On the second day of his trip to Iraq, Pope Francis has held talks with the country's influential Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The historic meeting took place at Sistani's home in the holy city of Najaf. No press were allowed inside for the talks, but a few white doves were released as the Pope entered – underscoring his message of peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians in Iraq. The Christian community there has dwindled after years of war and persecution. Those that remain hope a show of solidarity from Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq.
The meeting was months in the making. Every detail, carefully planned. After a photo op, the two men spoke privately for 40 minutes. The ayatollah reportedly telling the pope he also believes Christians should be able to live in peace in Iraq and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.
It's a powerful statement from Sistani, who rarely makes his opinions known. When he does, Shi'ites in Iraq and around the world take note.
Later, the pope arrived in the ancient city of Ur, known as the birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. A fitting place for an interfaith meeting, where Francis underscored his message.In praying for peace in the Middle East, the pope singled out Syria, ravaged by a decade of civil war. And he condemned religious extremists, who use terrorism to achieve their aims.The 'pilgrim of peace,' as Pope Francis called himself, is aware of the risks he's taking amid an ongoing pandemic and regional conflict.
But he is not traveling alone. He's protected by one of the largest security deployments in recent Iraqi history: 10,000 personnel, by some estimates, including special forces, 24-hour drone surveillance, and undercover intelligence officers.It's the first visit by a pope to Iraq - coming just days after a rocket attack that seemed to put the trip in doubt. His first remarks in Baghdad acknowledged the difficult days most Iraqis have had to endure without a military escort.
For over two decades now, sectarian conflict has driven most of Iraq's Christians out of the country. In 2014, the so-called Islamic State began targeting Christians, driving hundreds of thousands more from their homes. The pope's visit is a symbol of victory over this tide of violence.
The Cathedral in Baghdad was the site of a 2010 terrorist attack. The Pope's visit there drew strong reactions from the community. Pope Francis also plans to visit Mosul - a recaptured stronghold of the Islamic State.
The meeting was months in the making. Every detail, carefully planned. After a photo op, the two men spoke privately for 40 minutes. The ayatollah, reportedly telling the pope he also believes Christians should be able to live in peace in Iraq, and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.