Pope Francis and Al Sistani talk coexistence at historic Iraq meet

Mr Al Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians

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Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani discussed the challenge faced by humanity and called for peaceful coexistence, at the historic first meeting of the head of the Roman Catholic Church and a senior Shiite religious figure.

At the 45-minute meeting in the holy city of Najaf, in central Iraq, Mr Al Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq's Christians – that they should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.

The Vatican said Pope Francis thanked Mr Al Sistani for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

The meeting came on the second day of Pope Francis's four-day trip to Iraq – the first by a pope. He aims to use the visit to raise peace and encouraging tolerance and coexistence.

The meeting was closed to the press, but the Vatican released a short statement and images of the sit-down between the 84-year-old pontiff and reclusive 90-year-old ayatollah.

Handout pictures showed the two men sitting on two blue sofas in an L shape with their hands placed on their laps inside Al Sistani’s modest rented home in a narrow alley in Najaf’s Old City.

They discussed "the great challenges that humanity faces in this era and the role of faith in God all mighty and his messages and commitment to high moral values in overcoming them", according to a statement issued by Mr Al Sistani's office.

The statement added that Al Sistani spoke about the injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution, suppression of basic freedoms and the absence of social justice –  especially the wars, acts of violence, economic blockade, displacement of many people in the region.

He made a clear mention the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Mr Al Sistani stressed the “role that the great religious and spiritual leaders should play in curbing these tragedies”, and called for giving “priority to reason and wisdom and to reject the language of war”.

He stressed the “importance of concerted efforts to consolidate the values of harmony, peaceful coexistence and human solidarity in all societies, based on fostering rights and mutual respect among followers of different religions and intellectual trends”.

The pontiff thanked Mr Al Sistani for “speaking up – together with the Shiite community – in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people”, according to Vatican statement.

Pope Francis underlined the "importance of co-operation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family".

The House of Abraham in Ur

After the meeting, the pontiff flew to the southern city of Nasiriyah from where he travelled to attend an interreligious meeting at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham – the patriarch of the three great monotheistic religions.

On Sunday, he will travel to the northern cities of Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh to meet local officials, the Christian community and to hold a mass.