Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr welcomes Pope Francis' visit to Iraq

Populist Shiite cleric warns opponents of Catholic leader's trip against sabotage attempts

Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in Najaf, Iraq, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.  Muqtada al-Sadr on Wednesday said that the US troops who are currently serving in Iraq are occupiers and must withdraw immediately through diplomatic and parliamentary means and, normalizing relations with the Zionist enemy is forbidden and unacceptable, he added. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)
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Iraqi populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr on Sunday welcomed the visit by Pope Francis to Iraq next month, and warned against those who might oppose it.

Francis is scheduled to make the first trip to Iraq by a Catholic pope from March 5-8, visiting Baghdad and four historic sites.

“I have heard there are opponents to the visit of the Pope to our beloved Iraq. I say the openness to religions is desirable and this visit is welcome,” Mr Al Sadr said in a tweet.

“Our hearts, before our doors, are open to him,” he said, referring to himself as “the advocate for unity among religions”.

Mr Al Sadr has millions of followers in Iraq.

Pope Francis is expected to visit the capital, Baghdad, the Plain of Ur, Mosul, Erbil and Najaf where he will meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric.

The pope is scheduled to sign a document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Ayatollah Al Sistani.

“Al Najaf Al Ashraf is the capital of religions and so he is welcomed as a peace lover,” Mr Al Sadr said.

After going to Najaf, Pope Francis will host an inter-faith meeting on the same day in the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, the prophet who is common to Muslim, Christians and Jews.

Pope Francis’ last full day in Iraq will take him to the northern Kurdish region, from where he will visit the city of Mosul and Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Iraq where the population fled when ISIS arrived in 2014.

He will hold a prayer service for those who lost their lives when the extremist militants took over the region and during the battle to drive them out.

Many of Mosul’s churches were destroyed by ISIS fighters and air strikes during the war.

The UAE is sponsoring the restoration of Al Tahera church and Al Saa’a monastery that were severely damaged in the conflict.

The UAE project in Mosul was launched in 2018 with the restoration of the 12th-century Al Nuri Mosque before being expanded to the nearby church and other buildings.