IslamNews – Pope Francis, on a historic trip to Iraq, will on Saturday hold a hugely symbolic meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, seeking to deepen his cautious dialogue with Muslim leaders.
In the holy city, which is the seat of the Shia hawza, he will be greeted by the 90-year-old Sistani, who rarely appears in public.
The direct meeting between the two men is a pivotal event for Muslims in Iraq, of whom 60% are Shia.
Local observers say that Sistani plays a spiritual role and his political influence is limited in light of the loyalty of religious parties and militias to Iran. Most decisions attributed to him have been in favour of Tehran and the figures loyal to it, including his decision in 2014 calling for the creation of armed groups to fight ISIS.
With the visit to Najaf and meeting with the Shiite cleric Sistani, the pope is extending his hand to the other main branch of Islam.
“It’s certainly an unprecedented event and a big deal,” said Marsin Alshamary, a researcher at the Brookings Institution.
She said the Najaf school of thinking on Islam became involved in inter-religious dialogue in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the bloody civil war between Shiites and Sunnis.
Sistani has repeatedly stated that Muslims are forbidden from killing others. In 2014, however, as the Islamic State group approached Baghdad, he called on Iraqis to take up arms to drive the jihadists out.
“This visit by the pope sends a strong political message for a figure who is very much associated with the defence of Iraqis,” added Myriam Benraad, a French political scientist who specialises in the Arab world.
Sistani embodies one of the two currents of modern Shiism, that of Najaf, which makes a distinction between politics and religion.
“The Shiites in Iraq want the Vatican and the western world to support them against the hold that Iran has, which wants to swallow Najaf,” said Iraqi Dominican friar Amir Jaje, a leading figure in inter-religious dialogue.