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The Pope and a top Iraqi Shiite cleric deliver a message of peace.

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The Pope and a top Iraqi Shiite cleric deliver a message of peace.

 

Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric met in a narrow alley in the holy city of Najaf on Saturday, and together they delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence in a country still reeling from back-to-back conflicts over the past decade.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani welcomed Francis into his spartan home with a simple but profound gesture. Afterward, the 90-year-old cleric, who is considered one of the most influential Shiites in the world, said Christians should live in peace in Iraq and have the same rights as other Iraqis. Francis thanked al-Sistani for “raising his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of Iraq’s most violent periods, according to the Vatican.

Later that day, the pope spoke to a group of Iraqi religious leaders in the deserts near a 6,000-year-old ziggurat in the Plains of Ur, which is also the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Given their societies’ frequently bitter divides, figures from across Iraq’s sectarian spectrum being together was almost unheard of.

The events of the day combined to give symbolic and practical weight to Francis’ central message, which called for Iraq to embrace its diversity. It’s a message he hopes would help maintain the tapestry’s position for the dwindling Christian community. Emotional worshippers sang hymns, ululated, and shouted “Viva la Papa!” or “Long live the pope!” at a Mass the pope celebrated later in Baghdad — a rare public moment of joy among a population beset by turmoil, economic woes, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, in a country where sectarian bloodshed and discrimination have traumatized every community, and politicians have tied their power to sectarian interests, his message will be difficult to sell.

Francis sought the assistance of an ascetic, respected figure in al-Sistani who is immersed in those sectarian identities while also being a powerful voice above them.

Al-Sistani is a senior cleric in Shiite Islam who is revered by Shiites in Iraq and around the world. His rare but effective political interventions have influenced the current state of Iraq. Their meeting in al-humble Sistani’s home, the first between a pope and a grand ayatollah, took months to plan, with every detail painstakingly negotiated ahead of time.

The 84-year-old pontiff arrived in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz early Saturday along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which leads to the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shiite Islam’s most revered sites.

He then walked down an alley a few meters (yards) to al-house. Sistani’s A few white doves were released as a masked Francis approached the doorway as a sign of peace.

The meeting was described as “very positive” by a religious official in Najaf. Since he was not allowed to brief the media, he spoke on the condition of anonymity.

According to the official, al-Sistani, who usually sits for guests, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room, which is a rare honor. Before entering al-office, Sistani’s the pope took off his shoes and was given tea and a plastic bottle of water.

According to footage broadcast on Lebanon’s LBC, at one point during their 40-minute meeting, the pope gingerly cradled the ayatollah’s two hands in his own as al-Sistani leaned in to speak. They didn’t wear masks and sat next to one another. According to the official, Al-Sistani spoke for the majority of the meeting. In stark contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock, Al-Sistani, who seldom appears in public or even on television, wore black robes and a black turban.

The fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before caused some alarm, according to the official. The coronavirus vaccine has been given to Francis, but not to al-Sistani. Last year, the ageing ayatollah had surgery for a broken thigh and seemed tired.

Francis paused before leaving the room after the meeting ended to take one more look, according to the official.

Al-Sistani later said in a statement released by his office that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace, with complete constitutional rights.” He emphasized the “role that religious authority plays in protecting them, as well as those who have experienced injustice and damage in recent years.”

According to the statement, Al-Sistani wished Francis and the Catholic Church happiness and thanked him for taking the time to visit him in Najaf.

Iraqis applauded the gathering, prompting the prime minister to declare March 6 as Iraq’s National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.

”We welcome the Pope’s visit to Iraq, especially to Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” said Haidar Al-Ilyawi, a Najaf resident. “This is a historic visit, and I hope it will be beneficial to Iraq and its people.”

Iraq’s Christians, who have been victimized by violence and bigotry, are hoping that a show of support from al-Sistani would help them protect their position in Iraq and reduce threats from Shiite militias.

Al-Sistani has a strong voice, which is often used to advocate for moderation.

His views forced American administrators to change their transition plans after the 2003 US-led invasion, and his approval enabled Iraq’s Shiites to vote in large numbers in post-Saddam Hussein elections. In 2019, as the country was gripped by anti-government protests, his sermon prompted Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to resign.

