The Pope, on his second day in Iraq, meets the great Ayatollah Al Sistani. After leaving the Apostolic Nunciature in Baghdad, Francis traveled by car to Baghdad International Airport from where, aboard an Iraqi Airways plane, he left for Najaf, the holy city to Shia Muslims.
Upon arrival at Najaf Airport, the Pope was greeted privately by the Governor of Najaf. He then drove to the residence of Grand Ayatollah Sayyd Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani, leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, for a courtesy visit. Pope Francis was welcomed at the entrance of the Grand Ayatollah’s residence by his son Mohammed Rida who accompanied him to the room where the private conversation with the Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani takes place.
Najaf – Located in central Iraq, about 160 km south of Baghdad, 30 km from ancient Babylon, and 400 km north of the biblical city of Ur, Najaf was founded in AD 791 by Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and its development mostly took place after the 10th century. Iraq’s main Shiite religious center, a pilgrimage destination for Shiites from all over the world, the city is home to the tomb of one of Islam’s most revered figures, Ali ibn Abi Talib, also known as Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad and first man who converted to Islam. The tomb of the first Imam of the Shiites, located inside the Imam Ali Mosque, considered one of the holiest places in Islam, with its gold-plated dome and its walls covered with precious objects, is located near the center of the city. In addition to mosques, shrines and religious schools, the holy city of Iraqi Shiism is known for the Wadi al-Salam cemetery. Outside the old walls of Najaf, in fact, on an arid plateau of sand extends the largest cemetery in the world, which houses an infinite expanse of tombs of prophets and faithful. Shiites believe that being buried in Najaf, a sacred city, guarantees entry into heaven.
Al-Sistani – Born on 4 August 1930 in Mashhad, Iran, he is leader of the Iraqi Shiite community and director of the hawza (or of the Twelver Shiite religious seminary) of Najaf. Son of an important religious family, he studied the Koran from an early age; at the age of twenty he left Iran to continue his training in Iraq, becoming a disciple of the Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei in Al-Najaf and, over time, earning the respect of the Sunnis and Kurds as well. His interpretation of the Quietist Islamic revelation, which preaches the abstention of religious authorities from direct political activity, in fact leads him to be a recognized interlocutor by various political currents. In 2004, he supported free elections in Iraq, thus making an important contribution to the planning of the country’s first democratic government, while in 2014 he invited Iraqis to unite to fight against the self-styled Islamic State. More recently, in November 2019, when the population took to the streets as a sign of discontent against the high cost of living and national political instability, Al-Sistani invites protesters and police to remain calm and not resort to violence. Subsequently, he calls for the resignation of the government and electoral reform. His requests are accepted: Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigns shortly after, while in December the Parliament approves the electoral reform.
Imam Ali Mosque – Considered by the Shiites the third holy place of Islam, after the Sacred Mosque of Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet of Medina. The first structure of the mosque, built on the tomb of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad and the first man to be converted to Islam, characterized by a green dome, dates back to 786. The Shiites believe that Adam and Eve and Noah. The mosque has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. The last reconstruction, begun in 1623, was completed in 1632. The dome was covered with 7777 brick slabs painted gold in 1742 by Nader Shah. Numerous other interventions and embellishments were subsequently made. The predominant color on the outside is bright gold. There are two minarets (38 meters high) at the sides of the entrance with three monumental portals; turquoise mosaics cover the side and rear walls. Inside, the mausoleum of Ali is inlaid with mosaics and surrounded by a courtyard. In 1991, during the uprising following the Gulf War, the mosque was damaged by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Republican Guard: members of the Shiite opposition to the regime had taken refuge in the place of worship and were all massacred. Closed for a few years, the mosque was restored by the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Dawudi Bohra, the 52nd daimuṭlaq, Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin.