BAGHDAD Firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited a Baghdad church that was the scene of a deadly 2010 attack as well as one of the Iraqi capital’s main Sunni mosques Friday, an apparent overture to other religious groups as opposition mounts against his rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The cleric’s stops at the holy sites — a rare public appearance by Al-Sadr outside predominantly Shiite parts of Iraq — came as tens of thousands of protesters angry over perceived second-class treatment gathered in Sunni-dominated areas to maintain pressure against al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
Al-Sadr, wearing his signature black cloak and turban, said he visited the Our Lady of Salvation church to express sorrow at the attack and send a message of peace to Iraq’s Christian community.
The visit comes amid rising sectarian tensions a year after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Al-Sadr grudgingly backed fellow Shiite al-Maliki after elections in 2010. But last year he joined Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for al-Maliki to resign.
At the church, al-Sadr sat quietly in the front pew, listening and nodding as Father Ayssar al-Yas welcomed him. The priest then gave al-Sadr a tour of the recently renovated church, pointing out places where attackers in 2010 killed priests and worshippers during a church service ambush. More than 50 were killed in the attack, blamed on Sunni extremists.
Al-Maliki himself attended a ceremony to officially reopen the church last month.