His title, however, is not law. As the Shiite majority came under attack by Sunni radicals after 2003, he consistently preached calm and restraint. Nonetheless, Shiite retaliation against Sunni civilians has fueled a years-long cycle of sectarianism.

His fatwa, or religious edict, issued in 2014, urging able-bodied men to join the security forces in combating the Islamic State group, contributed to the extremists’ defeat. However, it bolstered the ranks of Shiite militias, many of which are closely linked to Iran and are now accused of discriminating against Sunnis and Christians.

Later, at an interfaith meeting near the southern city of Nasiriyah, Pope Francis invoked traditional reverence for Abraham to speak against religious abuse.

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WATCH: Broncos’ Teddy Bridgewater evades Chargers’ Joey Bosa, connects with Eric Saubert for touchdown

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WATCH: Broncos’ Teddy Bridgewater evades Chargers’ Joey Bosa, connects with Eric Saubert for touchdown

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Run game carries Jets to 21-14 win over the Texans in Zach Wilson return

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Run games carries Jets to 21-14 win over the Texans in Zach Wilson return

HOUSTON — It was the definition of a team win for Gang Green. The offense was balanced, and the defense played lights out and the end result was a 21-14 win over the lousy Houston Texans.

Zach Wilson had a pedestrian day in his return to action as he went 14-for-24 for 145 yards with a rushing touchdown and an interception. Wilson wasn’t happy with his performance but elated for the victory.

“Feels really good,” Wilson said. “I wasn’t happy with how I performed. Just the ups and downs of it all. I gotta just keep going, it’s all part of the process. it feels really good to go home having a win. That’s the goal, to win the game.”

It was Wilson’s first game in a month, but the former BYU quarterback refused to blame his lackluster play on rust.

“I don’t blame anything on that,” Wilson said. “There’s no excuses. You got to really come out and play well.”

Late in the fourth quarter, Wilson appeared to tweak his knee on a scramble that caused him to limp to the sideline. But he claimed there was no legitimate issue and didn’t leave the game.

What helped propel the Jets offense to a win was the dominant run game that gashed the Texans for 157 yards.

Robert Saleh credited Jets offensive line coach and run game coordinator John Benton for creating a game plan to destroy the Texans run defense.

“JB put together a really cool plan and credit to the O-Line there,” Saleh said. “One of the challenges that we had this week for the offense was urgency and physicality at the line of scrimmage. And I felt like we were able to do that.”

The Jets answered the call. Against a loaded box, they ran for 105 yards with two touchdowns according to Next Gen Stats. That’s imposing your will.

Gang Green’s leading rusher, Michael Carter was out, but Tevin Coleman stepped up and ran for 67 yards. Austin Walter, who added 38 yards on nine carries, scored a key touchdown in the closing minutes of the first half.

The maligned defense, who had allowed over 380 yards of offense in five out of their last six games, held the Texans (2-9) to 202 yards and 14 points. Bryce Hall sealed the victory with a pass breakup on 4th-and-2 with two minutes remaining.

The impressive part was the resolve. They allowed 14 points and 157 yards by the end of the first half. But in the second half, they held the Texans offense to a scant 45 yards and zero points.

“I thought they were fantastic. I thought [Jeff] Ulbrich and the staff did great,” Saleh said. I thought the players, again, they’re getting better. And I thought this was a good one.”

One of the stars that contributed to the stalwart defensive effort was John Franklin-Myers, who had two sacks and an interception.

“Our coaches just preach we have to play our brand of football,” Franklin-Myers said. “l sometimes think things happen fast, just the momentum switches and stuff like that. But I think we did a good job of just staying locked in.”

It was a needed effort by the defense as the rookie quarterback took most of the first half to shake off the rust from missing four games with a sprained knee.

It was a tale of two halves for Wilson.

In the first half Wilson struggled. He was 6-for-12 for 44 yards with an interception. He looked jittery in the pocket and was inaccurate on a few of his throws that resulted in the ball skipping at his receivers’ feet.

