Pope Francis to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani on Iraq visit

It is hoped the two religious leaders will sign the document on Human Fraternity

Pope Francis waves after reciting the Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
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Pope Francis hailed the power of inter-religious dialogue on Monday as the Vatican confirmed he would meet the Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani during his coming trip to Iraq.

The visit on March 5 to 8, the first by a pope, will include stops in Baghdad, Najaf, Nasiriya, Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh, the official Vatican itinerary says.

On March 6, Pope Francis is scheduled to make a "courtesy visit" to Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani, 90, in Najaf.

The Pope previously suggested his visit to Iraq might be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but on Monday, he made clear his desire to go.

"I myself wish to resume my Apostolic visits, beginning with that to Iraq," the Pope told ambassadors to the Holy See.

"These visits are an important sign of the solicitude of the successor of Peter [the Pope] for God's people spread throughout the world, and the dialogue of the Holy See with states.

"They also frequently provide an opportunity to promote, in a spirit of sharing and dialogue, good relations between the different religions."

Inter-religious dialogue, he said, "can become an opportunity for religious leaders and the followers of different confessions, and can support the responsible efforts of political leaders to promote the common good".

Last month, the patriarch of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church, Louis Sako, said the Pope would have a private visit with Mr Al Sistani, who is never seen in public and rarely accepts visitors.

Mr Sako said he hoped the two religious leaders would sign the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

Pope Francis signed the inter-religious text condemning extremism and promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence in 2019 with Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, in Abu Dhabi.

Iraq once had more than 1.5 million Christians but today only an estimated 400,000 remain.

Some were victims of sectarian violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion and attacks by ISIS.

Pope Francis plans to celebrate Masses at Baghdad in a cathedral that was the site of a 2010 attack, and in a stadium in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, where many Christians fled after being displaced by ISIS.