Trans Asia News Service
NAJAF: Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff and head of the Roman Catholic Church, Saturday met spiritual leader of the worlds Shia Muslims, the Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Sistani in an historic encounter to ‘encourage coexistence’.
The meeting took place at Ayatollah Sistani’s modest home in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday morning.
The Vatican said Pope Francis thanked Grand Ayatollah Sistani-together with the Shia community- for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.
He said Grand Ayatollah’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”.
Sayed Sistani is a deeply revered figure in Iraq and and his opinions on religious matters are sought by Shia worldwide.
On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history. In the years after the 2003 US.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm as the Shia majority came under attack by al-Qaida and Daesh extremists.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof vehicle, had pulled up for the meeting along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in the world for Shia Muslims. He then walked the few metres to Sayed Sistani’s modest home, which the spiritual leader has rented for decades.
According to an AP report Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room — a rare honor. Sayed Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks. Sistani, who rarely appears in public — even on television — wore black robes and a black turban, in simple contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock.
The pope removed his shoes before entering Sayed Sistani’s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water. Sistani spoke for most of the meeting. Francis paused before leaving Grand Ayatollah’s room to have a last look, agency quoted an official saying.
The office of Ayatollah Sistani said in a statement that the Grand Ayatollah highlighted challenges facing mankind and stressed the role of belief in God and commitment to high moral values in overcoming them.
Ayatollah Sistani cited injustice, oppression, poverty, religious persecution, repression of fundamental freedoms, wars, violence, economic siege and displacement of many people in the region, especially the Palestinians in the occupied territories as some of the major problems which afflict the world.
He touched on the role which religious and spiritual leaders can play in tackling some of these problems.
Ayatollah Sistani said religious leaders have to encourage parties invovled in conflicts, particularly the world powers, to give primacy to rationality over confrontation.
He also stressed the importance of efforts to strengthen peaceful coexistence and solidarity based on mutual respect among the followers of different religions and intellectual groups.
Ayatollah Sistani emphasized that the Christian citizens of Iraq, like all other Iraqis, should live in security and peace and enjoy all their fundamental rights.
He referred to the role played by the religious authority in protecting Christians and all those who have suffered from the criminal acts of terrorists over the past years.
The Pope, in a video message ahead of his trip to Iraq, said, “I am coming among you also as a pilgrim of peace… seeking fraternity and prompted by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, in the steps of Father Abraham, who joins in one family Muslims, Jews and Christians.”
After the one-hour meeting, Pope Francis travelled to southern city of Nasiriyah to visit the ancient Mesopotamian town of Ur, the birthplace of Prophet Abraham (Peace be upon him) – the patriarch of the three great monotheistic religions.
The pontiff arrived in Iraq on Friday for a three-day trip amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to Ayatollah Sistani, Pope Francis has so far met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih.
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