Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani during Iraq visit

This handout picture released by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani's office shows Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric meeting Pope Francis and his delegation in Najaf on March 6, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 07 March 2021

Pope Francis meets Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani during Iraq visit

  • Pope's Iraq trip is his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic
  • He met Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani at the Shiite cleric's home in Najaf

DUBAI: Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence on Saturday in a historic first meeting between the leaders of Roman Catholicism and Shiite Islam.

The Shiite cleric, Ali Al-Sistani, met the Pope at his home in Najaf, the seat of the Iraqi Shiite clergy, on the second day of the pontiff’s historic tour of Iraq.

Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and made a speech in which he called for an end to extremism, violence and corruption.

The head of the Catholic church began the first-ever papal trip to the country by meeting government officials in Baghdad, before traveling to a church where Christians were massacred by militants in 2010.

His visit comes as Iraq attempts to claw its way to stability after years of sectarian conflict, the Daesh occupation, chronic corruption, and widespread anger at government officials for failing to provide basic services.

At Our Lady of Salvation church, he paid tribute to the 58 people who were killed in an extremist attack in 2010, one of the deadliest targeting Christians.

Follow live coverage of his second day itinerary below (All times GMT)

17:00 - With the mass finished, that concludes the Pope's public engagements on the second day of his visit. Remember to check back on arabnews.com for coverage of Sunday's events, the highlight of which will be a meeting with the president and the prime minister of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Erbil.

Pope Francis will also visit and make a speech at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh and deliver a mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil.

15:00 - Now, the Pope delivers a mass at the Chaldean Catheral of Saint Joseph. Watch it live below...

14:30 - Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib wrote about how the visit of Pope Francis begins a new chapter not only for Christians in Iraq but for all Eastern Christians. Read her opinion piece below.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

14:00: In case you missed some of the fantastic images from the first day of the Pope's visit, you can check out our gallery here...


13:00 - ICYMI: Lebanese President Michel Aoun welcomed the pope’s arrival in Iraq on Friday, saying he hoped it would be a “push toward establishing the genuine peace” that people in the region needed. To read more, click here.

09:34: Pope Francis is set to return Baghdad after attending an interfaith meeting at the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq, the traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, father of Muslim and Christian faiths.

Above, a general view of the ancient archeological site of Ur, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, in Ur near Nassiriya, Iraq. Iraqiya TV/Reuters TV via Reuters

09:08: Pope Francis is urging Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside animosities and work together for peace and unity during an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, father of their faiths.

He told the gathering: “This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor.”

Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq on Saturday to reinforce his message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions.

Pope Francis said that he prays for ‘peace, unity’ in the Middle East ‘especially Syria’ during the interreligious meeting. (AFP)

Francis told the faith leaders that it was fitting that they come together in Ur, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to pray together for peace as children of Abraham, the prophet common to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

He said: “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

He said there could never be peace as long as Iraqis viewed people of different faiths as the “other.”

He said: “Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity.”

08:05: Pope Francis attends an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur during day two of his apostolic tour of Iraq.

The meeting takes place in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

Pope Francis attends an interreligious meeting at the archaeological site of Ur near Nasiriyah, southern Iraq on March 6, 2021. (AFP)

07: 28: Top Shiite cleric Ali Al-Sistani has told Pope Francis that Iraq Christians should live in ‘peace’, a statement from his office said.

Al-Sistani ‘affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights,’ the statement office said.

For its part, the Vatican said Francis thanked Al-Sistani and the Shiite people for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

He said Al-Sistani’s message of peace affirmed “the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”

Doves are released to mark Pope Francis’s private meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani at his home in Najaf. (Vatican Media)

07:00: Pope Francis leaves the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf after meeting with him. He is expected to depart for Nassiriya to lead an interreligious meeting at the Plain of Ur in southern Iraq which is revered as the birthplace of Abraham, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Pope will afterwards return to Baghdad.

