The Pope and the Ayatollah: Why the Francis-Sistani summit is a major interfaith breakthrough

The Pope and the Ayatollah: Why the Francis-Sistani summit is a major interfaith breakthrough
In-depth: There are high hopes in both Iraqi Christian and Shia Muslim communities ahead of Pope Francis' historic meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
4 min read
04 March, 2021
The meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been hailed as historic. [Getty]

Editor's note: This article is part of our special coverage of Pope Francis' visit to Iraq. The rest of our coverage can be accessed on this regularly updated portal.

Baghdad, Iraq - In a meticulously planned private meeting, head of the Catholic Church Pope Francis and Iraq's highest Shia authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, will make history when they sit down together on Saturday in the cleric's modest home in Najaf.

The historic encounter has been hailed by Iraqi President Barham Salih as a "a deep religious expression of moderation," with the symbolic power of the 40-minute dialogue already reverberating through Iraqi society.

"It is due," Father Rami Simon, from the Dominican convent in Baghdad, told The New Arab. "For us it would have been quite surprising if everything had not been done for this meeting to take place," said the religious leader. But Iraqi Christians are not the only ones rejoicing over the historic encounter.  

"All of my community is happy about this meeting taking place," exclaims Jalal Shareef, Imam of the Great Prophet Mosque in Rusafa, in the center of Baghdad. "This visit, and the meeting in particular, is an achievement for peace for Iraqi people and especially Shia and Christians of course," he added.

"It will show the brotherhood between the two religions.  The result of the meeting will be concrete and will reflect on all of society. Grand Ayatollah Sistani is seen as a leader for all Muslims in Iraq," he said.

"Sistani, for Shia Muslims, it is the equivalent of the Pope for the Christians," echoes Saad al-Muttalibi, an independent parliamentarian previously affiliated with the Shia Islamist Dawa party. "When this visit was announced I was surprised. Then I thought that this form of respect that the Pope shows him will help Sistani to improve his image internationally, perhaps even among Americans and the United Nations," said the politician. 

It will show the brotherhood between the two religions. The result of this meeting will reflect on all of society

Widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in Iraq today, the nonagenarian cleric's words have the power to mobilise the nation. His rare interventions in issues of politics and governance have often had a profound impact on modern Iraq, although he has also weighed in on political mismanagement and corruption. 

"Sistani comes from a religious school traditionally opposed to the intervention of an Ayatollah in politics, but since 2003 he has been almost forced to do so, after the failure to rebuild the country," Renad Mansour, an analyst for Chatham House and Project Director of the Iraq Initiative, told The New Arab

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"Sistani has a central role in building peace in Iraq. I believe he deserves this recognition when the Pope comes and I believe that will be the highlight of the visit," said William Warda, President of the Hammurabi organisation for the defence of religious minorities in Iraq. Sistani has taken positive positions in favour of Christian minorities in Iraq. In several fatwas he has insisted on the respect and protection of all religious minorities. 

"From this meeting we expect the recognition of what he has already done," insists Father Rami. "And for the citizens and the Shia in particular, the effects will be very positive for conviviality with the Christians". Even if Iraq's religious freedoms were to be protected by the state and "one goes to the mosque or to the church without any direct security risk, there is still a need for more respect and recognition of one's faith, in particular among minorities," says William Warda. 

The Holy Father is a man of peace; all the Iraqi people will welcome him as such

"Any meeting that can be used to restore peace and to encourage Christians to stay here, we look at it favourably," Archbishop Nathanael Nizar Semaan of the Syriac Catholic diocese of Hadiab in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, told The New Arab. "The Holy Father is a man of peace; all the Iraqi people will welcome him as such".

While the exodus of Christians from Iraq continues unabated and their numbers continue to fall – over 90 percent have left Iraq since 2003 according to some estimates - the bishops of Iraq said in their Christmas message that the Pope's visit would give hope to the beleaguered community. 

In February 2019, during his visit to Abu Dhabi, the first to the Arabian Peninsula by a pontiff, Pope Francis signed a declaration of Human Fraternity with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, considered one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam. Many are now hoping for the same with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq

Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti