Pope Francis to meet Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric on March visit

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Pope Francis leads Angelus prayer on Epiphany at the Vatican

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Pope Francis is set for an historic meeting with Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during a trip to Iraq planned for March, the patriarch of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church said on Thursday.

The visit, which eluded Francis's predecessors, takes place amid deteriorating security in some parts of Iraq and after the first big suicide bombing in Baghdad for three years.

The programme for the March 5-8 trip, announced at a news conference by Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, who is a Catholic cardinal and head of Iraq's biggest Christian denomination, will include Masses in Baghdad and the northern city of Erbil.

The pope will visit the former Islamic State stronghold of Mosul which has a significant Christian minority, and the ruins of ancient Ur in southern Iraq, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Francis said in an interview broadcast on Jan. 10 that his Iraq trip might be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it now appears that preparations are going ahead, including vaccinations for potential participants.

In meeting the 90-year-old Sistani, Francis will hold talks with one of the most important figures in Shi'ite Islam, both within Iraq and beyond.

Sistani commands a vast following among Iraq's Shi'ite majority and huge influence over politics and public opinion. His edicts sent Iraqis to the polls for the first free elections after dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled, rallied the country to fight Islamic State in 2017 and ousted an Iraqi government during mass demonstrations in 2019.

Francis has visited predominately Muslim countries including Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian territories, using those trips to call for inter-religious dialogue.

Iraq is trying to recover from the destruction caused by the campaign to defeat Islamic State, and beset by economic hardship after a fall in oil prices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iraq has been home to Christian communities for centuries. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled sectarian violence after the fall of Saddam or were driven out when Islamic State captured much of the north in 2014.

But hundreds of thousands remained, divided among a number of denominations, with the largest being Chaldean Catholics, who practice an ancient Syriac rite and are loyal to the pope. Since Islamic State was driven from the north in 2017, Christians have largely recovered the freedom of worship.

(Reporting by John Davison and Charlotte Bruneau in Baghdad, Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Peter Graff)