UN head of Iraq mission meets Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani

Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric rarely discusses politics but has indirectly criticised leading political parties

This handout photo from the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani shows Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, center, meeting with U.N. envoy to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, right, in Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. In a statement released by his office after meeting the U.N. envoy Al-Sistani threw his support behind the prime minister’s announcement to hold parliamentary elections ahead of schedule next year, a key demand of protesters. (Office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, via AP)
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The head of the UN mission in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert on Wednesday met Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, in the southern city of Najaf.

Mr Al Sistani, 92, is considered the most important clerical authority for millions of Iraqi Shiites, as well as millions of others across the Shiite world. He lives in Najaf, which is home to the Hawza Najaf, the oldest Shiite seminary in the world.

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert was accompanied by Miguel Moratinos, who represents the UN Alliance of Civilizations, an organisation to combat extremism through interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

The Iraqi cleric rarely meets foreign officials, although famously met Pope Francis during his visit to Iraq in spring last year, when he also visited the war-damaged city of Mosul.

He seldom comments on political events in Iraq, leading a quietist clergy that follows a policy of refraining from siding with any political party.

But he is widely considered to be a political moderate and has made statements in the past that some analysts have interpreted as being against established political parties in Iraq, indirectly criticising them for corruption and mismanagement.

He has also spoken out over violence against civilians, be it at the hands of foreign troops, the Iraqi security forces or terrorist groups.

The UN mission in Iraq and the Alliance of Civilizations released a joint statement on the visit on Wednesday.

"Recalling the meeting between His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence on 6 March 2021, the High Representative and His Eminence exchanged views on the importance of inter and intra-religious dialogue, which lie at the core of the UNAOC mandate," it read.

Mr Moratinos presented Mr Al Sistani with a UN "plan of action" that was devised in 2019 to reduce violent extremism and protect places of worship from extremist attacks.

The UN Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites was presented to the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, and Pope Francis in the Vatican, upon its release in 2019.

"The Plan of Action is a global call to rally around the most basic tenets of humanity, compassion and tolerance," the UN statement read.

Mr Moratinos said the report was written "in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks in New Zealand".

"In Iraq also, worshippers and holy sites have suffered tremendously," he added.

Fifty-one Muslim worshippers were murdered in a gun attack by a white supremacist in March 2019. Iraq has experienced scores of terrorist attacks on Shiite and Sunni mosques by sectarian extremists during the civil war between 2004 and 2009.

Later, during the rise of ISIS, religious minority communities, including Iraqi Christians and the country's small Yazidi group, were attacked by the extremists.

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert frequently meets leading Iraqi political figures to discuss the UN's many projects in Iraq, from political reconciliation initiatives to anti-corruption efforts and reconstruction.

She previously met Mr Al Sistani in 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Before then, the two representatives met in November 2019, during a violent government crackdown on a nationwide protest movement, which led to at least 500 deaths.

In pictures: Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert in Iraq

Updated: December 07, 2022, 11:41 AM