In Iraq, Pope condemns violence in name of God

Pope Francis entered a narrow alleyway in Iraq's holy city of Najaf on Saturday (March 6) to hold the first ever meeting between a pontiff and a top Shi'ite cleric.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is one of the most influential figures in Shi’ite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond, and their meeting sent a powerful signal for religious coexistence in a country torn apart by violence.

That's a key theme of Francis's visit to Iraq, the first in history by a pontiff, and to underscore it he went on to the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, who is considered the father of Christians, Muslims and Jews.

His cassock billowing in the desert wind, the Pope told Christian, Muslim and Yazidi leaders that violence in the name of God was "the greatest blasphemy".

Within sight lay the remnants of a 4,000 year-old temple and palace complex.

The U.S. invasion of 2003 plunged Iraq into years of sectarian conflict, though security has improved somewhat since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017.

Iraq's ancient Christian community has been devastated, falling to about 300,000 from about 1.5 million before the war.

Pope Francis met 90-year-old Sistani at the humble home he has rented for decades, near the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.

Afterwards, Sistani called on world religious leaders to hold great powers to account and for wisdom and sense to prevail over war.

He said Christians should, like all Iraqis, live in peace and coexistence.

The pope's four-day visit to Iraq began in Baghdad on Friday.

It will include Mosul, a former Islamic State stronghold, where churches and communities still bear the scars of conflict.