting between the leader of the Catholic world and the ayatollah has been cited as a landmark moment in Shi’ite-Catholic relations – the first between a pope and a grand ayatollah.
Clohessy explains that because Sistani “represents such a huge number of Shi’a, it’s as though Francis has addressed a huge part of the Shi’a world, and that’s hugely important.”
Mohammad Sagha, an associate and research director for history and identity with the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at Harvard University, pointed out that Sistani’s hosting of the pope is in keeping with the Shi’ite attitude toward interfaith relations.
“Muslim-Christian relations are important for all major Shi’a leaders, whether they are in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon or elsewhere, and they have always given these interfaith relations great attention and care, Sagha told The Media Line.
“Belief in interfaith relations and ecumenical exchange with Christians and other communities is a large tradition and almost universally accepted within the Shi’a Muslim community and its leadership,” he further explained.
Sagha stressed the importance of Sunday’s encounter, saying “this is a very significant meeting of two major leaders of vast world religious communities who are revered by hundreds of millions of followers. It represents religious tolerance and the strong global religious front against extremism wherever it may be.”
The meeting “demonstrates how the dividing line between religion and politics is not clear by any means” and that religious leaders worldwide are vital to promoting “larger dialogue between the Muslim world and the West,” Sagha said.
However, while the meeting’s importance is mainly a derivative of its symbolic weight, Clohessy says that if as a result, Sistani “begins to throw his weight behind more support for the protecting of Christian minorities and their freedom of worship that would be a superb fruit.”
The cleric’s words on internal Iraqi matters, though not frequently expressed, carry significant power.
Yet, “whether it actually is going to happen – you know, these conversations and these photo ops are fine, but the fruits are far more difficult.” Clohessy says.