In Iraq, Pope Francis reaches out to Shiites

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One of the most important religious meetings in history began on Saturday morning in Iraq: Pope Francis, leader of the 1.3 billion Catholics, was received by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest religious authority of many Shia Muslims.

After meeting the Catholic clergy on his arrival in Baghdad on Friday, the 84-year-old Argentine pope reaches out to Shia Islam by visiting the 90-year-old dignitary – who never appears in public – in his modest home in the holy city of Najaf, 200 km south of Baghdad.

The two men began their meeting behind closed doors, two years after Pope Francis signed with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, an institution of Sunni Islam in Egypt, a “document on human brotherhood”.

Call for dialogue

Neither the press nor other guests were allowed to attend this unprecedented dialogue, but the addition of this step to the papal program is a source of pride for many Shiites in a country which, for 40 years, has chained up conflicts. and crises, including a deadly civil war between Shia Muslims and Sunnis.

“We are proud of what this visit represents (…). It will give another dimension to the holy city ”, welcomes the Shiite dignitary Mohammed Ali Bahr al-Ouloum to AFP.

When he got off the plane, the Sovereign Pontiff passed in front of a huge call for dialogue posted on the airport for his coming. “There are two kinds of men: either your brothers in the faith, or your equals in humanity”, assures the banner, quoting Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and founding figure of Shiism buried in the holy city.

Guarantor of the independence of Iraq

Of Iranian nationality, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has stood for decades as the guarantor of the independence of Iraq and runs a theological school that advocates the withdrawal of religious from politics – they must only advise – unlike the school of Qom in Iran.

“The theological school of Najaf is more secular than that of Qom, more religious,” recalls the Spanish cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Najaf, he adds, “gives more weight to the social aspect”.

Read also: Ali al-Sistani, the peacemaker Pope Francis had to meet

The Grand Ayatollah has also used all of his weight to bring down the government, which for months in 2019 conspired by young demonstrators tired of seeing their country sink into corruption and mismanagement.

“Let the external partisan interests cease”

The Pope strewn his speech to the Iraqi authorities with allusions to the situation in the country, caught between its two great allies, the American and Iranian. “Stop partisan interests, these external interests which are not interested in the local population,” said François.

After Najaf, François must continue his journey south, to Ur, an ancient city where according to tradition the patriarch Abraham was born.