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Pope Francis Holds Historic Meeting With Grand Ayatollah On 2nd Day Of Iraq Trip

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pope Francis celebrated Mass today in Baghdad. It's the end of his second day in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Non-English language spoken).

SIMON: The pope's focus today has been on interfaith relations. Francis went to the spot believed to be the birthplace of the biblical Abraham. It is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. And he held a private meeting with the 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a leader of Shia Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Baghdad and joins us. Sylvia, thanks so much for being with us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: How did the pope's day begin?

POGGIOLI: Well, he traveled to what's known as the holy city of Najaf, where he visited, as you said, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in his home. You know, Francis has made interreligious dialogue a keystone of his papacy. But, you know, until now, he had only met Sunni Islam officials.

Sistani is rarely seen in public. He shuns foreign visitors. And he apparently agreed to meet Francis on the condition that no Iraqi officials were present. It was the only event of the papal trip that had no TV coverage. But it delivered, nevertheless, a very strong message of peaceful coexistence.

Afterwards, Sistani's office issued a statement saying he had stressed his interest that Christians live peacefully and in safety like other Iraqis and with their full constitutional rights. He referred to the role of the religious leadership in protecting Christians. And the Vatican spokesman said the pope thanked Sistani for speaking up together with the Shiite community in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted and for affirming the unity of the Iraqi people.

SIMON: And then Francis went to the spot believed to be the birthplace of Abraham.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. It's the plain of Ur. And so with the wind blowing over a very barren landscape, there was a pavilion that had been set up. And the pope sat there with Muslim, Christian and Yazidi religious leaders. It started with recitations from the gospel and from the Quran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Arabic).

POGGIOLI: Then various people spoke, including Rafah Husein Baher, a member of the small ancient Sabean Mandean religion. She thanked Francis for making the trip despite the ongoing pandemic and recent spate of rocket attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAH HUSEIN BAHER: Together, we subsist through the war ruins on the same soil. Our blood was mixed together. We tasted the bitterness of the embargo. We have the same identity.

POGGIOLI: Afterwards, the Vatican said that Jews - and there's a very, very small Jewish community in Iraq - had also been invited. But none attended, and no explanations were given.

SIMON: The pope spoke. What did he say?

POGGIOLI: Well, he stressed how in that place, on the plain of Ur, Abraham, the founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, heard God's call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Today," he said, "Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our Father Abraham by doing as he did. We look up to heaven, and we journey on Earth."

And then later, he said that it's blasphemy to hate our brothers and sisters and that extremism and violence are betrayals of religion. Tomorrow, we fly to the North of Iraq and visit Mosul and Christian communities that were devastated by ISIS during their three-year rule over the region. And it will end with a Mass the pope will celebrate in the stadium at Erbil.

SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli with Pope Francis in Baghdad.

Sylvia, thanks so much for being back with us.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.