An historic meeting shows when it comes to building bridges, it’s always personal
By John Cookson
— Baghdad / Ur — The last time I was in Najaf was 16 years ago, holed up with other journalists in the Iman Ali mosque with supporters of Shia firebrand leader Moqtada Al-Sadr during an uprising that left 74 dead. US and Iraqi forces were lined up on the streets outside but they were never going to storm the mosque to grab Sadr, so the siege seemed to never end, until one man intervened and solved the Mexican stand off.
He was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
After his mediation the siege was over and the bloodshed stopped – the elderly cleric had also helped end Sadr uprisings in earlier in 2004. He has that sort of influence.
Iranian-born Sistani is 90 years old, has been treated in a London hospital for heart problems, and remains in poor health, but he’s still a towering presence as the leader of all Iraqi Shias.
And he’s the man with whom Pope Francis visited on Saturday morning: in a small, rented home in Najaf, to discuss building bridges between Muslims Christians.
The meeting was behind closed doors. The press were firmly excluded and the Iraqi Government’s media minders even urged journalists not to travel to Najaf.
Sistani studied legal philosophy in Qom, in Iran and seventy years ago moved to the site of Iman Ali’s tomb in Najaf in where he taught in the seminary and eventually became recognised as a Grand Ayatollah, Marja, one of the most respected clerics in Shia Islam.
Sistani has repeatedly condemned violence as a means of achieving ideological and political goals – which in Iraq is a big ask – and called for the protection of religious minorities including Christians and Yazidis.
In a statement shortly after the meeting, the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Matteo Bruni, said Pope Francis “stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family.”
Bruni called the encounter “an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up – together with the Shiite community – in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”
Bruni’s statement was short on particulars, but did relay that Pope Francis, in taking leave of Sistani, assured his host of his continued prayers: “That God, the Creator of all, will grant a future of peace and fraternity for the beloved land of Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world.”
Francis and Sistani appear to share some traits, which could mean they’ll get on well going forward. They are close in age – Francis is 84 – and men both shun ostentation.
The Pope, meanwhile, continues his mission to promote better ties with Islam. He sees himself following the example of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, in his own work to promote dialogue between Islam and Christianity.
Though this trip to Iraq is an historic occasion – and would be, given the circumstances of precarious security and global pandemic, even if it were not the first-ever visit of a reigning Roman Pontiff to the country – several of Pope Francis’s foreign trips have been to majority Muslim countries where violent, overt or tacit discrimination against Christians exists.
Pope Francis visited Egypt four years ago in April, and made another historic visit to the UAE in February 2019, where he met leaders including — again — Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam and former President of Al-Azhar University, to sign the joint Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.
It would be news, indeed, should Sistani sign up also.
40 minutes was all the time allowed on the Pope’s packed agenda for this extraordinary meeting of minds in Najaf, but that’s perhaps all that’s needed for two plain-spoken men to lay the foundations for lasting dialogue.
The second stop on the Pope’s Saturday morning is a trip into deepest Shia territory down south – and a bit of a mystery.
Vatican officials describe it as a ‘prayer gathering’ at Ur, the ancient city of Abraham, Patriarch to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – at least, it is the commonly accepted site, though a few experts say the actual place could be hundreds of miles further north, in southern Turkey – but exactly who was going to be there in addition to the Pope remained a closely guarded secret.
Christopher R. Altieri contributed to this report from Rome.