NAJAF -- Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, summoned reporters to his home on August 24 for a rare meeting, seeking to dispel rumors that the aging grand ayatollah had fallen seriously ill.
A Reuters reporter was among the two dozen or so Iraqi journalists who gathered at al-Sistani's compound in the southern city of Najaf for the brief, seven-minute meeting with the reclusive 78-year-old.
"Recently, untrue rumors have surfaced about my health, and have caused anxiety among believers inside and outside Iraq," the white-bearded cleric, who appeared to be in good health, told journalists in the meeting.
Repeated denials from al-Sistani's aides had failed to silence rumors, which have swirled for at least a week.
Reporters were barred from bringing notebooks, cameras, or tape recorders into the meeting, but they were not physically searched before they were escorted in to meet the cleric.
Al-Sistani wields vast influence among the country's majority Shi'a.
He stayed mainly out of politics during Saddam Hussein's time but emerged as one of the country's most powerful men after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
He now stays out of the political fray. Al-Sistani has refused to meet Western officials and only occasionally sits down with Iraqi political leaders. The last time he met a group of reporters was in June 2006.
In the meeting, al-Sistani chided reporters for spreading rumors.
"Journalists have to check their reports and abstain from publishing news that is not true," he said.
Yet he also expressed concern about attacks on journalists in Iraq, the most dangerous country in the world for the press.
"I feel the pain of the assaults, murders, beatings, injuries, and persecutions that journalists in Iraq suffer in their daily work," he said.
More than 130 journalists have been killed in the line of duty in Iraq since 2003.