The head of the Catholic church visited the home of Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, with a message of peace. (PIC-UNI)
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged Iraqi Christians to be protected after welcoming Pope Francis at his home in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday.
Iraqi Christians should "live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights," Al-Sistani said in a statement. He also said that religious authorities played a role in protecting the group, as well as "others who have also suffered injustice and harm."
While there were once over a million Christians living in Iraq, their population shrank following the 2003 US invasion and the years of religiously-fueled violence and economic decline. The Christian population is currently estimated to be between 250,000 and 400,000.
During Saturday's meeting, Pope Francis thanked the cleric for having "raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted," according to a Vatican statement.
Al-Sistani also drew attention to the suffering of "the Palestinian people in the occupied lands," saying they were among the groups facing violence, economic blockades and forced displacement.
Who is Al-Sistani?
The Shiite cleric is Iraq's top religious leader whose influence also reaches beyond Iraq's borders. Al-Sistani has largely stayed out of the day-to-day politics and intervened only at critical junctures in the country's history. He has preached restraint amid the religious violence fanned by the US ousting of Saddam Hussein and in 2014 called for Shiites to fight against the "Islamic State" Sunni militia. His support for anti-government protests in 2019 led to the change of government.
What happened in Najaf?
The latest meeting is the first time in history that a Catholic pope has met a Shiite Grand Ayatollah.
The 84-year-old pope and the 90-year-old Shiite cleric talked for about 40 minutes in al-Sistani's rented home near the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.
The meeting was held under heavy security measures with a bullet-proof vehicle leading the papal convoy led through the city, although children were also seen waving Vatican and Iraqi flags along the route.
The pope was welcomed by a group of Iraqis in traditional clothing, with a few doves being released as a symbol of peace.
After the closed-door meeting, the pope left for the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
How do Iraqis see the pope's visit?
Speaking to DW from Iraq, reporter Owen Holdaway said that Iraq's Muslims were responding to the papal visit with affection.
"He is known as 'Baba' [an honorific term for an elderly person] amongst non-Christians," Holdaway said.
"Iraq is typically thought of as a very sectarian country, with a lot of conflict and things like that, but this kind of shows a bit of unity across the different faiths," the reporter said.
He also said the Christian community was "extremely proud" that the pope chose Iraq for his first foreign trip since the outbreak of the pandemic.
What is Pope Francis hoping to achieve in Iraq?
The Catholic pontiff is currently on a four-day visit to Iraq which he described as a "pilgrimage."
Pope Francis had said he was bringing a message of peaceful coexistence and has urged Iraqi Muslims to embrace the country's Christian minority. Iraq has been beleaguered by religious divides between the majority Shiites, the smaller population of Sunnis, and other religious groups.
After reaching Ur on Saturday, he called on religious leaders to put aside confessional differences and work together.
"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," the pope said.
"Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion." (Reuters, AP, dpa)