NEW YORK — The meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husaymi al-Sistani can make a difference in America, says Cardinal Wilton Gregory, because it demonstrated “that people from different religious traditions can work together in a spirit of dialogue and mutual respect.”
“We can learn from each other and our religious and cultural perspectives in order to foster human solidarity,” Cardinal Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington said.
Cardinal Gregory made the comments March 17 in an online conversation with Sayyid M.B. Kashmiri, the representative of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in the U.S., that further explored the impact of the historic meeting between the religious leaders. Particularly, as it pertains to Christian-Muslim relations.
Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who is the top cleric in Shia Islam, met privately in Najaf earlier this month, part of Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq. The pontiff also made stops in Bagdad, Erbil, Qaraqosh, Mosul and the Plain of Ur, which is traditionally recognized as the birthplace of Abraham.
For Kashmiri, the meeting set the stage for Catholics and Muslims, particularly of the Shia sect, to be role models for the rest of the world. He noted that Christianity and Islam aren’t just the two biggest religions in the world, but they have a lot in common.
“Those commonalities can help us, we can utilize them, use them in a way to show the followers of other religions to have a good model and all of us, we can work in interfaith and move forward better communication and a better future for our humanity and mankind,” Kashmiri said.
As it pertains to what’s need in Catholicism and Islam, Kashmiri acknowledged that the religious values of families and the youth are “under pressure…and they’re suffering.”
“I think from both sides, from Catholic and Muslim, specifically Shia, starting from the commonalities we have and we believe in I think we can work together, specifically in this country to have a better family system and better future for our youth as well,” he said.
Both Cardinal Gregory and Kashmiri made it clear the effect this had on Iraq can’t be understated, either.
It’s well documented the potential for danger in Iraq that Pope Francis willfully traveled into. Though the country has been liberated from the Islamic State Group since 2017, the threat of terrorist groups still looms. Not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic.
With that in mind, Cardinal Gregory said Pope Francis traveling to Iraq and meeting with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani brought the people of Iraq something they desperately needed: “Hope.”
“Iraq has been a nation ravaged by conflict and war for many years,” the cardinal said. “That they were together in a land steeped in countless tears shows in some tangible way that the people of Iraq and the suffering they have endured matters and that they are not forgotten people.”
“He showed in Iraq that he was not there to impose, or to dictate, but to begin a relationship. To begin a dialogue based on mutual respect and to encourage those who were already doing likewise in Iraq, because as you know there are already many people who do good work and they simply need to be encouraged by courageous leaders,” he continued.
From Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s perspective, Kashmiri added that it’s important to him to keep minorities in Iraq.
“This visit really insists on diversity and how it’s important in Iraq. Minorities are very important to give the mosaic picture of Iraq,” Kashmiri said. “I think that helped also to rebuild not only cities, towns, homes of all those who suffer but also rebuilding the relationship between Iraqis from different colors, different cultures, different backgrounds. That was essentially very important.”
Now is also the time, Kashmiri continued, for further “collaboration and cooperation” between religious scholars in different parts of the world. He noted that already several scholars from his community have very good relationships with different churches across the U.S.
“If we plan and act and work on it precisely, then it’s supposed to, it should result in making pressure on different governments, different officials in different parts of the world who they have the keys to change international communities to bring more peace to our people,” he said.
Of the conversation Cardinal Gregory and Kashmiri shared, the cardinal called it a “hopeful moment.” One that “builds upon a grace moment that Ayatollah al-Sistani and Pope Francis have established for all the world to see.”