On his second drive, he inexplicably threw an interception when he appeared to be scrambling. But right before he crossed the line of scrimmage, he flicked a pass to Ty Johnson, who wasn’t looking. It bounced off Johnson’s back and Tavierre Thomas intercepted the pass.

At that point Wilson was 1-for-6 for 11 yards with the pick. And the lone completed pass was a push pass behind the line of scrimmage to Elijah Moore on a jet sweep.

Even though Wilson didn’t blame rust for his struggle, it was clear as day: the No. 2 overall pick was rusty.

Five plays later, Texans QB Tyrod Taylor threw a touchdown pass to tight end Brevin Jordan to give Houston a 7-3 lead.

But right before the end of the half, trailing 14-3, Wilson finally settled down.

He went 5-for-6 for 33 yards to lead a touchdown drive to get Gang Green back in the game. Not an eye-popping stat line. But he converted a 3rd-and-9 to Ryan Griffin that kept the drive alive, and Walter scored a two-yard touchdown. The Jets successfully went for two to pull within 14-11.

In the second half, Wilson was much better. In the third quarter, his first pass was a rifle to Moore for a 22-yard gain on a curl route and that helped get Wilson comfortable.

That drive ended with a 4-yard rushing touchdown by Wilson to give the Jets the lead, 18-14. Not exactly setting the world on fire, but he doubled the first half yardage and got into a rhythm.

Overall, Wilson threw for 101 yards and went 8-for-12 in the second half.

The Jets offense sputtered in the fourth, but they were able to secure a 37-yard Matt Ammendola field goal with three and a half minutes to play and their defense finished the Texans off.

With the hype surrounding Wilson’s return it was the run game and the defense that played lights out and carried the rookie to a win.

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20 things we learned in Miami Dolphins’ 33-10 win over to Carolina Panthers

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20 things we learned in Miami Dolphins’ 33-10 win over to Carolina Panthers

Where has this Miami Dolphins team been all season?

The Dolphins (5-7), who began the season 1-7, had been warming up lately. But Miami played its first complete game of the season on Sunday, dominating the Carolina Panthers in all phases of a 33-10 win.

Miami’s defense was stingy, and made Cam Newton look like a quarterback who just came out of retirement. And the offense was efficient with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, delivering his fourth 100-plus passer rating game of the 2021 season.

Here are some more takeaways from the Dolphins’ victory on Sunday:

Fourth straight win gets Miami to respectable

The Dolphins’ win over the Panthers put Miami at five wins with five games left in the season. A win over the New York Giants (4-7) next Sunday could get the Dolphins in the mix for a wild-card playoff berth in the AFC, which was unfathomable considering the 1-7 start Miami had. No matter how you slice it, four consecutive wins in the NFL is impressive. — Omar Kelly

Jaelan Phillips continues to heat up

The former University of Miami standout the Dolphins selected with the 18th pick in the 2021 NFL draft delivered his first three-sack game of his young career, bringing his season total to 6.5 sacks with five games left to go. What’s interesting about Phillips’ hot streak is that he’s used as a pass-rushing specialist instead of an every-down linebacker, which means his opportunities have been limited.

Brian Flores proving he’s a good second-half-of-season coach

The Dolphins have annually gotten off to a slow start in Flores’ three seasons, then picked up steam in the second half of the year. Miami won 5 of the final 9 games in 2019. The Dolphins got off to a 1-3 start in 2020 and then won five straight before finishing the season 10-6. This season, the Dolphins have rebounded from a 1-7 start to win four games in a row.

Duke Riley continues to make his presence felt

Riley, an offseason singing who had primarily played on special teams earlier this season, has been utilized in the defensive game plan the past month and has been making positive plays for the Dolphins. Riley, who is used in a three inside linebacker package the Dolphins created specifically for scrambling quarterbacks, contributed three tackles against Carolina. He also blocked the punt Justin Coleman recovered and scored on for the game’s first score.

Dolphins rush for 100 yards again

The Dolphins delivered the season’s fourth 100-plus rushing yard performance against the Panthers, gaining 112 rushing yards on 39 carries. And it was Miami’s second straight game of rushing for more than 100 yards considering the Dolphins put up 115 on the ground against the Jets.

