The meeting between Pope Francis and the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -

Vatican Media / AP / SIPA

  • This Saturday, the second day of his trip to Iraq and the first in history for a pope, Francis, leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics, spoke for nearly an hour with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, religious reference for most of the 200 million Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere.

  • At the end of this closed session, one of the most important religious meetings in history, Grand Ayatollah Sistani told the Pope to be committed to guarantee "peace", "security" and "all rights. constitutional "to the Christians of Iraq.

  • Why is this meeting considered historic and what impact will it have?

    Elements of response with the historian of religions, Odon Vallet.

It was a very private meeting, without the media being authorized and without television broadcasting.

The only photo that bears witness to this is already considered historic.

This Saturday, the second day of his trip to Iraq and the first in history for a pope, Francis met Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

The meeting which lasted forty-five minutes which will undoubtedly make a date in the history of religions.

Why ? 

20 Minutes looks

 back on this key moment between the Vatican and Shiism with the historian of religions Odon Vallet.

Why did the meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani take place?

Unlike the Iranian current, which wishes to put religion in the spotlight within politics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani wants religion to play only an advisory role in political authority, and not leadership.

The meeting with the Pope therefore became very useful in strengthening this position.

“It sends a strong message to Christians in Iraq, but also to Sunnis and all non-Shiite communities.

The religious leader of the country takes them into consideration, he is not turned only towards the Shiites ”, attests Odon Vallet.

This meeting is also a way for Ali Sistani to take care of his image, continues the historian: “Ayatollah Sistani launched very harsh and violent fatwas, in particular in 2006. She called for the killing of all homosexual people in the worst possible way. is.

Since then, he has put water in his wine and meeting the Pope allows him to soften his image.


And what would be the benefit for Pope Francis?

For Pope Francis, the interest of this meeting is more vague.

If meeting the Pope inevitably results in a gain in popularity for Ayatollah Sistani, the converse is not necessarily true.

"In view of the very hard positions of the Ayatollah, this meeting risks being very frowned upon by many conservative Catholics", worries Odon Vallet.

And to continue: “It is the role of the Pope since John Paul II to go on difficult grounds and to try to calm things down.

By coming to Iraq, the Pope can defend the persecuted Christians in the country, but also plead for religious dialogue, whether between Christians and Muslims or within the Muslim community.


In this sense, a prayer with different Muslim dignitaries Shiites, Sunnis, Yazidis and Sabaeans is planned in the city of Ur at the end of the trip of the sovereign pontiff.

Finally, last point, “the Pope knows he is old and has health problems.

It is quite possible that he wanted to launch a first dialogue with the Shiites as long as he could, ”imagines Odon Vallet.

Why is this meeting considered historic?

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is from the Shia stream, one of the two great streams of the Muslim world along with Sunnism.

However, "until then, the interreligious dialogue initiated by Pope John Paul II with the meetings in Assisi and pursued by the following popes focused mainly, within the Muslim community, on the Sunnis", informs the historian. of religions Odon Vallet, leaving aside the Shiites.

An almost "logical" preference given that the Shiites are a minority within the Muslim community, representing only 200 million of the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.

But Iraq is an exception, since it is predominantly Shiite [a virtual exception in Muslim countries, notably Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan].

This is the first visit of a pope to Iraq and, therefore, the first official meeting between the Vatican and Shiism.

The Grand Ayatollah Sistani is indeed one of the two religious references of the Shiites of Iraq and elsewhere, with the Iranian Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Can this meeting have a real impact once the Pope returns to the Vatican?

Difficult to know.

True, at the end of the interview, the Ayatollah said he would ensure that Iraqi Christians - 1% of the country's population - have all the rights of a citizen of the country and "live in peace" .

But will his words survive the Pope's departure?

"We can think the pope naive to believe that meeting a Shiite leader will be enough to ease tensions, but it is in his role to try," tempers Odon Vallet.

And if the historian is still wondering about the real impact of the pope's words on the Iraqis, the presence of the Christian leader will at least have put the spotlight on the fate of the Christians of Iraq and the many problems of the country (terrorist attacks , religious persecution, political instability since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime).

The historian concludes: “What is certain is that the Pope will have more impact for Iraq by being on the ground than by making a speech from the Vatican.

Afterwards, it remains a journey with very strong symbolism, but which will be insufficient to ease tensions in the country or between communities.



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