Intense preparation paves way for pontiff to meet ayatollah

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis will visit this weekend a preeminent Shiite Muslim cleric in Iraq to make history with a message of coexistence.

The 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is revered by many Shiites worldwide and his words holds powerful influence in Iraq and beyond.

The pontiff and ayatollah will meet on Saturday in al-Sistani’s modest home in the Iraqi city of Najaf.

Iraq’s dwindling Christian population hopes a show of support from the cleric will help ensure their place in the country.

Iran feels the meeting’s repercussions as well, since its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is a rival of al-Sistani for influence among Shiites.

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