Pope Francis Will Visit Top Shia Cleric in Iraq – Pope Francis, the head of the Vatican, is on a historic trip to Iraq. He will on Saturday hold a very large symbolic meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani Iraq’s top Shiite cleric and seek to deepen careful dialogue with Muslim leaders.
Pope Francis visits Ayatollah Ali Sistani
The 84-year-old pope will visit Ayatollah Ali Sistani at his home in Najaf, the holy city where Imam Ali bin Abu Talib is the fourth caliph of Islam who is also the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin is buried.
Sistani, 90, is never seen in public and rarely receives visitors, but the Argentine pope prefers a face-to-face encounter with him.
Pope Francis praised the power of interfaith dialogue
Pope Francis has long praised the power of interfaith dialogue, a symbol of peace and tolerance, without thinking about the theological intricacies put forward by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict XVI, who stepped down as pope eight years ago, provoked years of cold relations with the Muslim world when in 2006 he cited criticism of the Prophet Muhammad by a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor.
Pope Francis and cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb
Two years ago in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and prominent Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, who is the high priest of Al-Azhar, signed a document on “human brotherhood for world peace”.
They made a concerted call for freedom of belief, although what stood out from that first trip by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula was the image of the leader of the world’s 1.3 million Catholics embracing a Sunni priest.
Sunnis make up nearly 90 percent of the world’s Muslims. Meanwhile, Shiites are about 10 percent with the majority in Iran and Iraq. In Iraq, the population is 60 percent Shia and 37 percent Sunni.
With a visit to Najaf and a meeting with Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pope extended his hand to another major branch of Islam.
Hasn’t Happened Before
“This is definitely an unprecedented event and a big problem,” said Marsin Alshamary, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, as quoted by AFP.
He said Najaf’s school of thought on Islam engaged in interfaith dialogue after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the bloody civil war between Shiites and Sunnis.
Sistani has repeatedly stated that Muslims are prohibited from killing others. In 2014, however, when the ISIS group approached Baghdad, he asked Iraqis to take up arms to expel the “jihadists”.
“This pope’s visit sends a powerful political message to a figure deeply connected to Iraqi defense,” added Myriam Benraad, a French political scientist who specializes in the Arab world.
Sistani embodies one of the two modern Shiite schools, the Najaf school, which distinguishes between politics and religion.