Pope Francis to meet Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric on March visit

BAGHDAD (REUTERS) – Pope Francis is set for a historic meeting with Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during a trip to Iraq planned for March, the patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church said on Thursday (Jan 28).

The visit, which eluded Pope Francis’s predecessors, takes place amid deteriorating security in some parts of Iraq and after the first big suicide bombing in Baghdad for three years.

The programme for the March 5-8 trip, announced at a news conference by Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, who is a Catholic cardinal and the head of Iraq’s biggest Christian denomination, will include Masses in Baghdad and the northern city of Erbil.

The Pope will visit the former Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stronghold of Mosul, which has a significant Christian minority, and the ruins of ancient Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Pope Francis said in an interview broadcast on Jan 10 that his Iraq trip might be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it now appears that preparations are going ahead, including vaccinations for potential participants.

In meeting the 90-year-old Sistani, Pope Francis will hold talks with one of the most important figures in Shi’ite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani commands a vast following among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and has huge influence over politics and public opinion.

His edicts sent Iraqis to the polls for the first free elections after dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled, rallied the country to fight ISIS in 2017, and ousted an Iraqi government during mass demonstrations in 2019.

Pope Francis has visited predominately Muslim countries including Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian territories, using those trips to call for inter-religious dialogue.

Iraq is trying to recover from the destruction caused by the campaign to defeat ISIS, and is beset by economic hardship after a fall in oil prices during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Iraq has been home to Christian communities for centuries.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled sectarian violence after the fall of Saddam, with many also driven out when ISIS captured much of the north in 2014.

But hundreds of thousands remained, divided among a number of denominations, with the largest being the Chaldean Catholics, who practice an ancient Syriac rite and are loyal to the Pope.

Since ISIS was driven from the north in 2017, Christians have largely recovered the freedom of worship.

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