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Pope Francis meets with senior Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani

Pope Francis has met Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani – Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric – at the Islamic scholar’s home in the Iraqi city of Najaf.

The Pope arrived at the cleric’s small home in a bullet-proof vehicle. As he entered the house, white doves were released, reflecting the themes of this four day visit to Iraq – peace, reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue.

The meeting – the first of its kind between two such senior leaders in the Christian and Muslim world – was held privately and holds huge symbolism.

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Pope Francis advocating interfaith dialogue

Al-Sistani is revered by the Shi’ite majority in Iraq but his influence across different sects and across the Muslim world runs deep.

Speaking yesterday in Baghdad, the Pope spoke of his desire for interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance at a time of increasing religious polarization.

Francis said: “Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as one human family, will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.”

From Najaf the Pope travelled to Ur, the ancient archaeological site believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of the three monotheistic religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Day two of the visit ends with mass at the Chaldean cathedral in the capital, Baghdad.

Despite criticism about the timing of the trip, with the country experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases, Vatican officials and the Iraqi government say precautions are being taken. Crowds will be limited and social distancing enforced.

Yet in Christian communities in the north of the country, where the Pope will come tomorrow, the desire to see their Holy Father is strong and it’s hard to see how distancing will be maintained.

The Pope was led to the scene in a bulletproof vehicle. Pic: AP
Image:
The Pope was led to the scene in a bulletproof vehicle. Pic: AP

On Sunday the Pope will fly to the Kurdish city of Erbil before taking a helicopter to Iraq’s second city, Mosul.

The destroyed city was held by the so-called Islamic State for four years between 2014 and 2017. It’s grand mosque of al Nouri, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014, is in pieces.

The most poignant part of the trip will be his visit to Christian towns desiccated under ISIS.

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Iraq’s first Pope visit

On Sunday the Pope will fly to the Kurdish city of Erbil before taking a helicopter to Iraq’s second city, Mosul.

The destroyed city was held by the so-called Islamic State for four years between 2014 and 2017. It’s grand mosque of al-Nouri, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014, is in pieces.

The most poignant part of the trip will be his visit to Christian towns desiccated under ISIS.

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