Pope Meets with Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah

The leader of the world’s Roman Catholics is meeting Saturday in Iraq with a leading Shiite Muslim figure.The historic session between 84-year-old Pope Francis and the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is taking place in the 90-year-old Muslim leader’s modest home in Najaf.Sistani is one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam and wields considerable influence in Iraq and beyond.A religious official in Najaf told the Associated Press that the meeting “will be 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.Later Saturday the pope will celebrate mass at the Chaldean Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Baghdad.Francis will also visit Mosul, Erbil, Qaraqosh, and Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, revered by three religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity.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.Iraqi Christians are hoping Francis’ message of coexistence will help ease their lives in the mainly Muslim country where they find themselves frequently under attack from Shiite militia members.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.

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