Pope Francis holds historic meeting with revered Shia cleric in Iraq’s Najaf

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Pope Francis has held a historic meeting with revered Shia Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, according to al-Iraqiya state TV, on the second day of the pontiff’s visit to the country.

The 45-minute papal meeting with the 90-year old al-Sistani — who rarely appears in public — represented one of the most significant summits between a pope and a leading Shia Muslim figure in recent years.

During the meeting, al-Sistani thanked Francis for making an effort to travel to Najaf and told him that Christians in Iraq should live “like all Iraqis in security and peace, and with their full constitutional rights,” according to a statement released by the Grand Ayatollah’s office.

The Pope in turn thanked al-Sistani and the Shia Muslim community for “[raising] his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted, affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people,” according to a statement from the Holly Sea.

The Pope also stressed the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities.

Pope Francis’s four-day tour of Iraq across six cities is the first papal visit to the country, and Francis’ first trip outside Italy since the coronavirus pandemic began.

After Najaf, the Pope traveled to Nasiriya, where he was going to hold an inter-religious meeting on the plain of Ur, considered the birthplace of Abraham.

The Pope touched down in Baghdad on Friday, where he was met by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Francis later met with clerics and other officials at a Baghdad church that was the site of a bloody 2010 massacre.

Iraq has imposed a total curfew for the entirety of the four-day papal visit to minimize health and security risks. Francis is scheduled to leave Iraq on Monday.

Francis has met with leading Sunni cleric Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb on several occasions in the past, famously co-signing a 2019 document pledging “human fraternity” between world religions.

CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi, Delia Gallagher and Aqeel Najm contributed to this article.