Vatican City, March 3 (UrduPoint / Pakistan Point News – 3rd Mar, 2021 ) :Pope Francis, on a historic trip to Iraq, will on Saturday hold a hugely symbolic meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, seeking to deepen his cautious dialogue with Muslim leaders.
The 84-year-old pope will visit the top Shiite cleric at his home in Najaf, the shrine city where Imam Ali, the fourth Islamic caliph, and relative of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him), is buried.
Sistani, 90, is never seen in public and rarely accepts visitors, but the Argentine pontiff, always happiest among the faithful, favours direct encounters.
Francis has long hailed the power of inter-religious dialogue, symbols of peace and tolerance, without dwelling on the theological subtleties advanced by his predecessor.
Benedict XVI, who resigned as pope eight years ago, provoked years of cool relations with the Muslim world when in 2006 he quoted criticisms of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) by a 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor.
They made a joint call for freedom of belief, although what stands out from that trip — the first by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula — was the image of the leader of the world‘s 1.3 million Catholics embracing a Sunni imam.
With the visit to Najaf and meeting with the Shiite cleric Sistani, the pope is extending his hand to the other main branch of Islam.
Sistani has repeatedly stated that Muslims are forbidden from killing others. In 2014, however, as the Islamic State group approached Baghdad, he called on Iraqis to take up arms to drive the militants out.
“This visit by the pope sends a strong political message for a figure who is very much associated with the defence of Iraqis,” added Myriam Benraad, a French political scientist who specialises in the Arab world.
Sistani embodies one of the two currents of modern Shiism, that of Najaf, which makes a distinction between politics and religion.
By contrast, the school based around the holy Iranian city of Qom believes that the top religious leader should also rule the state, following the example of Iran‘s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Since the pope’s visit was announced, the Shiite clergy has worked hard to ensure it includes a trip to Najaf.
No such text however is expected to be signed in Najaf.
But it does not go so far to acknowledge the right to hold no belief at all, or to convert, even drawing a parallel between “atheistic, agnostic or religious extremism” and “fanatic extremism”.
“It deals with common issues. When Al-Azhar supports religious freedom, he means that Christians can go to mass.
“But atheism remains incomprehensible in the Arab Muslim world.” The pope and his emissaries avoid flashpoint issues. In Abu Dhabi, Francis declared that religious freedom is “not limited only to freedom of worship”.
“Perfect freedom of religion is also the freedom to convert and change religion, as many Catholics have converted to Islam or Buddhism,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Congregation for the Oriental Churches at the Vatican, while suggesting the subject is taboo.
Nevertheless, he believes in the small steps of dialogue towards an “open Islam”, he said.
“It takes time, but it’s possible.”
From : www.urdupoint.com