When Pope Visits Grand Ayatollah

A poster of Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Sistani is seen along a street ahead of the Pope’s planned visit to Iraq, in central Baghdad on March 4, 2021 | AFP

By Mohammed Khaku

ALL eyes are on the 84-year-old pontiff’s first-ever pastoral pilgrimage to the birthplace of Prophet Abraham (AS) in Iraq and his historic meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Sistani this weekend. This unprecedented papal pilgrimage to ancient Arab country with long term consequences will certainly heal old and fresh wounds besides strengthening bonds between followers of Christianity and Islam, two dominant monotheistic world religions.

Pope Francis who defied advice for postponement of the visit in view of security challenges and raging pandemic will be warmly received in Iraq. The welcome banners are up along the highway from Baghdad airport to the shrine city of Najaf.

Pope Francis landed in Baghdad on Friday, the holiest day for the Muslims. The visit aims at encouraging the dwindling Christian community to remain in their ancient homeland, considered to be the birthplace of numerous prophets. From the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham in Ur to Mosul where Daesh detonated several shrines including that of Prophet Yunus (Jonah), roads have been paved and churches decorated.

Among the most extraordinary moments of the trip will be Popes one-on-one meeting with 90 year old Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The meeting of the world’s two most powerful religious figures with deep faith and piety is a tremendous achievement for all the peoples as this will be a significant investment in tolerance and peace.

Pope Francis will meet Grand Ayatollah in his modest home situated close to the sprawling shrine of Imam Ali in the historic city of Najaf al Ashraf, the final resting place of Imam Ali (AS).

I am not a Christian, but I see in the Pope’s face the embodiment of peace and humility. He has no ego and lives in a small monastic room in the Vatican guesthouse.

 Who is Ayatollah Sistani?

The Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Hussaini Sistani was born in 1929 near Iran’s holy city of Mashhad. A Mujtahid or Marj’a (Supreme religious guide) for his followers, Syed Sistani commands a massive following not only among Shia but those adhering to Sunni faith as well. A Marj’a is the closest thing in Islam to the position of pope. Sistani heads influential Hawza Ilmya Najaf, oldest Islamic seminary in the world.

In 2005 Iraqi Christians campaigned for the Nobel Peace Prize for Ayatollah Sistani as a tribute to his relentless efforts to protect their lives and right to practice their faith following the Daesh onslaught. He was listed as the most influential intellectual in 2005.

Rarely does al-Sistani weigh in on governance matters. When he has, it has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history. An edict from him provided many Iraqis a reason to participate in the January 2005 elections, the first after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. His 2014 fatwa calling on able-bodied men to fight the Islamic State group massively swelled the ranks of the military. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon led to the resignation of the then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.


The meeting with al-Sistani will build bridges between Muslims and Catholics. However, many do not know that there are many similarities between Shi’ism and Catholicism:

The concept of intercession (Tawassul) through great saints like Ali, Hussain, Jesus, Mary or Fatemeh: a strong emphasis on clerical authority of Marjaeya (Pope); belief in the 12 Imams (Saints); theology of sacrifice and atonement: belief in free will as to the doctrine of predestination: pilgrimage to holy places  like those of Madina, Karbala, Najaf and Mashhad for healing: commemorations and observance of holy days such as Ashura and Arbaeen.

Meeting Ayatollah

In 2006 I had an opportunity of visiting these holy sites in Iraq and had an opportunity to meet with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani along with a select group of pilgrims.

We were escorted into a simple carpeted room with pillows against the walls to await the arrival of his eminence. When he entered, we all stood to greet him spontaneously with “God is Great.”

There was a natural surge of love and admiration. He wore a black robe with a black turban and even with his white beard, he looked much younger than I expected.

He was quite alert and healthy-looking. When we were all seated, he addressed us in Farsi with Persian accent and one of our group members, Amina Inoles, a convert from Texas, translated.

He talked so softly and humbly yet with absolute command. It was clear why he is so loved by millions of Muslims. He is the most extraordinary person I have ever met. Before he started the conversation, he sat in immaculate silence and perfect equilibrium.

He was in an ocean of peacefulness. The entire group’s eyes were upon the Ayatollah, and he did not show any signs of self-consciousness. His first words were to ask that the Lord accept our pilgrimage, welcome us to Najaf and express his happiness to see us.

Most of the questions were religious in nature and issues related to daily life. One person asked him how Muslims in America should raise their children and he advised us to educate children in modern sciences and all other fields but lay emphasis on language and culture.

As I sat next to him, I could not help but stare at him and feel peace in his presence. I wish that all politicians, journalists and leaders could take time to visit him. He is the most charismatic leader of the 21st century.

Ayatollah Sistani wields enormous influence over Iraq’s majority population but he remains a mystery to many in the west. He is one of Iraq’s most powerful men yet he is not even an Iraqi, but an Iranian. Sistani doesn’t teach the necessity of aggressive Dawa (Islamic evangelism) or Jihad against non-Muslims.

Sistani lives very modestly yet he presides over an organization which receives millions of dollars in donations (khums) and religious taxes (zakat) annually. This has had no effect on the ayatollah’s life. He controls no army; he leads no political party and he harbors no political ambitions. Nor does he campaign or spin propaganda.

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