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01/29/2021 Vatican (International Christian Concern) – In his trip to Iraq scheduled for March, Pope Francis will meet with Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, according to a senior Catholic cleric.  The trip would be the first time that a Pope has ever visited the Middle Eastern country.  According to Patriarch of the Iraqi Chaldean Catholic Church Louis Sako, the meeting between the Pope and the Grand Ayatollah would be private and informal, during which the two hope to discuss extremist violence.

Iraq is the historic home to a vibrant Christian community that used to number almost 1.5 million faithful. However, due to an increase of violence in the region from the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the ISIS genocide of the past decade, the number of Christians living in Iraq has dwindled down to a few hundred thousand.  Though Church leaders often encourage Christians forced to flee from ISIS violence to repatriate into Iraq, many still fear for their safety after they return to their homes.

Many hope that the meeting between the two religious leaders will help to promote interfaith harmony moving forward in Iraq.  Since the defeat of ISIS in 2017, an enduring problem between Shia and Christian groups has been the expropriation of Christian land. To address this, Muqtada al-Sadr, a top Shia leader in Iraq, recently ordered a committee to explore complaints from Christians regarding illegal property expropriations. However, it remains unclear whether change will actually come due to al-Sadr’s connections to PMF militias, the main perpetrators of the expropriations.

Pope Francis’ visit has the potential to serve as a strong symbol to Iraq’s Christians that the Vatican has not forgotten them.  Many will watch the visit closely in the hope that the Pope and the Grand Ayatollah will come together to promote interfaith peace in a country that has been so damaged by violent extremism.