By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reached out to Iraq’s religious minorities, visiting a church and a Sunni mosque in Baghdad.
The January 4 visits came as Sunni-led protests against al-Sadr’s rival, Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, spread across the country.
Al-Sadr visited the Our Lady of Salvation church, desecrated in a 2010 deadly attack in which more than 50 people were killed.
The cleric said he made the visit to express sorrow at the attack and to send a message of peace to the Christian community.
Al-Sadr later went to the Abdul-Qadir al-Gailani mosque, one of Baghdad’s most prominent Sunni places of worship.
He reiterated his support for the protesters, mainly Sunni Arabs, saying: “We support the demands of the people, but I urge them to safeguard Iraq’s unity.”
Thousands of people demonstrated across Iraq on January 4, in the latest of nearly two-week-long protests against al-Maliki.
In Baghdad’s largely Sunni Arab district of Adhamiyah, protesters called for a mass prisoner release and stronger human rights provisions in prisons.
Demonstrations also took place in Salaheddin, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Nineveh governorates.
Protesters in the western governorate of Anbar continued to block a highway linking Iraq to Syria and Jordan.
Demonstrators are angered by what they perceive as discrimination and unfair application of laws against their sect by the government.
On January 3, hundreds of protesters from mostly- Shi’ite areas of Baghdad and south Iraq joined the rallies, days after al-Sadr backed the demonstrations.
The rallies began in December following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi on terrorism-related charges.
In a January 4 statement, the prime minister warned demonstrators that “foreign agendas” seek to push Iraq toward sectarian conflict.
His government has tried to appease the protesters by agreeing this week to release some detainees.
Al-Sadr backed al-Maliki following elections in 2010, but joined last year Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for the prime minister to resign.
The Shi’ite cleric rose to prominence as the leader of a militia that battled U.S. forces following the 2003 American-led invasion.