Jaylen Waddle delivers 100-yard half

Waddle had been having a steadily productive rookie season, but the Dolphins’ 2021 first-round pick hadn’t delivered a breakout game until Sunday when he caught nine passes for 137 yards and scored one touchdown. Waddle contributed 101 of those yards in the first half and is proving that he should be in the conversation for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Phillip Lindsay contributes in his first game as a Dolphin

Lindsay, a former Pro Bowl talent the Dolphins claimed off the waiver wire this past week, participated in one walkthrough and one practice with the Dolphins before playing in Sunday’s game, contributing 42 yards on 12 carries. Most of it came in mop-up duty when the Dolphins were trying to run out the clock, but overall it’s a good start for the impending free agent who is trying to impress a future employer.

Xavien Howard leads NFL in interceptions since joining league

The first half interception Howard pulled down and returned for 16-yards made him the fastest NFL player to record 25 interceptions by games played (67) since 1990. Marcus Peters was the previous record-holder, getting his 25th pick in his 68th career game.

Dolphins’ defense makes Cam Newton look washed up

The Dolphins defense ended Newton’s honeymoon with the Panthers. Newton was 5 of 21 for 92 yards with two interceptions in his three quarters of work, and eventually got replaced by former XFL standout P.J. Walker in the fourth quarter. Newton finished the game with a 5.8 passer rating, which was the fifth-worst passer rating against the Dolphins since 1970.

Justin Coleman scores his fourth career touchdown

Coleman had a rough start to his tenure as a Dolphin, but the cornerback has been playing well lately. The dime package cornerback didn’t pull down an interception this week, but he took a blocked punt return in for a touchdown. It was the fourth time this defender has scored a touchdown in his seven-year career.

Well now, who is the top-performing rookie-first-round-pick pass rusher from UM?

After a blazing start where he had three sacks, an interception, four tackles for loss (TFL) and three quarterback hits (QBH) in Buffalo’s 4-1 start, defensive end Greg Rousseau, who was selected 30th in the 2021 draft out of the University of Miami, has cooled down. Meanwhile, Jaelan Phillips, a ‘Canes alum picked 18th by Miami, is on fire after getting situational duty in his first two career games. In the 10 games since then, Phillips has terrorized offenses for 6.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits and five tackles for loss. Rousseau still has those three sacks, albeit in one fewer game played by the Bills. — Steve Svekis

Emmanuel Ogbah’s eye-popping pass-bat streak continues

Ogbah extended his amazing streak of games with a batted pass to seven with a third-quarter deflection of a Cam Newton pass in the end zone. He has eight bats to lead the NFL and it matches his league-leading number of 2018. For context regarding the streak, during J.J. Watt’s monster 2012, where he had 15 bats, the longest streak he had was three games. Ogbah did have company on Sunday, with fellow pass rushers Phillips, Zach Sieler and Adam Butler getting their hands on a pass.

A healthy Raekwon Davis and the run defense have hit their stride

The Dolphins have allowed 84.4 rushing yards per game in the past seven. In that time frame, the most run yards Miami has allowed in a game has been 102 (Jets and Bills). How stout is that 84.4 figure? Over the entire season, the NFL’s top two run defenses have been the Buccaneers, allowing a microscopic 78.4 rushing yards per game, and the Ravens at 88.6. And suddenly, the Dolphins have the ninth-best run defense in the NFL at 104.9 yards allowed per game.

Catching up with the talented 2021 draft’s top-10-pick receivers

Tua Tagovailoa was brilliant as he led the offense to 26 points, with the most exciting aspect being his continued one-mindedness with Jaylen Waddle, including a beautiful pass to hit his fellow Alabama teammate in stride for a 57-yard electric gain. The rookie is right in the midst of the race for best rookie WR in the NFL this year. He still trails No. 5 pick JaMarr Chase, who has 50 receptions, eight touchdowns and a yards-per-catch of over 18 yards for the Bengals. But Waddle is piling up a huge rookie season, even when accounting for the pass-happy nature of today’s NFL, and he has pulled away from his former Alabama teammate DeVonta Smith, with 77 receptions for 759 yards and four touchdowns. Smith has 48 catches for 686 yards and also four scores in Philadelphia with the Eagles.

