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Pope Francis holds historic meeting with Shiite cleric in Iraq

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Pope Francis held a historic meeting with a senior Shiite cleric in Iraq on Saturday, 5 March, and appealed for greater interfaith unity.

Francis, 84, met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, at his home in the holy city of Najaf in central Iraq, where the two elderly men of faith provided a highly symbolic moment of tolerance, for a country scarred by sectarianism and violence.

“Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role to put a stop to tragedy,” Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, said in a statement after the meeting.

He also called for wisdom to prevail and erase the language of war.

The pontiffs met with the ascetic, and somewhat reclusive spiritual figure, for 45 minutes at Sistani’s humble home, along a narrow alleyway near the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine.

An official Vatican photo showed Sistani in his traditional black Shiite robe and turban sitting across from Francis, in his white cassock.

With an almost mythical stature among millions of followers, Sistani rarely appears in public but has intervened at critical junctures in Iraq’s history. His edicts sent Iraqis to polls in 2005 and rallied hundreds of thousands to fight against ISIS in 2014.

“The Holy Father stressed the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities,” the Vatican said in a statement, following the visit.

The meeting was an opportunity for the Pope to thank Sistani who had raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted, during the violence of recent years, the statement said.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called the meeting ‘historic’ on Twitter and declared March 6 an annual ‘National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence’ in Iraq.

Praising young Muslims for helping Christians repair their churches, Francis stressed the importance of interfaith coexistence and fraternity, in his speech.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful,” he said.

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart, they are betrayals of religion,” he added.

The Pope’s trip which began on Friday, will last four days. It comes amid a second wave of coronavirus cases in Iraq and a spate of rocket attacks, as a bitter US-Iran rivalry plays out on Iraqi soil.

Greeted with white doves, folk dances, an honor guard and colorful street graffiti, Francis visit boost national pride and provides a rare opportunity for Iraqis to be at the center of a positive news story.

Francis said he was also making the trip to show solidarity with Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world which has fallen to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million 20 years ago.

Iraqi President Barham Salih thanked Francis for making the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, despite some calls for him to postpone the trip.

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