BAGHDAD: Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, a preeminent Shiite figure, are to meet on Saturday for at most 40 minutes, part of the time alone except for interpreters, in the cleric’s modest home in Najaf.
Al-Sistani is notoriously reclusive and has not left his Najaf home in years. He does not make public appearances and his sermons are delivered by representatives. He rarely receives foreign dignitaries.
The Vatican’s hope was that Francis would sign a document with Al-Sistani pledging human fraternity, just as he did with Sunni Islam’s influential grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, based in Egypt.
The signature was among many elements the two sides negotiated over extensively. In the end, Shiite religious officials in Najaf told the AP a signing was not on the agenda, and Al-Sistani will issue a verbal statement instead.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy will pull up along Najaf’s busy column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in the world for Shiites.
To the side is an alleyway too narrow for cars. Here, Francis will walk the 30 meters to Al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades. Waiting to greet him at the entrance will be Al-Sistani’s influential son, Mohammed Ridha.
Inside, and some steps to the right, the pontiff will come face to face with the ayatollah.
Each will make a simple gesture of mutual respect.
Francis will remove his shoes before entering Al-Sistani’s room.
Al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, will stand to greet Francis at the door and walk him to an L-shaped blue sofa, inviting him to take a seat.
The pope will be offered tea. Gifts will be exchanged.
Francis will almost certainly present Al-Sistani with bound copies of his most important writings, top among them his latest encyclical “Brothers All.”
Five places the Pope will see on his exceptional Iraq trip
Pope Francis has an ambitious agenda for the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, including some of the country’s most treasured sites.
Here are five key locations the pontiff is set to visit.
On his first day in the Iraqi capital, Francis will give a speech at the “Our Lady of Salvation” Catholic Church in the main commercial district of Karrada.
On October 31, 2010, Islamist militants stormed the church and killed 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel in one of the deadliest attacks on Iraq’s dwindling Christian community.
Now, stained-glass windows at the church bear the victims’ names and a defiant message above the altar reads, “Where is your victory, oh death?”
But the congregation has dwindled and concrete blast walls surround the church, making access difficult.
In the days leading up to the Pope’s arrival, an Iraqi artist painted his likeness across those concrete walls, alongside the Iraqi flag and doves representing peace.
Shrine city of Najaf
As part of his outreach to Muslims, the Pope will visit Najaf, the 1,230-year-old city that is the spiritual capital of most Shiites around the world.
Its imposing shrine — with a golden dome and intricate tiles inside — is the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali, highly revered in Shiite Islam.
The city was long under Ottoman rule, but during the First World War Britain took control, holding on despite a revolt by local clerics.
Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein banned pilgrimages to the holy city, but it witnessed a revival after he was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion.
In Najaf, Pope Francis will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top authority for most Shiite Muslims.
The 90-year-old cleric is never seen in public and rarely grants access to visitors, making the encounter one of the most extraordinary parts of the papal trip.
The two will meet in Sistani’s humble one-storey home, with most press barred from attending the sit-down.
From there, the Pope will travel to the desert location of Ur, which was founded in the fourth millennium before Christ, and became a major city in the ancient Sumero-Akkadian empire.
Its most important feature is its ziggurat, a staggered, pyramid-like structure that was excavated between the two world wars.
Ur, thought to mean “town” in Sumerian, is believed to be where Abraham — the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — was born in the second millenium BCE.
Pope Francis will hold an interreligious service there with some of Iraq’s smallest minorities, including the Yazidis and the pre-Islamic Sabeans.
Mosul and Qaraqosh
The northern province of Nineveh is the heartland of Iraq’s Christian community and its capital, Mosul, is where the Islamic State group chose to announce the establishment of its self-styled “caliphate” in 2014.
In Mosul, the Pope will visit the Al-Tahera Church in the city’s west, which was ravaged by IS and the fighting that eventually forced the jihadists out of the city.
The first written records on Al-Tahera date back to the 17th century but some historians believe it could be as much as 1,000 years older.
During fighting in 2017, its roof caved in but the colonnaded royal door and side doors survived.
UNESCO is currently working to rehabilitate it and other parts of Mosul’s heritage, including both churches and mosques.
About 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the south lies Qaraqosh, also known as Bakhdida and Hamdaniya, which has a long pre-Christian history but whose residents today speak a modern dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
Qaraqosh was largely destroyed by IS and the security situation remains tense, with state-sponsored armed groups deployed in large numbers in the surrounding plains.
Arbil, the refuge
One of the Pope’s final stops will be an open-air mass in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region (KRI).
When IS overran Iraq’s north, hundreds of thousands of Christians as well as Muslims and Yazidis sought refuge in the KRI, which was already hosting displaced minorities from previous rounds of conflict in Iraq.
There are traces of human settlement in Arbil as far back as the fifth millennium BCE. It went on to become a major urban hub and maintained that status through the Assyrian period.
Arbil’s citadel, a massive hilltop complex overlooking the city’s bazaar, was put on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list in 2014.
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