Pope Francis meets powerful Shia cleric in Iraq

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media captionThe Pope's Iraq visit is his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic

Pope Francis is holding a symbolic meeting with one of the most powerful figures in Shia Islam on the second day of his landmark trip to Iraq.

The Pope's encounter with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shia Muslims, is taking place in the holy city of Najaf.

It is the Pope's first international trip since the start of the pandemic - and the first ever papal visit to Iraq.

Covid-19 and security fears have made this the pontiff's riskiest trip yet.

The 84-year-old leader of the Catholic church earlier told reporters that he felt "duty bound" to make the "emblematic" journey, which will see him visit several sites over four days in Iraq.

The Pope's talks with the 90-year-old leading Shia cleric were likely to focus on inter-faith issues such as Iraq's Christian minority, who have been hit by waves of violence since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

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image captionThe Pope was pictured arriving to the meeting on Saturday

image copyrightReuters

image captionPope Francis will also attend an inter-religious meeting at the ancient site of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham

The pontiff will later travel to the ancient city of Ur, where the Prophet Abraham - central to Islam, Christianity and Judaism - is believed to have been born.

About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel are being deployed to protect the Pope during his visit, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Some Shia militant groups have reportedly opposed the visit, suggesting the tour amounts to Western interference in the country's affairs.

image copyrightEPA

image captionSecurity personnel have been deployed to protect Pope Francis during his trip

Profoundly symbolic

Today's meeting has been years, even decades, in the making: an encounter between the leader of the Catholic Church and one of the most powerful figures in Shia Islam.

Previous popes have tried to meet him, given his influence across the Middle East.

Today Pope Francis, in this first papal visit to Iraq, is achieving it: a hugely significant encounter for two religious leaders. Their talks are likely to focus on inter-faith dialogue and Iraq's Christian minority, long terrorised by Shia armed groups.

It's a day of profound symbolism - and perhaps the one that will leave this trip's lasting impact.

What has the Pope said so far?

Shortly after he was greeted at Baghdad airport by Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Friday, the pontiff called for "an end to acts of violence and extremism, factions and intolerance".

"Iraq has suffered the disastrous effects of wars, the scourge of terrorism and sectarian conflicts," he said in a speech.

"The age-old presence of Christians in this land, and their contributions to the life of the nation, constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all," the Pope added.

He said that the country's dwindling Christian community should have a more prominent role as citizens with full rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

image copyrightEPA

image captionPope Francis is greeted at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad

One of the world's oldest Christian communities has seen its numbers plummet over the last two decades from 1.4 million to about 250,000, less than 1% of the population.

Many have fled abroad to escape the violence that has plagued the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Tens of thousands were also displaced when Islamic State (IS) militants overran northern Iraq in 2014, destroying their historic churches, seizing their property, and giving them the choice to pay a tax, convert, leave or face death.

Who are Iraq's Christians?

People in what is now Iraq embraced Christianity in the 1st Century ADAccording to the US state department, Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, with the largest population - at least 200,000 - living in the Nineveh Plain and Kurdistan Region in the north of the countryApproximately 67% of those are Chaldean Catholics, whose Eastern-rite Church retains its own liturgy and traditions but recognises the authority of the pope in Rome. Another 20% are members of the Assyrian Church of the East, believed to be the oldest in IraqThe rest are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, as well as Anglican, Evangelical and other Protestants

What is the Pope's schedule?

Due to security concerns and a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections, the Pope will have limited exposure to the public.

He has had two shots of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, and his entourage will have been inoculated, but there are fears the trip could become a super-spreader event given the large crowds expected.

When he arrived on Friday, the Pope was seen to have a pronounced limp, suggesting that his sciatica condition continues to bother him.

image copyrightEPA

image captionThe Pope, here with Iraqi President Barham Salih (R), was seen walking with a pronounced limp

On Sunday, the pontiff will visit Mosul, where he will say a prayer of suffrage in Church Square for the victims of the war with IS, which left tens of thousands of civilians dead.

Later, he is scheduled to lead Mass at a football stadium in Irbil in the north, at which up to 10,000 people are expected to attend.

The Pope will also visit nearby Qaraqosh, where Christians have returned since the defeat of IS in 2017.

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