The visit was carried live on Iraqi television, and residents cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

“We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Pope Francis leaves the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf after meeting with him. (Screenshot)

05:05: Pope Francis arrives in Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s home Najaf.

The Vatican’s hope was that Francis would sign a document with Al-Sistani pledging human fraternity, just as he did with Sunni Islam’s influential grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, based in Egypt.

03:45: Pope Francis departs from Baghdad and will travel by plane to the cities of Najaf and Ur.

- with agencies


Go to Arab News’ dedicated In Focus section on the Pope's visit to Iraq for coverage of the historic trip. Click here.


US climate change envoy visits UAE for regional dialogue conference

Updated 05 April 2021

US climate change envoy visits UAE for regional dialogue conference

  • Kerry discussed the possibilities of developing cooperation between UAE and US with Abu Dhabi crown prince
  • Kerry praised the great role the UAE plays in supporting renewable energy projects

LONDON: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed met with the US envoy for climate change John Kerry, who is visiting the UAE to participate in the Regional Dialogue Conference on Climate Change.
During the meeting, Sheikh Mohammed and Kerry discussed the possibilities of developing cooperation between the UAE and the US in various fields related to preserving the environment, confronting climate changes, and limiting their negative impacts on environmental and economic systems, the Emirates News Agency reported.
Both sides “stressed the importance of concerted efforts and joint international work with international organizations to accelerate the creation of smart and sustainable solutions to reduce the impacts of climate change on societies, help countries achieve their climate goals, and ensure a more sustainable future for humanity.”
The two sides discussed a number of major strategic projects in the UAE that enhance clean energy efforts, contribute to limiting the repercussions of climate change, and promote sustainable development.

The crown prince and the envoy also discussed the importance of the UAE hosting the first Regional Dialogue Conference on Climate Change, which is a platform for exchanging ideas on the most prominent climate issues and challenges.
Kerry praised the great role the UAE plays in supporting renewable energy projects to combat the repercussions of climate change, stressing the importance of these initiatives due to their great impact on the future of mankind and the sustainability of natural resources.
The conference focused on preparations for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which will be held in early November in Glasgow, Scotland, to accelerate efforts to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
It was also aimed at building more momentum in preparation for a summit called by US President Joe Biden for climate leaders, which will be held in Washington later this month.
Meanwhile, Minister of Climate Change and Environment Abdullah Al-Nuaimi said Kerry’s participation in the conference enhances the capabilities of identifying future directions for global climate action, and preparing more effectively for COP26.
“The challenges posed by climate change and the negative impacts it creates are clear to the international community as a whole, and the problem is that the severity of these impacts is increasing at an accelerating pace, which requires accelerating global efforts to reduce the severity of this change and enhance the capabilities to adapt to its repercussions to ensure a sustainable future,” he said during the conference.

He said the UAE adopted the National Adaptation Program, which aims to enhance the capabilities of all sectors to adapt to the repercussions of climate change, and comprehensive evaluation studies have been launched on the current and future impacts of these repercussions on vital sectors in the country, including health, energy, infrastructure, environment, and insurance.
Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology Sultan bin Ahmed Al-Jaber said the UAE has a record of achievements in clean technology and sustainable development over the past 15 years. He said the UAE realized early on that these investments have great economic feasibility and are supported by market trends.
“Our region has great and distinct capabilities that allow it to contribute to facing the common global challenge of climate change… and through intense cooperation and hard and effective work, we will be able to increase our contribution to the maximum, while taking advantage of the latest technologies and focusing on smart investment to ensure sustainable development that boosts economic growth,” he said.
A joint statement signed by the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, and the US urged the international community to take steps to ensure that global average temperatures are kept within the limits agreed upon under the Paris Agreement, including by strengthening nationally determined contributions.
“As we pass through a critical decade for climate change, we believe that investments in renewable energy, adopting methodologies based on protecting ecosystems, applying nature-based solutions, climate-smart agriculture, carbon capture techniques and other solutions to reduce carbon emissions will contribute in supporting sustainable economic growth and creating more job opportunities,” it added.

