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Pope Francis to hold historic face-to-face meeting with Iraq's grand ayatollah

   March 6, 2021 11:14 PM
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by Louisa Loveluck

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Iraq Pope Francis
 
Pope Francis will make history when he crosses the threshold of a small, rented dwelling in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf on Saturday. His visit to the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani will mark a powerful moment in interfaith relations, experts say, and millions of people will be watching.

Sistani is Iraq's leading religious authority and a preeminent figure in Shiite Islam, and his meeting with the pontiff will be loaded with symbolism: two global religious leaders sitting down together for the first time, Francis in white robes, Sistani in black, alone except for interpreters, during an encounter that many had expected the coronavirus pandemic would delay.

Francis, who arrived in Iraq on Friday, is the first pope to visit the country, and his four-day trip through its most prominent ­religious and political centers has briefly put Iraq in the spotlight for its religious diversity, rather than the cycles of violent conflict that have more often filled headlines around the world.

"Both men mean so much to so many people, even outside their faith," said Abbas Kadhim, a resident senior fellow and the director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council. "This gives the pope's visit more than one dimension. Normally, people expect the pope to visit Christian communities, but this visit is completely different: He is visiting Iraq in all its diversity."

The momentous meeting has been months in the making, almost falling through at least once. It is expected to last less than an hour, and officials ­overseeing the visit say every detail has been meticulously planned, from how the two men will greet each other to where they will sit.

It will begin with Francis, 84, walking 30 yards from his vehicle to Sistani's home in Najaf's old city, a maze of narrow alleyways near the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, where one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures is buried. The pope will take off his shoes before he enters.

Sistani's residence is modest, with little furniture. The 90-year-old ayatollah is reclusive, not known to have left his home in years, and visitors are rare.

"This visit will really solidify Najaf's place and Sistani's place at the center of global Shiism," said Marsin Alshamary, a Brookings Institution research fellow. "It's also a reminder that Sistani is a spiritual guide to millions of Muslims outside Iraq."

Although born in Iran, Sistani has lived in Iraq for decades and is widely recognized as an Iraqi nationalist. He holds political as well as religious sway, making key interventions during times of crisis in Iraq.

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