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Pope Francis holds historic meeting with Shiite priest in Iraq, visits Abraham’s birthplace

Pope Francis held a historic meeting with a senior Shiite cleric in Iraq on Saturday and appealed to the larger interfaith unit that visited Abraham’s birthplace as part of his whirlwind tour of the Middle East.

Francis, 84, met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90, at his home in the holy city of Najaf in central Iraq, where the two elderly believers provided a highly symbolic moment of tolerance for a country scarred by sectarianism and violence.

“Religious and spiritual leadership must play a major role in putting an end to the tragedy,” Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, said in a statement after the meeting.

He also called for “wisdom”

; to prevail and “to erase the language of war.”

The Pope met with the ascetic and somewhat recurring spiritual figure for 45 minutes at Sistani’s humble home along a narrow alley near the Imam Ali Shrine with golden dome.

An official image from the Vatican showed Sistani in his traditional black Shiite cloak and turban sitting opposite Francis in his white box.

With an almost mythical stature among millions of supporters, Sistani rarely appears in public, but has intervened at critical times in Iraq’s history. His instructions sent Iraqis to free polls for the first time in 2005 and gathered hundreds of thousands to fight ISIS in 2014.

“The Holy Father emphasized the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities,” the Vatican said in a statement after the visit.

The meeting was an opportunity for the pope to “thank” Sistani, who had “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during the violence of recent years, the statement said.

After the meeting, Francis traveled to the desert plain of Ur in southern Iraq, honored as the birthplace of Abraham – the patriarch of monotheism and a unifying prophet in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Francis praised young Muslims for helping Christians repair their churches and stressed the importance of interfaith coexistence and brotherhood in his speech.

“From this place where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us confirm that God is merciful,” he said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born in a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion,” he added.

While the desert wind blew, Francis sat with Muslim, Christian and Yazidi leaders and spoke within sight of the ancient archeological ruins of the 4000-year-old city.

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The pope’s tour, which began Friday, lasts four days. It comes amid another wave of coronavirus cases in Iraq and a wave of rocket attacks as a bitter US-Iran rivalry plays out on Iraqi soil.

Faced with white doves, folk dancing, a guard of honor and colorful street graffiti, Francis’ visit increases national pride and provides a rare opportunity for Iraqis to be at the center of a positive news story. The oil-rich country is still struggling after the US-led invasion in 2003 threw it into chaos.

Francis said he also traveled to show solidarity with Iraq’s Christian community – one of the oldest in the world – which has dropped to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million 20 years ago.

“I am more than happy for the pope’s visit,” Iraqi Christian Feras Ramzi, 46, told NBC News. “This is a message from the Vatican that it will not forget its sons and daughters in Iraq.”

Colleague Christian Fadi Slewa (39), a chef in Baghdad, also welcomed the visit.

“The pope came to Iraq to offer peace,” he said. “Peace is the language that all Iraqis must speak, whether they are Christians, Muslims or from other religions.”

Francis will fly back to Baghdad later on Saturday and is expected to say Mass in a central cathedral. He will then travel north to Mosul on Sunday, a former stronghold of the Islamic State.

Iraqi President Barham Salih thanked Francis for his first papal visit to Iraq, despite some calls for him to postpone the trip.

“Iraq has been through hard times,” Salih told NBC News on Friday. “He has come to help us get to a better day.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

Richard Engel and Saphora Smith the contribution.

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