The highlight of Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq was his meeting with the late Shi’ite Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Saturday.
Francis has spent years trying to improve Christian relations with Muslims, and has already established close ties with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, a prominent Sunni figure in Al-Azhar, a Sunni-based residence in Cairo.
Here is a look at the great ayatollah.
Al-Sistani, 90, is the highest-ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq. Millions of Shiites around the world respect him as a caring guide, asking him questions ranging from everyday issues to complex theological issues.
His influence, stemming from his morally caring authority, extends beyond religion.
After ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003, al-Sistani emerged as a powerful voice in the Iraqi political process, a symbol of the rise of Iraq’s Shiite majority after the war.
His status is denied because of his uniqueness. He generally avoids public speaking, sends messages through delegates, and modestly’s home in the Shi’ite Najaf city, near the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine.
He is credited with intervening in key junctions during the Iraq uproar. His position has prompted post-Saddam US administrators in Iraq to reconsider their transition plans.
He needed to return from London in 2004, where he was being treated for heart disease, to end the fighting in Najaf between Shiite militants and US-Iraqi forces. He called for unity and peaceful dialogue in the face of sectarian violence and violence.
Al-Sistani belongs to a school of thought that does not participate in the leadership of the Iranian-style clerics, and many see him as a counterweight to Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
In 2014, he called on Iraqis to volunteer to join the security forces to fight Islamic State militants. The call was heard loudly, and the mobilization helped to defeat the militants. But it has strengthened the ranks of Shiite militias, many of which are loyal to Iran and have been accused of escalating sectarian tensions.
In 2019, al-Sistani’s call for lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi amid crackdowns on anti-government protests.
The psychic, who has a white beard and a black turban, was born in Mashhad, Iran in 1930, where he began learning uranium at the age of five, according to a biography posted on his website. He began his official religious studies in the Iranian city of Qom, a route he continued when he later moved to Najaf, Iraq.
When al-Sistan underwent broken bone surgery in 2020, his charitable staff included both Iranian and US officials, bitter rivals for influence in Iraq.
Religious coverage of the Associated Press is supported by Lilly Endowment through a US talk show. AP is solely responsible for this content.