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Pope Francis Meets Top Shiite Cleric during Landmark Visit to Iraq

Pope Francis meets with Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf, Iraq March 2021.
Pope Francis meets with Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf, Iraq March 2021. (Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani office / Handout via REUTERS)

Pope Francis met with a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Saturday as part of the first-ever visit by a head of the Catholic Church to the Middle Eastern country.

Francis and al-Sistani spoke for about 40 minutes in the cleric’s home in the city of Najaf, where the Shia holy site Imam Ali Shrine is located. The conversation touched on matters concerning Iraq’s beleaguered Christian communities, who have faced violence and persecution since the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

“Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role to put a stop to tragedy . . . and urge sides, especially great powers, to make wisdom and sense prevail and erase the language of war,” al-Sistani said in a statement translated by the Associated Press. Powerful countries should “not sponsor their own self-interest at the expense of the rights of people to live in freedom and dignity.”

Al-Sistani, 90, is revered by Shiites across Iraq and has intervened at critical moments in the country’s recent history, calling on residents men to fight ISIS in 2014 and giving a 2019 sermon that helped lead to prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation. The cleric has also spoken out against violence targeting Iraq’s ancient Christian communities.

The pope then traveled to the city of Ur, where the patriarch Abraham is said to have been born, for an interfaith meeting. The Vatican said that members of Iraq’s Jewish community were invited to attend the event, but did not attend for unspecified reasons. Much of the Iraqi Jewish community fled to Israel due to persecution in the years following the Israeli war of independence.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said.

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Zachary Evans is a news writer for National Review Online. He is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces and a trained violist.

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