After meeting the Catholic clergy on his arrival in Baghdad on Friday, Pope Francis (84) reached out to Shiite Islam by visiting Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (90) – who never appears in public – in his modest home in the holy city of Najaf, 200 km south of Baghdad, this Saturday morning. A historic meeting between the two men for a closed-door interview lasting more than an hour, two years after the signing with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, an institution of Sunni Islam in Egypt, of a “document on human brotherhood ”.
Source of pride for many Shiites
Neither the press nor other guests were allowed to attend this unprecedented dialogue, but the addition of this step to the papal program is a source of pride for many Shiites in a country that has been in conflict for 40 years. into crises through a deadly civil war between Shia Muslims and Sunnis. “We are proud of what this visit represents (…) it will give another dimension to the holy city”, welcomed the Shiite dignitary Mohammed Ali Bahr al-Ouloum.
When he got off the plane, the Sovereign Pontiff passed in front of a huge call for dialogue posted on the airport for his coming. “There are two kinds of men: either your brothers in the faith, or your equals in humanity”, assured the banner, quoting Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and founding figure of Shiism buried in the holy city.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the highest authority for the majority of the 200 million Shiites in the world (a minority among the 1.8 billion Muslims). His only religious “rival” is the Iranian Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“More weight to the social aspect”
Of Iranian nationality, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani has stood for decades as guarantor of the independence of Iraq and runs a theological school that advocates the withdrawal of religious from politics – they must only advise -, unlike the school of Qom in Iran. “The theological school of Najaf is more secular than that of Qom, more religious”, recalls the Spanish cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Najaf, he adds, “gives more weight to the social aspect”. The Grand Ayatollah has also used all of his weight to bring down the government, which for months in 2019 has conspired by young demonstrators tired of seeing their country sink into corruption and mismanagement.
The Pope and the Grand Ayatollah are two religious figures who regularly make political comments. But both skilfully weigh their words. Once again, the Pope has strewn his speech to the Iraqi authorities with allusions to the situation in the country, caught between its two great American and Iranian allies.
“That partisan interests cease, these external interests which are not interested in the local population”, thus launched the Argentinian.
The Pope’s visit – under very high security – is also taking place against a background of total containment with more than 5,000 contaminations by covid-19 each day. While the Pope was vaccinated before his trip, the Grand Ayatollah’s office did not report any such measures.
After Najaf, Francis must continue his journey south, to Ur, an ancient city where, according to tradition, the patriarch Abraham was born. There he will pray with Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi and Sabaean dignitaries.
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