Middle East weighs agri-tech solutions as pandemic underscores urgency of food security

Updated 29 March 2021

Middle East weighs agri-tech solutions as pandemic underscores urgency of food security

  • GCC countries avoided nightmare scenario of mass food shortages during the peak of the coronavirus crisis
  • Challenges loom as farming methods and climate change deplete freshwater stocks and turn soil to dust

DUBAI: In an age of plentiful food, it is often easy to forget just how fragile supply chains are until disaster strikes. One bloc taking stock of its pantry is the GCC, whose members import some 90 percent of their food.

Although the GCC countries managed to avoid the nightmare scenario of mass shortages during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, the crisis has certainly given Arab capitals plenty to chew over concerning their long-term food security.

“Ministries really got a wake-up call during this time of distress and are trying to escalate their own initiatives, being able to have more local produce and be more food secure in the years to come,” Atle Idland, general manager of Desert Control Middle East, told Arab News.

“The pandemic has been a catalyst for many countries and governments to get their plans up from the table and into action.”

Desert Control is among a crop of agri-tech firms that will showcase their innovations at Expo 2020 Dubai in October this year.

The Norwegian start-up has patented Liquid NanoClay (LNC), an agri-technology that binds a mineral-rich solution to grains of desert sand, converting once unusable land into arable soil, reducing water irrigation by 50 percent and radically improving crop yields.

Famine is a realistic concern, as food production struggles to keep up with population growth. (AFP)

“The region has been producing a very limited number of agricultural crops, due to the climate itself, and also due to the water scarcity in the region,” Idland said.

“Give that both Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are running low on their aquifers of fresh water, and that agriculture is using 75 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, this is not a sustainable process. It cannot continue.”

According to the UN, some 135 million people could lose their homes and livelihoods to creeping desertification by 2030. Inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa are more vulnerable than most.

Unless societies change their farming practices, Idland warns, the world has just 60 years of agricultural opportunities left before fresh water runs dry and desertification claims the last of its fertile soils.

“Adopting new technologies for agriculture and food security is definitely something that is on the table right now and is being implemented as we speak,” he said.

Atle Idland, general manager of Desert Control Middle East

Growing food at a local level has the added benefit of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint by cutting the amount of air freight needed to meet demand.

Idland claims LNC is radical in the sense that it is a low energy and purely mineral-based product containing zero chemical agents. “It’s only clay, water and oxygen that is mixed together to produce a Liquid NanoClay solution,” he said.

The Middle East is described by Idland as a major potential marketplace for LNC to lay down roots. “We are one, and not the only one, that can be a catalyst for utilizing unused desert land and sandy soils to do large scale agriculture,” he said.

In its initial commercial trials in the UAE, according to Idland, Desert Control’s product was found to produce 20 percent more watermelons and 60 percent more pearl millet compared with traditional means, while using just half the water.

Saudi Arabia is next in line.

“I came back from the Kingdom in early February and we are having some interesting discussions there, both within the agricultural sector and the sporting field sector,” Idland told Arab News.

“Everybody has the need to go greener, more sustainable and with water savings. Water scarcity is really the main driver for this trend.”


75% - Proportion of global freshwater used by agriculture.

135 million - Livelihoods imperiled by desertification by 2030.

10 billion - Projected global population by the year 2050.

On the downside, agri-technologies such as vertical farming and greenhouse cultivation, which allow non-native crops to grow closer to sources of demand, are known to consume a lot of energy for lighting and warmth and to desalinate water for irrigation.

Scientists believe desertification and climate change are intricately connected, although human mismanagement is also responsible. Increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations reduce the amount of heat radiation escaping to space and thus lead to a gradual increase in global temperatures.

Rising temperatures, coupled with changing precipitation patterns, are expected in turn to increase the rates of dryland degradation and desertification. Already, every year the world’s deserts encroach upon an area roughly 20 times the size of Denmark, swallowing up the rich biodiversity that lives in the soil.

