NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — After his historic assembly with Pope Francis on Saturday, Iraq’s high Shiite cleric affirmed that spiritual authorities have a job in defending Iraq’s Christians and stated they need to reside in peace and revel in the identical rights as different Iraqis. The Vatican stated Francis thanked Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Shiite folks for having “raised his voice in protection of the weakest and most persecuted” throughout a number of the most violent instances in Iraq’s latest historical past. He stated al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the significance of the unity of the Iraqi folks.”The Vatican stated the historic go to was an opportunity for Francis to emphasise the necessity for collaboration and friendship between totally different spiritual communities.THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows beneath.Pope Francis met Saturday with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the crucial senior clerics in Shiite Islam, in Iraq’s holy metropolis of Najaf to ship a joint message of peaceable coexistence, urging Muslims to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority. The closed-door assembly was to the touch on points plaguing Iraq’s Christian minority. Al-Sistani is a deeply revered determine in Shiite-majority Iraq and and his opinions on spiritual and different issues are sought by Shiites worldwide.For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a present of solidarity from al-Sistani may assist safe their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen in opposition to their neighborhood. The historic assembly in al-Sistani’s humble house was months within the making, with each element painstakingly mentioned and negotiated between the ayatollah’s workplace and the Vatican. When the time got here, the 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy, led by a bullet-proof automobile, pulled up alongside Najaf’s slim and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates on the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the crucial revered websites on the planet for Shiites. He then walked the few meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest house, which the cleric has rented for many years. A bunch of Iraqis sporting conventional garments welcomed him outdoors. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a couple of white doves have been launched in an indication of peace. He emerged just below an hour later, nonetheless limping closely from an obvious flare-up of the sciatica nerve ache that makes strolling troublesome.The “very optimistic” assembly lasted a complete of 40 minutes, stated a spiritual official in Najaf, who spoke on situation of anonymity as a result of he was not licensed to temporary media. The official stated al-Sistani, who usually stays seated for guests, stood to greet Francis on the door of his room, a uncommon honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat shut to 1 one other, with out masks, with their palms on their laps. A small desk was between them with a field of tissues on it.The official stated there was some concern about the truth that the pope had met with so many individuals the day earlier than. Francis has obtained the coronavirus vaccine however al-Sistani has not. The go to was being carried reside on Iraqi tv, and residents cheered the assembly of two revered religion leaders.”We welcome the pope’s go to to Iraq and particularly to the holy metropolis of Najaf and his assembly with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” stated Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic go to and hope will probably be good for Iraq and the Iraqi folks.”Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior authorities officers on the first-ever papal go to to the nation, geared toward selling his name for better fraternity amongst all peoples. It can be his first worldwide journey for the reason that begin of the coronavirus pandemic, and his assembly Saturday marked the primary time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.Nearly 25,000 safety forces have been deployed in Najaf forward of the pope’s arrival, in keeping with the province’s governor. Rasool Street was emptied of its standard bustle to clear the trail for the pope’s arrival. As quickly as his motorcade left a swarm of individuals rushed to the road, filling it up once more to see him off.On the few events the place he has made his opinion recognized, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq’s fashionable historical past.In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint because the Shiite majority got here underneath assault by al-Qaida and different Sunni extremists. The nation was however plunged into years of sectarian violence. His 2014 fatwa, or spiritual edict, calling on able-bodied males to affix the safety forces in combating the Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many intently tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the nation, his sermon result in the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.Iraqis have welcomed the go to and the worldwide consideration it has given the nation because it struggles to get better from many years of warfare and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 however nonetheless sees sporadic assaults.It has additionally seen latest rocket assaults by Iran-backed militias in opposition to U.S. navy and diplomatic services, adopted by U.S. airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The violence is linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran.Francis’ go to to Najaf and close by Ur traverses provinces which have seen latest instability. In Nasiriyah, the place the Plains of Ur is situated, protest violence left not less than 5 lifeless final month. Most have been killed when Iraqi safety forces used reside ammunition to disperse crowds. Protest violence was additionally seen in Najaf final yr, however abated because the mass anti-government motion that engulfed Iraq progressively petered out.A heavy safety presence was additionally awaiting Francis in Ur, the place the pope was to preside over an interfaith assembly later Saturday. Ur, with its historical ziggurat, is the normal birthplace of Abraham, prophet frequent to Christians, Muslims and Jews.___Winfield reported from Ur, Iraq. Associated Press writers Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed.