Among the historic moments from the pope’s recent visit to Iraq was the establishment of a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence, to be celebrated in Iraq every year on March 6.

Marking the inaugural celebration of the day, Pope Francis met in Najaf with the Grand Ayatollah Alì al Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite Islam authorities, who is highly respected in Iraq and the Shiite world. 

The fact that the pope was meeting with a prominent Shiite leader was significant.

Since the Holy See announced in 2016 that it was restoring relations with al Azhar mosque and university in Egypt – considered to be one of the most critical institutions of Sunni thought – dialogue with Islam has seemed to favor the Sunnis. Pope Francis met with the Grand Imam of al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib five times. In 2019, the Sunni leader joined Pope Francis is signing the Declaration on Human Fraternity, which was also an inspiration for the encyclical Fratelli Tutti

Building a bridge with Shiite Islam could therefore have significant implications for dialogue in the region.

The schism between Sunni and Shiite is the most ancient split in Islam's history. The two sects differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology, and religious organization. The vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world are Sunnis. In contrast, Shiites make up just 10% of Muslims, mostly in Iraq, Iran, Bahrein, and Azerbaijan. 

The pope’s meeting with al Sistani was filled with gestures and symbols. The Grand Ayatollah, who backs a “quietist” view of religion, stood up to welcome the pope, while he generally remains seated while welcoming guests because of his high authority. For his part, Pope Francis took off his shoes as a sign of respect. 

Pope Francis underscored the importance of that gesture during his inflight press conference returning to Rome.

“He was very respectful, very respectful in the meeting, and I felt honored,” the pope said. “Even in his greeting: he never stands up, and he stood up, to greet me, twice. He is a humble and wise man. This meeting did me good. It is a light.”

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On the same day as his meeting with al Sistani, Pope Francis also led an interreligious gathering in the Plain of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham. The meeting sought to be inclusive of all religious groups in Iraq as an attempt to show the possibility of coexistence in a country with a large number of religious confessions, whose mutual trust has been seriously affected following the invasion of ISIS.

Two years ago, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako of the Chaldean Church in Iraq – which includes the majority of Catholics in the country - had expressed hope that the pope would sign a declaration of human fraternity with al Sistani, as he did with al-Tayyib. It did not happen.

However, the pope’s trip could still bear fruit for Iraqi society. Introducing the Pope in his meeting with diplomats and civil authorities of Iraq on March 5, Iraqi President Barham Salih voiced hope that “the initiative to establish the Abrahamic House for Interreligious dialogue is carried forward.” The president also backed the establishment of “a permanent symposium for dialogue, under the oversight of the Vatican, Najaf (a holy Shiite site,) al Azhar, Zaytuna (a major Mosque in Tunisia) and other main religious centers.”

This movement toward greater dialogue could also offer hope to Christians in Iraq and the Middle East, who have suffered greatly in the fighting between Islamic sects.

Pope Francis' trip attempted to help heal wounds and plant seeds of trust and dialogue. His meeting with al Sistani could be an important step on the path to peace.

If the establishment of a National Day of Coexistence becomes not a meaningless gesture but the cornerstone of further efforts toward peace and dialogue, there is a chance that the Christian communities in Iraq, who preceded Muslims by several centuries, could start feeling at home again.