Pope Francis’s expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali-al Sistani when he visits the Iraqi holy city of Najaf is historic for a number of reasons. This is the first meeting between the head of a Catholic church and one of the most prominent heads of the Shia Islamic establishment, marking a historic first in the history of interfaith relations. This meeting which has taken months of planning is expected to last less than an hour.
The fallout of the meeting is that it will consolidate the diversity of faiths not just in Iraq where there is a sizable Christian population but also across the globe where millions will be watching. The timing is crucial as it comes at a symbolic time when violence has engulfed Iraq. It cannot be forgotten that Iran’s hero – General Qasem Soleimani – was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad. It will also mark a deep reverence and acceptance of the other’s faith. The Imam Ali mosque is in Najaf and Shia Muslims believe that Imam Ali is buried there. The Pope will take off his shoes before entering the shrine as a mark of respect.
It isn’t just the meeting with the Grand Ayatollah that is of significance but the fact that the pope will also be visiting Babylon and the ancient city of Ur believed to be the birthplace of Abraham who is considered to be the father of all three Abrahamic faiths. Ur is one of the most important sites in history and has been placed on the Unesco World heritage list. The pontiff is expected to host an inter-faith meeting there during his four-day visit.
While the pope will have managed to achieve what many of his predecessors could not, his meeting with the Grand Ayatollah will also cement Sistani as a guide to millions of Muslims outside Iraq. Marsin Alshamary, a Brookings Institution research fellow believes, “This visit will really solidify Najaf’s place and Sistani’s place at the center of global Shiism.”