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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - NAJAF — At the start of his second day in Iraq, Pope Francis on Saturday morning flew to Najaf for a private meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al- Al-Sistani at his residence, as part of his historic three-day visit to the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before meeting with the Grand Ayatollah, the Pope was met by his son Mohammed Rida. The city of Najaf is located about 160 km south of Baghdad, 30 km from ancient Babylon, and 400 km north of the biblical city of Ur.
The pope's visit was meant to deliver a message of cooperation and friendship between religious communities and support of Iraq's Christian minority that has faced years of war.
Al-Sistani affirmed that Iraq's Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. Pope Francis said the ayatollah's message of peace affirmed "the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people."
The 84-year-old pontiff's convoy was led by a bullet-proof vehicle and when he arrived at the home on Saturday, a few doves were released in a sign of peace.
The closed-door meeting was to touch on issues plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority including years of displacement. A show of solidarity from the deeply revered al-Sistani could help them secure their place in Iraq.
The visit was being carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.
Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday for his first-ever papal visit to the country. It also marked his first international trip since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. His meeting on Saturday was the first-ever between a pope and a grand ayatollah.
On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive Al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq's modern history.
Al-Sistani is the leader of Iraq's Shiites, who comprise more than 60 percent of the population, and is an influential figure in global Shiism and throughout the country.
Preaching the abstention of religious authorities from direct political activity, he is considered a valuable interlocutor for the various political and religious factions in the country.
In 2004, he supported free elections in Iraq, thus making an important contribution to the planning of the first democratic government in the country, while in 2014 he called on Iraqis to unite to fight against the self-styled Islamic State.
More recently, in November 2019, when the population took to the streets in protest against the high cost of living and national political instability, Al-Sistani called on protesters and police to remain calm and not to resort to violence.
The holy city of Najaf was founded in 791 AD by Caliph Hārūn Al-Rashīd, and its development took place mostly after the 10th century.
Najaf is Iraq's main Shiite religious center and a pilgrimage destination for Shiites from around the world. It is also home to the tomb of one of Islam's most revered figures, Ali ibn Abi Talib, also known as Imam ʿAlī, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and the first man to convert to Islam.
The tomb of the first Imam of the Shiites, located inside the Imam ʿAlī Mosque, is considered one of the holiest places in Islam, and is to be found near the center of the city. — Agencies
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