UR, Iraq– Pope Francis’s March 5-8 visit to Iraq is historic for many reasons, not least of which is Saturday’s meeting with the chief figure in Shia Islam, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

It was the least-scripted encounter and took place behind closed doors in Najaf, the third holiest city in Shia Islam after Mecca and Medina.

According to the Vatican, during the 45-minute long meeting Francis emphasized the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities because “by cultivating mutual respect and dialogue, we can contribute to the good of Iraq, the region and of all humanity.”

The statement from the Holy See’s press office also praised Sistani because, together with the Shiite community, he rose his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted, affirming the sacredness of human life.

The Ayatollah’s office released its own statement, saying that during the meeting, the discussion revolved around the great challenges facing humanity, the role of God and his messages, and the need to commit to higher values to overcome the challenges.

According to the statement, Sistani also spoke about injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution, the suppression of basic freedoms and the absence of social justice, especially wars, acts of violence, the economic blockade and the displacement of many peoples of the region who suffer, highlighting the Palestinian people “in the occupied territories.”

Sistani is, among other things, the head of the religious seminary known as the Hawza, which is much like a university and a church all rolled into one.

Despite his prominence, he hasn’t been seen in been public in years, and there are no updated pictures of him available, and though an picture of their meeting is expected, it’s unclear if one will be published.

In the words of Hayder al-Khoei, Director of Foreign Relations of the Al-Khoei Institute in Najaf, Sistani is “a calm, wise advocate of peace.”

A 90-years-old who has been studying and teaching in the Hawza for decades, Sistani emerged in the 1990s “as the most recognized and accomplished scholar in Iraq, but it is important to note that he has followers from across the world, and his representatives work on an international level, from America in the West to Indonesia and Malaysia in the East,” he said.

Al-Khoei, former Director of the Centre for Shia Studies in London has encountered Sistani many times.

“Sistani has consistently condemned attacks against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and – even in the darkest days of sectarian violence that plagued Iraq in 2006 – urged his followers to show restraint and avoid falling for the trap that enemies of Iraq have set to divide the country,” al-Khoei told Crux in an email ahead of the papal visit.

Sistani represents the mainstream Shia, and according to the scholar, all the other Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf welcome the papal visit and view it as historically significant, as well as a recognition of the importance of Najaf not just on a regional level but also on the international stage.

“Unfortunately, there are extremists in every religion and sect, and there are some people who do not want the pope to visit Iraq or to meet Sistani because such a visit and meeting will highlight the peaceful, tolerant and moderate voices in Iraq and this will make the contrast stronger between the peaceful voices and those who believe in violence as a solution,” he said.

Much like his predecessors, Pope Francis invests much of his capital in forging lasting relationships with leaders of other religions. He has already forged close ties with the prominent Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Sunni university in Cairo.

Francis and el-Tayeb signed a declaration on human fraternity in 2019, during Pope Francis’s visit to United Arab Emirates. This declaration, also known as the Abu Dhabi Agreement, is a call for peace, dialogue and mutual cooperation. It also includes a strong condemnation of terrorism, calling it “deplorable and threatens the security of people … but this is not due to religion, even when terrorists instrumentalize it. It is due, rather, to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression and pride.”

The pope and the Shia cleric are not expected to sign this declaration.

Often labeled as the “subtle” ayatollah, the Iran-born al-Sistani rarely leaves his house in Najaf. He has, however, heavily influenced the political life of Iraq by showing support – or opposition – to political leaders, and spent several years under house arrest during the Saddam Hussein regime.

His 2014 fatwa was instrumental in the creation of Shiite militia groups who fought the Islamic State alongside Iraqi forces, and a sermon he delivered in 2019 led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi during anti-government protests.

“Both the pope and Sistani are advocates of interfaith dialogue, unity and they both condemn violence that uses religion as a cover,” al-Khoei said. “The meeting is important because this is not only the first papal visit to Iraq, but it will be the first time in history the head of the Catholic Church is meeting with the head of the Shia Islamic establishment.”

The scholar has met with both leaders on several occasions, and he said that he finds it interesting that the two have similar “personalities” in terms of piety and humbleness.

“They will see eye-to-eye on a number of key issues that they both champion, especially given the meeting will be an informal one in the intimate confines of Sistani’s home, without the protocol and pomp usually associated with the visit of a head of state,” he said.

Omar Mohammed, an Iraqi who runs the Mosul Eye blog, said that the meetings is not only of religious significance, but also sends a political message: Iraq can have its own Shia leadership independent of Iran.

“There are many pro-Iran militias ready to do whatever it takes to stop that encounter,” he told Crux.

“I hope the meeting will amount to something, but I also know it will be private,” he said. “And this means there will be speculation. Of course, both Pope Francis and al-Sistani have a very important voice, but Iraqis still have to take the first step. Weather both men, who are very powerful, denounce corruption or not, what I as an Iraqi myself hope is for us to realize how important this visit is towards the stabilization of Iraq.”

Mohammed said he hopes Pope Francis’s voice will be directed to the people, not to the religious authorities of Iraq or the politicians.

“He, like no one else, can speak to the concerns of the people, address their wounds, concerns, both which are very deep,” he said. “The wounds of the Iraqi people are not ‘normal’ wounds.”

Al-Khoei told Crux interfaith dialogue is vital, adding, “it even helps with interfaith dialogue between believers of the same religion.”

“ISIS targeted all Iraqis, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis as well as other ethno-religious minorities and were determined to destroy this diversity and change the very fabric of Iraqi society,” he explained.

“However, Iraqis from all denominations and religions came together to defeat them because they understood ISIS to represent a common enemy.”

After Najaf, Pope Francis was headed to the city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham, father of believers.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma