At the start of his second day in Iraq, Pope Francis on Saturday morning flew to Najaf for a private meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani at his residence.
Before meeting with the Grand Ayatollah, the Pope was met by his son Mohammed Rida.
The city of Najaf
The city of Najaf is located about 160 km south of Baghdad, 30 km from ancient Babylon, and 400 km north of the biblical city of Ur.
It was was founded in 791 AD by Caliph HÄrÅ«n al-RashÄ«d, and its development took place mostly after the 10th century.
Najaf is Iraq's main Shiite religious centre and a pilgrimage destination for Shiites from around the world. It is also home to the tomb of one of Islam's most revered figures, Ali ibn Abi Talib, also known as Imam Ê¿AlÄ«, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and the first man to convert to Islam.
The tomb of the first Imam of the Shiites, located inside the Imam Ê¿AlÄ« Mosque, is considered one of the holiest places in Islam, and is to be found near the centre 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.
The Residence of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani is located near the Shrine of Imam 'Ali or Mosque of ImÄm Ê¿AlÄ«, which is considered by Shiites to be the third holy site of Islam after Mecca and Medina.
The mosque was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries; the last reconstruction, begun in 1623, was completed in 1632.
The Grand Ayatollah
The Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani is the leader of Iraq's Shiites, who comprise more than 60 percent of the population, and is an influential figure in global Shiism and throughout the country. Preaching the abstention of religious authorities from direct political activity, he is considered a valuable interlocutor for the various political and religious factions in the country.
In 2004, he supported free elections in Iraq, thus making an important contribution to the planning of the first democratic government in the country, while in 2014 he called on Iraqis to unite to fight against the self-styled Islamic State. More recently, in November 2019, when the population took to the streets in protest against the high cost of living and national political instability, Al-Sistani called on protesters and police to remain calm and not to resort to violence.
In an interview with Vatican News’ Michele Raviert, Shahrazad Houshmand, an Iranian theologian and member of the Women's Council of the Pontifical Council of Culture said, Al Sistani can be defined as "rabbani", which means "wise religious man", “in the sense that besides having made a very deep and wide study of theology, of the history of the Koran, of Islamic tradition and law, he is above all a spiritual figure who gathers and unifies the Iraqi people.”