NAJAF, Iraq – Pope Francis arrived at the home of Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric in southern Iraq on Saturday for the first ever such meeting between the leaders of Roman Catholicism and Shi’ite Islam. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was to greet Francis at his humble home in Najaf, the seat of the Iraqi Shi’ite clergy, on the second day of the pontiff’s historic tour of Iraq. The meeting – the first of its kind between two such senior leaders in the Christian and Muslim world – was held privately and holds huge symbolism. Al Sistani is revered by the Shia majority in Iraq but his influence across different sects and across the Muslim world runs deep. Speaking yesterday in Baghdad, the Pope spoke of his desire for interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance at a time of increasing religious polarisation. Francis said: “Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as one human family, will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.” The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of millions of Shia Muslims, said the talks had emphasised peace. Grand Ayatollah Sistani “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights”. Pope Francis will later travel to the ancient city of Ur, where the Prophet Abraham – central to Islam, Christianity and Judaism – is believed to have been born. About 10,000 Iraqi Security Forces personnel are being deployed to protect the Pope during his visit, while round-the-clock curfews are also being imposed to limit the spread of coronavirus. Some Shia militant groups have reportedly opposed the visit, suggesting the tour amounts to Western interference in the country’s affairs. This has been a meeting years in the making: an encounter between the leader of the Catholic Church and one of the most powerful figures in Shia Islam: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.