“We will be in big trouble,” Idland said. “Based on research, knowledge, intent and visions, everybody now is putting serious effort into this. We are glad to be part of that journey and, hopefully, to be a part of that solution. Making Earth green again — that’s our slogan.”

By 2050, the world’s food systems will need to feed an estimated 10 billion people. But at the current rate of production, only half that number will be fed. Widespread famine is a real possibility.

At the same time, outmoded agricultural practices are a significant emitter of greenhouse gases.

“With climate change affecting food production, it’s not hard to see that we are in a vicious cycle,” said Mariam Almheiri, UAE minister of state for food security, while taking part in a recent pre-Expo 2020 Dubai Thematic Week session.

“In short, nothing short of an entire paradigm shift in how we produce food and deliver it from farm to fork is needed if we are to create sustainable food systems, no hunger, and food security for the world.”

LNC is aiming to help bridge the gap in food production and population growth. (Supplied)

The concerns were echoed by Reem Al-Hashimy, UAE minister of state for international cooperation and managing director of the Expo 2020 Dubai bid committee.

“Today, food security stands as a hallowed and unassailable tenet of true human dignity,” she said. “The capacity of all nations was tested in the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed the vulnerability of our global food value chain.

“Yet in the wake of that harsh examination, now we are presented with an opportunity to reimagine our chain and learn to eat and earn cleaner and smarter, and in a more sustainable fashion.”

Later this year, Expo 2020 Dubai will bring together stakeholders from every part of the chain, from producers to facilitators to consumers.

“Expo will be a marketplace for ideas and innovation, a chance to absorb best practice from more than 190 countries, and take it home with you, and apply it into pastures — learning global and practicing local, overcoming shared challenges through intelligent and transferable solutions,” Al-Hashimy said.

Another challenge is food waste, whereby one in three mouthfuls is wasted by producers, retailers and consumers. Poor farming practices are also responsible for deforestation, land degradation and pollution.

ALSO READ:  How the Arab region can catch up with the future of food

“We know we must do better,” Al-Hashimy said. “We will actively seek fertile alternatives to antiquated practices that strip larger and larger stretches of arable land, while reaping ever decreasing economic benefits.

“We are already paying the price for encroaching too vigorously on the natural world, in the form of the zoonotic disease COVID-19 that has decimated lives and economies around the world.”

Future economic models must work for the benefit of billions of people whose quality of life depends on an equitable system that rewards responsible and productive practices and protects the land these communities call home, said Al-Hashimy.

“This is a moment in which meaningful and effective international cooperation can entirely recast antiquated structures founded on centuries-old imbalances — imbalances we can no longer sustain and under which we will never truly thrive.”


Twitter: @CalineMalek

High tide raises hopes of freeing megaship blocking Suez Canal

Updated 29 March 2021

High tide raises hopes of freeing megaship blocking Suez Canal

  • 14 tugboats had already been deployed to help free the stranded giant ship
  • Over 370 ships were stalled at either end of the canal because of the blocked passageway

CAIRO: A high tide on Sunday night raised hopes that salvage crews could free the giant container ship blocking the Suez Canal, halting billions of dollars in global trade and denying Egypt vital daily revenue.

Two powerful new tugboats, one Italian and one Dutch, will arrive early on Monday to join diggers on land and dredgers on the water trying to dislodge the 400-meter MV Ever Given, which has been wedged diagonally across the canal since Tuesday.

Dredgers had shifted 27,000 cubic meters of sand to a depth of 18 meters, and efforts would continue around the clock according to wind conditions and tides, the Suez Canal Authority said.

Authority chief Osama Rabie said the ship had moved from side to side for the first time. “There are positive indicators from yesterday and the day before yesterday,” he said.

“The rudder was not moving and it is now moving, the propeller is working now, there was no water underneath the bow, and now there is water under it, and the bow and the stern have each moved four meters.”

