Pope Meets with Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah

Pope Francis, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, met Saturday in Iraq with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading Shiite Muslim figure.The historic session between 84-year-old pontiff and the reclusive al-Sistani took place in the 90-year-old Muslim leader’s modest home in the holy city of Najaf.Al-Sistani said Christians have the same rights as other Iraqis and that they should have peaceful lives.Al-Sistani is one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam and wields considerable influence in Iraq and beyond.Iraqi Christians are hoping al-Sistani’s statement and Francis’ message of coexistence will help to ease their lives in the mainly Muslim country, where they find themselves frequently under attack from Shiite militia members.A religious official in Najaf told the Associated Press that the meeting was “a private visit without precedent in history, and it will not have an equal to any previous visits.”The encounter between the two religious leaders also comes against the tense backdrop of the possibility of rocket firings into Iraq from rogue Iranian-back groups and the global COVID-19 pandemic.After his meeting with al-Sistani, Francis attended an interfaith meeting in the ancient city of Ur where he again delivered his message of peaceful coexistence.“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said.Ur is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, revered by three religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity.Later Saturday the pope will celebrate Mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad.Francis will also visit Mosul, Erbil, and Qaraqosh before leaving Iraq.The pope will give an open-air Mass at the Erbil stadium on Sunday afternoon. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, attendance will be limited to 10,000 people.The Christian presence in Iraq dates to the first centuries of the religion, but only a few hundred thousand Christians remain today.This is pope’s 33rd trip outside Italy and his first in the last 15 months due in most part to COVID-19.The pontiff is scheduled to return to Rome on Monday morning.