PAPAL VISIT TO IRAQ

Ayatollah Sistani promises Pope Francis peace and security for Iraqi Christians

The meeting between Pope Francis (right) and Shiite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2021.
The meeting between Pope Francis (right) and Shiite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2021. AP

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the authority for most of the world's 200 million Shiite Muslims, has told Roman Catholic leader Pope Francis at a meeting in the holy city of Najaf, that Iraq's Christians should live in "peace and security".  

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The meeting between the two men, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked what has been described as "a landmark moment" in modern religious history.

Pope Francis is defying a second wave of coronavirus cases and renewed security fears to make a long-awaited trip to Iraq, aiming to comfort the country's ancient Christian community and deepen his dialogue with other religions.

The meeting between the two elderly men lasted 50 minutes, with Sistani's office putting out a statement shortly afterwards thanking Francis for visiting the holy city of Najaf.

Sistani "affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights," it said.

His office published an image of the two, neither wearing masks: Sistani in a black turban with his wispy grey beard reaching down to his black robe and Francis all in white, looking directly at the grand ayatollah.

Rare meeting with reclusive cleric

Sistani is extremely reclusive and rarely grants meetings but made an exception to host Francis, an outspoken proponent of interreligious dialogue.

The Pope had landed earlier at Najaf airport, where posters had been set up featuring a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Mohammed's relative, who is buried in the holy city.

"People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity," read the banners.

Pope condemns violent religious extremism

Pope Francis condemned violent religious extremism on Saturday during an interfaith prayer service at the site of the ancient city of Ur, where the Prophet Abraham is thought to have been born.

Pope Francis stands with religious leaders during an interreligious meeting near the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, 20 kilometers south-west of Nasiriyah, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2021.
Pope Francis stands with religious leaders during an interreligious meeting near the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, 20 kilometers south-west of Nasiriyah, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2021. AP - Andrew Medichini

"We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion," he told the congregation, which included members of religious minorities persecuted under the Islamic State group's three-year rule of much of northern Iraq.

The Catholic leader said he hoped the world would "journey from conflict to unity.

"Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighbouring war-torn Syria," he said in remarks during the service.

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