After a historic private meeting with a senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, Pope Francis appealed for religious tolerance. "We need one another," the pope said later in a speech on the desert plain of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham. "Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart; they are betrayals of religion." Francis' trip and message were welcomed, though many Iraqis despair of change in a nation beset with longstanding divisions and day-to-day problems. "Religious and spiritual leadership must play a big role to put a stop to tragedy," Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in a statement after meeting at his home with Francis, NBC reports. Sistani is the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims. "Erase the language of war," he implored.
Part of the pope's mission was to show support for the shrinking number of Christians there. "The pope came to Iraq offering peace," one Christian said. "Peace is the language that all Iraqis should speak, no matter if they are Christians, Muslims or from other religions." A bishop said, "We hope the Christians come back after this visit." People of all faiths expressed appreciation for the trip and for Francis putting his influence on the line in a place where it might not be enough, per the Washington Post. Sistani, 90, has helped bring about political change in the past. On Saturday, one of his representatives talked about watching the pope walk the alleyways of Najaf. "Those steps were historic, they reflected so much," he said. "He came even though he could barely walk. He sent a message not only to Iraqis, but to the whole world that Islam and other religions can sit together peacefully." (Read more Pope Francis stories.)