Historic moment: Pope Francis meets top Shiite religious leader in Iraq

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In a landmark moment in modern religious history, Pope Francis met top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq on Saturday. The two leaders met at the latter's home in the shrine city of Najaf. The meeting came on the second day of first-ever papal visit to Iraq.

When Pope Francis landed at the Najaf airport, posters had been set up featuring a famous saying by Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Mohammed's relative, who is buried in the holy city. 

"People are of two kinds, either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity," read the banners.  

A convoy of cars took the Pope into the Old City. Extremely tight security measures were in place.

No press were allowed inside the meeting as the 90-year-old grand ayatollah is highly reclusive and almost never seen in public.

The visit is one of the highlights of Francis's four-day trip to war-scarred Iraq, where Sistani has played a key role in tamping down tensions in recent decades. 

It took months of careful negotiations between Najaf and the Vatican to secure the one-on-one meeting.

"We feel proud of what this visit represents and we thank those who made it possible," said Mohamed Ali Bahr al-Ulum, a senior cleric in Najaf.

'High moral authority'

Pope Francis, a strong proponent of interfaith efforts, has met top Sunni clerics in several Muslim-majority countries, including Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. 

Sistani, meanwhile, is followed by most of the world's 200 million Shiites -- a minority among Muslims but the majority in Iraq -- and is a national figure for Iraqis.

"Ali Sistani is a religious leader with a high moral authority," said Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a specialist in Islamic studies.

Sistani began his religious studies at the age of five, climbing through the ranks of Shiite clergy to grand ayatollah in the 1990s.

While Saddam Hussein was in power, he languished under house arrest for years, but emerged after the US-led invasion toppled the repressive regime in 2003 to play an unprecedented public role. 

In 2019, he stood with Iraqi protesters demanding better public services and rejecting external interference in Iraq's domestic affairs. 

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