Pope Francis will meet top Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq in March, a senior Catholic cleric told the AFP news agency on Thursday.
Louis Sako, the patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, said it would be a “private visit” between the two religious figures “without formalities”.
Sako said he hoped the two figures would sign the document on “human fraternity for world peace”, an interreligious text condemning “extremism” that Pope Francis signed with the leading Sunni scholar, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, in 2019.
Pope Francis is set to be in Iraq from March 5 to 8, with visits planned to the capital Baghdad, the northern city of Mosul and Ur, where Abraham is said to have been born.
Iraq once counted more than 1.5 million Christians, but the community has been ravaged by successive conflicts.
Following the US-led invasion of 2003, sectarian warfare prompted followers of Iraq’s multiple Christian denominations to flee, and attacks by the ISIL (ISIS) group in 2014 further hit all minority communities.
Now, an estimated 400,000 Christians remain in Iraq.
Many have expressed hope that the pope’s visit will highlight the challenges facing the community, including prolonged displacement and little representation in government.