Pope Francis and Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric have delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq's Christian minority during a historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq's Christians, and that they should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis.
The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having "raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted" during some of the most violent times in Iraq's recent history.
Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shi'ite Islam and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq.
He is a deeply revered figure in Shi'ite-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shii'tes worldwide.
The historic meeting in al-Sistani's humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah's office and the Vatican.
Early on Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff's convoy, led by a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf's narrow and column-lined Rasool St, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shi'ite Islam.
He then walked the few metres to al-Sistani's modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades.
A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace.
He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.
The "very positive" meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf.
The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room - a rare honour.
Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks.
The official said there was some concern about the fact that the Pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not.
The Pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani's room. Al-Sistani spoke for most of meeting.
Francis was served tea and a plastic bottle of water, but only drank the latter. Francis paused before leaving al-Sistani's room to have a last look, the official said.
The Pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting aimed at urging Iraq's Muslims, Christians and other believers to put aside historic animosities and work together for peace and unity.
Religious leaders stood to greet him. While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did.
The meeting was being held in the shadow of Ur's magnificent ziggurat, the 6000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.
Ur is also the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Australian Associated Press