Details were sparse, but the fact the meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani took place at all is more than remarkable, while the setting and the witness given in the ancient city of Ur were powerfully affecting. By John Cookson in Ur, Iraq
An extremely modest, rented house in a side alley next to a mosque in central Iraq is an unlikely venue for two of religion’s most powerful leaders to sit down and talk about changing the world, but that’s what happened off Najaf’s Rasool Street today.
In a move that will certainly have its place in defining his pontificate, 84-year-old Pope Francis paid a house call on Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, aged 90 and the leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslims, to talk about peaceful coexistence between Christianity and Islam and embracing Iraq’s tormented Christian minority.
The Pope removed his shoes before entering Sistani’s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water.
Sistani welcomed the Pope in the usual reception area for guests – a side room with an L-shaped bench with plastic seating. He eschews ostentation.
Both leaders were unmasked, but socially distanced. The Pope has been vaccinated against Covid, while Sistani has not been.
The get together lasted at least 10 minutes longer than scheduled and after the Pope left and climbed into his armour-plated limousine provided by the Iraqi Government, Sistani’s office released a statement.
It said: “religious authorities had a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians,” and the Shia leader had “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.”
Let’s dissect that for a moment.
First, Sistani has made similar statements in the past, not only about Christians but also Yazidis. One may wonder whether a stronger statement would not have gone further to allay the fears of Iraq’s persecuted communities — Catholics, other Christians, and non-Christian minorities, alike. On the other hand, the situation is delicate to say the very least, and too much too soon could have very much the opposite of the desired effect.
A statement from the Vatican side said Pope Francis thanked Al-Sistani and the Shia people for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted.” He said Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”
More broadly, the fact the two men actually met is itself extraordinary. The symbolism of two revered religious leaders in the same room is possibly the real significance of today, and something on which to build.
Interestingly, a senior Iraqi Catholic priest involved in negotiations behind the scenes told me Vatican officials and Al-Sistani’s office had been in daily communication for 3 months to make the meeting happen. The same gentleman clammed up when I asked how the talks had gone, other than to say the mood of the meeting was: ”very positive.”
The Pope flew from Najaf to Nasiriyah and was taken on a ten minute drive to the ancient settlement at Ur, widely held as the birthplace of Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — and also the site of a magnificent ziggurat originally built in the 21st century BC.
Religious leaders including Kurdish Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims and Yazidis, stood to greet him as a familiar westerly wind swept across nearby plains and tugged at the canopy over the stage.
Two Iraqi Army helicopters, part of the intense security shield for the Pope, flew low at one point.
As part of the religious ceremony the Pope said: “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.”
He added: “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”
Amer Juje, 52, a priest of the Dominican Order had been heavily involved in organising the ceremony.
He said: “I’m very emotional. For me having the Pope among us is the stuff of dreams.”
And studying the faces and varied cloaked dress of those gathered it was a big reminder of how diverse religious communities are in Iraq – some representing small groups that have existed in the region for almost 2,000 years and today are still clinging on, metaphorically, by their finger nails, to survive in a predominantly Shia Muslim Iraq.
I spoke with Sattar Jehar Helou representing the Mandeans, a sect who revere John the Baptist. He said his community is just 6,000 strong. He too was overjoyed he said to see the Pope.
Then there were the Iraqi Kakai – 120,000 inn number. Their representative Laith Esia, 53, told me: “I’m optimistic the example the Pope is showing will lead to a better future for us all.”
After the youth band of St Emphrain’s in Basrah wrapped up the ceremony with a spirited version of “For God’s Glory,” I was interested to hear what Muslims thought of the message of: “We’re all brothers.”
Shia Sheikh Ali Naseriyah said: “My view is that if Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani met with the Pope that sends a message to the rest of the Shias that dialogue with Christians is the future and the right thing to do.”
And that is perhaps the best that came out a day of huge religious significance.