The Pope Visits The Ayatollah

By: Mariya Ali, MPAC Policy Intern

“Let us continue to pray for Iraq and for the Middle East. Despite the destruction, in Iraq, the palm, the country’s symbol, has continued to grow and bear fruit. So it is for fraternity: it does not make noise, but is fruitful and grows.” — Pope Francis, after visiting Iraq earlier this month.

What was once known as the Fertile Crescent is now home to some of the most ancient relics in the world. For many Muslims, Iraq is seen as a beacon of spiritual enlightenment. Its religious and ancient sites, such as the biblical birthplace of Abraham, exist not too far from shrines dedicated to the family of Prophet Muhammad, an ode to the rich and multicultural history that’s been present in the region. Annually, during the period of Arbaeen, one of the largest gatherings in the world, almost 20 million people visit Iraq for this time of great spiritual significance. What’s interesting about this gathering is that although it’s known as a Shi’ite practice, it’s attended by many non-Shi’ite Muslims, as well as Christians. Side by side, people of many faiths embark on a journey of peace and coexistence.

Unfortunately, for the past century, Iraq has been at the center of political turmoil. Insurrection, political vacuums, proxy wars, and fragile government structures have overshadowed many of the long-standing institutions that have made Iraq so ethnically and religiously diverse. In 2003, the number of Christians in the country was somewhere between 1–1.5 million — there’s just above 300,000 now. This ancient community is one of many to be at the center of the brutal attacks during the time of ISIS.

Throughout the turmoil, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Shi’ite Muslims’s most senior cleric, has made efforts to maintain peace through his stature within religion and theology. He’s been clear about his support for civic engagement, and democracy in the new Iraq, but his support stops short of endorsing specific candidates or political parties. The Ayatollah has consistently encouraged unity and spoken out against sectarianism, playing a major role in breaking political gridlocks in both 2006 and 2014.

When the Pope announced his trip to Iraq and his plans to visit the Grand Ayatollah, it was a symbolic moment. President Biden, in appreciation of this moment, welcomed the meeting, stating:

“To see Pope Francis visit ancient religious sites, including the biblical birthplace of Abraham, spend time with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, and offer prayers in Mosul — a city that only a few years ago endured the depravity and intolerance of a group like ISIS — is a symbol of hope for the entire world.”

This is one of the most significant meetings of faith leaders amidst the backdrop of global tensions, hate crimes, and islamophobia, and it has the potential to be a new and positive starting point for a globally tolerant and pluralistic society. In a country where the Christian population is dwindling, this historic summit serves as an emblem of hope. Both the Pope and the Ayatollah have urged for peace and unity amongst all people and to embrace the diversity that exists in Iraq.

Although the Pope and the Ayatollah represent two different religions, the symbolism of unity under One God of this monumental summit is more than apparent. The Pope hails from the Vatican, the center of the Catholic faith and home to St. Peter’s Basilica, where Peter the disciple of Jesus is buried. The meeting took place in Najaf, Iraq, which houses the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, a disciple of Prophet Muhammad.

After leaving the Ayatollah, Pope Francis stated:

“I felt the duty in this pilgrimage of faith and penitence to go and meet a great man, a great sage, a man of God and on listening to him [Ayatollah Sistani], you can perceive this… He is a person who has wisdom and prudence… He was very respectful, very respectful in our meeting that I felt honored. He never gets up to greet people but he got up twice to greet me. He is a humble and wise man. That meeting did my soul good, it is light.”

As someone that had the honor of meeting the Grand Ayatollah, I personally understand the magnitude of this moment of celebration. What I witnessed were two men of faith illustrating spiritual harmony and leading their communities with a sense of hope in trying times. Although Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully throughout most of the time in the region, this meeting emphasizes the importance of unity and healing after conflict. We can hope that this moment commences a new era of peace and harmony amongst all communities. “Men are either brothers by religion, or equals in creation.” Pope Francis recalled this notable quote from Imam Ali as he thanked Ayatollah Sistani for raising his voice in defense of marginalized communities in Iraq.