Pope meets top Iraq Shiite cleric in interfaith milestone

The two elderly, respected men of religion met at Sistani's humble home, the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.

FILE: Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the airplane heading to Iraq on 5 March 2021. Pope Francis landed in war-battered Iraq on the first-ever papal visit, defying security fears and the pandemic to comfort one of the world's oldest and most persecuted Christian communities. Picture: Andrew Medichini/AFP

NAJAF - Pope Francis extended his hand to the world's Shiite Muslims on Saturday, meeting top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in a landmark moment in modern religious history.

The two elderly, respected men of religion met at Sistani's humble home in the shrine city of Najaf early on Saturday, the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq.

The 84-year-old pontiff 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.

He landed at the 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.

A convoy of cars carried him into the Old City, which was under extremely tight security. He stepped out in one of Najaf's tiny alleyways and an AFP correspondent saw him cross the threshold into Sistani's office.

No press were allowed inside the meeting as the 90-year-old grand ayatollah is highly reclusive and almost never seen in public.

The visit is one of the highlights of Francis's four-day trip to war-scarred Iraq, where Sistani has played a key role in tamping down tensions in recent decades.

It took months of careful negotiations between Najaf and the Vatican to secure the one-on-one meeting.

"We feel proud of what this visit represents and we thank those who made it possible," said Mohamed Ali Bahr al-Ulum, a senior cleric in Najaf.

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