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March 6, 2021, 9:17 a.m. EST

Pope, top Shiite cleric hold historic meeting on embracing Iraq’s Christian minority

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Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.

Iraqis cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

”We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is a historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.

On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s modern history.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.

It has also seen recent rocket attacks linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran. President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the deal.

Francis’ visit to Najaf and nearby Ur traverses provinces that have seen recent instability. In Nasiriyah, where the Plains of Ur are located, protest violence left at least five dead last month. Most were killed when Iraqi security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds.

Protest violence was also seen in Najaf last year, but abated as the mass anti-government movement that engulfed Iraq gradually petered out.

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