Rabie said a total of 14 tugboats had already been deployed. “We’re dividing the day into two halves, 12 hours for dredgers and 12 hours for tugs, because not all times are suitable for tugs due to the tide.”

The canal blockage has forced companies to choose between waiting or rerouting vessels around Africa, adding 9,000 kilometers and over a week to the trip between Asia and Europe, as well as vastly increased costs.

About 370 ships were stalled at either end of the canal, Rabie said, including dozens of container ships, bulk carriers, oil tankers and liquefied natural gas (LNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) vessels.

He said Egypt was losing up to $14 million in revenue for each day the canal  was closed, and Lloyd’s List said the blockage was holding up an estimated $9.6-billion worth of cargo each day.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has ordered preparations for the possible removal of some of the ship’s 18,300 containers, Rabie said, but any operation to lighten the ship’s load would not start before Monday. The area has been placed under tight security, with extra military and police personnel deployed.

Chinese FM reveals initiative to protect MidEast: Al Arabiya

Updated 25 March 2021

Chinese FM reveals initiative to protect MidEast: Al Arabiya

  • Wang Yi stresses importance of supporting efforts of the regional states regarding Syria and Yemen

DUBAI: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday unveiled a five-point initiative for security and stability in the Middle East to Al Arabiya.

The minister, who is visiting Saudi Arabia, told the channel that China called for “mutual respect among the countries of the Middle East.”

Yi stressed the importance of supporting the efforts of the regional states regarding Syria and Yemen.

The minister expressed China’s support for the Saudi initiative to resolve the conflict in Yemen, stressing that it reflects Riyadh’s resolve to address the Yemeni crisis. He also hoped to implement that initiative as soon as possible.

The Saudi peace initiative includes a nationwide ceasefire and the reopening of air and sea links with the territories held by the Houthi group in Yemen.

The Chinese minister also discussed the Palestinian and Israeli issue, and called for a two-state solution, stressing that his country would send invitations to Palestinian and Israeli personalities for a dialogue in China.

He also stressed that China called for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, adding, “the efforts of the countries of the region must be supported to ensure that they are free of nuclear weapons.”

During his visit to Saudi Arabia, the Chinese minister is expected to meet his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Nayef Al-Hajraf, the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

He is expected to discuss matters of common interest, and ways to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries.

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Arab Parliament, Jordan condemn opening of Czech Jerusalem office

Updated 15 March 2021

Arab Parliament, Jordan condemn opening of Czech Jerusalem office

  • Palestinian Foreign Ministry called the move ‘a blatant attack on the Palestinian people’
  • Czech Republic is one of Israel's strongest supporters in the European Union

DUBAI: The Arab Parliament condemned Czech Republic’s opening of an embassy in Jerusalem, saying the decision is against the international law and violates the rights of Palestinians, state news agency Petra reported.
Speaker of the Parliament Adel Assomi called on the “government and parliament of the Czech Republic to not follow through with this illegal action that runs counter to the international legitimacy.”
Jordan’s foreign ministry has also expressed its condemnation to Czech Republic’s decision, describing it as a flagrant violation of international law.
“Any measures or decisions aimed at changing the holy city’s legal status are null, illegal and have no legal effect,” the ministry’s spokesperson Dhaifallah Ali Al-Fayez said.
Prague opened a Jerusalem branch of its Israel embassy, which is located in Tel Aviv, on Thursday. Its inauguration, attended by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, was two weeks after Israel sent several thousand COVID-19 vaccine doses to the Czech Republic.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said it considered Prague's move "a blatant attack on the Palestinian people and their rights, a flagrant violation of international law," and said it would harm peace prospects.
In Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement: "The legal status of Jerusalem will be affected by the decision of one country or another to open representative offices. East Jerusalem is an occupied land under the International law."
Jerusalem’s status is one of the thorniest issues in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel annexed the eastern part of the city in a move not recognised internationally and regards all of Jerusalem as its capital.