Tua got a positive stock-market correction in the second quarter

Tagovailoa came into the Panthers game with a solid 94.1 passer rating in his first quarters and excellent 105.5 and 105.0 ratings in the third and fourth quarters respectively. However, the second quarter had been his Bermuda Triangle, with a 67.4 coming into the game. Against Carolina, though, he was on fire in the second 15 minutes, completing 11-of-14 passes for 126 yards and his touchdown pass. That 128.0 passer rating Sunday lifted his season number for the second quarter to a much-more-healthy 79.5.

The pass rush was a half-beat late the first half of the season, but not now

When the Dolphins were 1-7, they had a lot of pressures but only 12 sacks. Then, the switch flicked, with a whopping 16 sacks during the win streak. The have lifted their per-game sack rate from 1.50 after those first eight games to 2.33 per game now. The Dolphins will be in the top half of the league in that stat after having been bottom-three after the game at Buffalo.

It seems heavy risk vs. minimal reward to have Jaylen Waddle or Jevon Holland returning punts

The New York Giants tried this folly with their young standout cornerback Jason Sehorn in an exhibition game in 1998. He was tackled returning a kickoff and blew out his knee. Is there that much of a benefit in the return game to risk Waddle or Holland, who average under 7 yards per return. Protect those and get a reliable — but less valuable — ball-catcher back there.

Dolphins 2022 opponents update

The Dolphins are pretty safely ensconced at third-place team in the AFC East, so let’s get the latest look at the three variable matchups for 2022. At home and the road, Miami will face its annual troika against the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots and New York Jets. Of the eight other established matchups for next season, the Dolphins get home games against the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, three of those four being 2020 playoff teams who could be starting a new full-time quarterback. The eighth home games will be against the AFC South team with the corresponding finish to the Dolphins’ in the East. That team will either be the Houston Texans or Jacksonville Jaguars, each owning 2-9 records. Houston owns the tiebreaker, but the teams still have a game in Jacksonville among their remaining seven.

On the road, the Dolphins will play nine games total (they likely wasted the benefit of nine home games this year), with set-in-stone contests against the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. The two variable matchups (again, based on corresponding division finish to Miami’s) will be against the AFC West and NFC West. The AFC West is tighter that a drum, with Kansas City on their bye week leading at 7-4, with the Los Angeles Chargers at 6-4, Las Vegas Raiders 6-5 and Denver Broncos 5-5. So, as of the 4 p.m. window Sunday, the Dolphins would be making a trip to Vegas for a third straight year, but there is a ton of movement to come there still. The NFC West’s third-place team is the San Francisco 49ers, two games behind second place and two games ahead of fourth.

Will Eagles — with Miami’s pick — be picking higher in the first round than Miami?

The win on Sunday by the Dolphins shoved the Eagles-owned Miami 2022 first-rounder — which had briefly represented the first pick in the draft — down to 10th. The 49ers played Minnesota in the 4 p.m. window. A loss to the Vikings could put the Dolphins-possessed 49ers pick to as high as 13. If the Vikings win Sunday and Washington wins Monday, the those positions could shimmy up to ninth and 12th. The 49ers travel to face the Bengals, Titans, Rams and Seahawks on the road, where the Dolphins play the Saints and Titans on the road. San Francisco has upcoming home contests against the Texans and Atlanta Falcons, while Miami has a home-tilting remaining schedule (and a week off), playing the Giants, Jets and Patriots.

On deck: New York Giants, Hard Rock Stadium, Sunday, 1 p.m.

In a season where the Dolphins will play the six teams against whom they have the fewest wins (Saints: 6, Jaguars: 5, Buccaneers: 5, Panthers: 4, Texans: 2, Giants: 2), the Giants represent the opponent against whom having only two wins is most mystifying. The Dolphins have played nine games against the G-Men (winning 22.2% of the games), and the series started with a 23-13 victory during the undefeated season of 1972, but that was the only matchup in Miami’s first 24 years in the league. The only other Dolphins win came in 2003.

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