UR, Iraq— Pope Francis met with Iraq’s most influential Shiite Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a historic encounter aimed at building bridges between Christians and Muslims.
The two leaders invoked religion for the cause of peace and protection of the vulnerable, including Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority. Saturday’s summit at Mr. Sistani’s residence in the city of Najaf was the first-ever meeting between a Catholic pope and a Shiite grand ayatollah in Iraq.
Building relations between Christianity and Islam is a major theme of Pope Francis’s trip, as well as of his pontificate. Iraq is the 10th majority-Muslim country he has visited as pope. Previously, Pope Francis’ most prominent Muslim interlocutors have been leaders of Islam’s Sunni majority.
“It’s historic,” said Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based analyst with the Century Foundation, a think tank. “For Shiite Muslims it’s important to see one of their leaders recognized on a global stage.”
Mr. Sistani is one of the world’s most prominent Islamic religious leaders and a giant in Iraqi society, commanding almost universal respect across sects and political factions. He is regarded as a force for stability and has played the role of arbiter in a series of crises since the 2003 U.S. invasion, urging an end to internecine violence. In 2014 he urged Iraqis to enlist in the fight against Islamic State as it overran vast areas of Iraq.
The meeting comes during a period of violence between the U.S. and predominantly Shiite militant groups in Iraq that are backed by Iran. The papal trip, which began Friday in Baghdad, is taking place days after a rocket attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq that led to the death of a U.S. civilian contractor who suffered a cardiac episode while sheltering during the assault. In February the U.S. carried out airstrikes on Iran-backed militant groups in Syria in response to another attack on an American air base in northern Iraq.
The two religious leaders didn’t explicitly address the recent flare-up in violence, but the pope stressed the importance of “collaboration and friendship between religious communities” for the good of Iraq and the region, according to the Vatican.
Even some of Iraq’s Iranian-allied militant factions said they would cease fire during the pope’s visit, citing in part their respect for Mr. Sistani. “We in the Guardians of the Blood Brigade, stop all kinds of military action during the pope’s visit out of respect for Imam Sistani,” said one of the militias, which only weeks earlier claimed responsibility for the deadly rocket attack on the U.S. air base in Erbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.
A statement from the grand ayatollah’s office said he told the pope that religious leaders should work against poverty, oppression and war. “He also stressed mobilizing efforts to consolidate values of peaceful coexistence and human solidarity in all societies based on mutual respect among followers of all religions and intellectual trends,” the statement said.
The Shiite cleric also emphasized that “Christian people should live like other Iraqis in peace and safety with their full constitutional rights,” and he recalled the role of religious leaders in protecting Christians and other minorities from Islamic State during its partial occupation of Iraq from 2014-17.
Pope Francis, who on Friday called on Iraq’s political leaders to guarantee the equal rights of the country’s Christians, thanked Mr. Sistani “for speaking up—together with the Shiite community—in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years,” the Vatican said.
After the meeting in Najaf, the pope spoke at an interfaith event at the archaeological site of ancient Ur, traditionally believed to be the home of Abraham, forefather of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: They are betrayals of religion,” the pope said, and specifically recalled the suffering of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, and particularly of Yazidi women forced to be sex slaves, under Islamic State.
—Ghassan Adnan in Baghdad contributed to this article.
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