By Inés San Martín
UR, Iraq (Crux) — Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq is historic for many reasons, not least of which is Saturday’s meeting with the chief figure in Shia Islam, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
It was the least-scripted encounter and took place behind closed doors in Najaf, the third holiest city in Shia Islam after Mecca and Medina.
According to the Vatican, during the 45-minute long meeting, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of collaboration and friendship between religious communities because “by cultivating mutual respect and dialogue, we can contribute to the good of Iraq, the region and of all humanity.”
The statement from the Holy See’s press office also praised the ayatollah because, together with the Shiite community, he raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted, affirming the sacredness of human life.
The ayatollah’s office released a statement, saying that during the meeting, the discussion revolved around the great challenges facing humanity, the role of God and his messages, and the need to commit to higher values to overcome the obstacles.
According to the statement, Grand Ayatollah Sistani also spoke about injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution, the suppression of basic freedoms, the absence of social justice, acts of violence, the economic blockade, and the displacement of many peoples of the region who suffer, highlighting the Palestinian people “in the occupied territories.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is, among other things, the head of the religious seminary known as the Hawza, which is much like a university and a church rolled into one.
Despite his prominence, the ayatollah hasn’t been seen in been public in years.
In the words of Hayder al-Khoei, Director of Foreign Relations of the Al-Khoei Institute in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Sistani is “a calm, wise advocate of peace.”
A 90-year-old who has been studying and teaching in the Hawza for decades, Ayatollah Sistani emerged in the 1990s “as the most recognized and accomplished scholar in Iraq, but it is important to note that he has followers from across the world, and his representatives work on an international level, from America in the West to Indonesia and Malaysia in the East,” according to al-Khoei, the former Director of the Centre for Shia Studies in London.
“Sistani has consistently condemned attacks against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and — even in the darkest days of sectarian violence that plagued Iraq in 2006 — urged his followers to show restraint and avoid falling for the trap that enemies of Iraq have set to divide the country,” he told Crux ahead of the papal visit.
Ayatollah Sistani represents the mainstream Shia, and according to the scholar, all the other grand ayatollahs in Najaf welcome the papal visit and view it as historically significant, as well as a recognition of the importance of Najaf not just on a regional level but also on the international stage.
“Unfortunately, there are extremists in every religion and sect, and there are some people who do not want the pope to visit Iraq or to meet Sistani because such a visit and meeting will highlight the peaceful, tolerant, and moderate voices in Iraq and this will make the contrast stronger between the peaceful voices and those who believe in violence as a solution,” al-Khoei said.
Much like his predecessors, Pope Francis invests much of his capital in forging lasting relationships with leaders of other religions. He has already formed close ties with the prominent Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Sunni university in Cairo.
The pope and el-Tayeb signed a declaration on human fraternity in 2019, during Pope Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. This declaration, also known as the Abu Dhabi Agreement, is a call for peace, dialogue, and mutual cooperation. It also includes a strong condemnation of terrorism, calling it “deplorable and threatens the security of people … but this is not due to religion, even when terrorists instrumentalize it. It is due, rather, to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts and to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression, and pride.”
Often labeled as the “subtle” ayatollah, the Iran-born al-Sistani rarely leaves his house in Najaf. He has, however, heavily influenced the political life of Iraq by showing support — or opposition — to political leaders and spent several years under house arrest during the Saddam Hussein regime.
His 2014 fatwa was instrumental in creating Shiite militia groups who fought the Islamic State alongside Iraqi forces, and a sermon he delivered in 2019 led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi during anti-government protests.
“Both the pope and Sistani are advocates of interfaith dialogue, unity, and they both condemn violence that uses religion as a cover,” al-Khoei said. “The meeting is important because this is not only the first papal visit to Iraq, but it will be the first time in history the head of the Catholic Church is meeting with the head of the Shia Islamic establishment.”
The scholar has met with both leaders on several occasions, and he said that he finds it interesting that the two have similar “personalities” in terms of piety and humbleness.
“They will see eye-to-eye on a number of key issues that they both champion, especially given the meeting will be an informal one in the intimate confines of Sistani’s home, without the protocol and pomp usually associated with the visit of a head of state,” he said.
Omar Mohammed, an Iraqi who runs the Mosul Eye blog, said that the meeting is of religious significance and sends a political message: Iraq can have its own Shia leadership independent of Iran.
“There are many pro-Iran militias ready to do whatever it takes to stop that encounter,” he told Crux.
“I hope the meeting will amount to something, but I also know it will be private,” Mohammed said. “And this means there will be speculation. Of course, both Pope Francis and al-Sistani have a very important voice, but Iraqis still have to take the first step.”
Mohammed said he hopes Pope Francis’s words will be directed to the people, not to the religious authorities of Iraq or the politicians.
“He, like no one else, can speak to the concerns of the people, address their wounds, concerns, both which are very deep,” he said. “The wounds of the Iraqi people are not ‘normal’ wounds.”
Al-Khoei told Crux interfaith dialogue is vital, adding, “it even helps with interfaith dialogue between believers of the same religion.”
“ISIS targeted all Iraqis, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis as well as other ethnoreligious minorities and were determined to destroy this diversity and change the very fabric of Iraqi society,” he explained. “However, Iraqis from all denominations and religions came together to defeat them because they understood ISIS to represent a common enemy.”
After Najaf, Pope Francis was heading to the city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, father of believers.