In Iraq, how Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani played a transformative role
On March 6, Pope Francis’s Mercedes-Benz pulled in near an alley in the shadow of one of Islam’s holiest shrines — Caliph Ali’s tomb — in Iraq’s Najaf as it was not wide enough for the luxury car to move further. Francis, 84, alighted and walked some distance to reach a small house for a 40-minute meeting.
White doves were released to signify peace before Francis removed his shoes to enter the austere meeting room. Francis, the head of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, took the trouble of making it for the meeting as the peace that made his visit to Iraq, and Mosul in particular, possible would have been difficult to achieve had not it been for his reclusive host, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 90. Francis’s visit to Mosul was the highlight of his Iraq trip as the city was part of the 88,000 square km territory that the so-called Islamic State (IS) occupied just seven years ago. The threat the IS posed by occupying an area bigger than that of Austria (82,523 square km) to peace globally was compounded when the Iraqi state virtually collapsed. The Iraqi forces escaped Mosul in June 2014 in the face of an IS offensive and prompted Sistani to step in by issuing a fatwa, urging able-bodied men to resist the terrorist group.
The fatwa triggered perhaps the most spirited fightback against terrorism ever. It swelled the ranks of voluntary forces raised to combat the IS and played a key role in defeating it in Iraq in 2017. Perhaps no other country has defeated a terror group with territorial control in such a short period of time — three years. The defeat made it possible for flag-waving children to line the streets in Mosul, which was virtually reduced to rubble in the fighting against the IS, to welcome Francis. Francis led prayers in Mosul’s Christian area as his audience held olive branches. He called for reaffirming the conviction that “fraternity is more durable than fratricide, hope is more powerful than death, and peace more powerful than war”. Francis emphasised the assistance Christians received from Muslims when they returned to Mosul. A damaged church in the Christian Qaraqosh town was renovated ahead of his visit to allow Francis to lead the first prayers there.
Francis’s visit to Abraham’s birthplace, Ur, was a reminder of how there is more that unites than divides the world’s major religions, which trace their roots to the Prophet. Francis quoted to a gathering of Muslims, Christians, and members of Iraq’s other minorities a passage from Genesis, where God calls on Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how numerous his descendants will be. “In those stars, he saw the promise of his descendants; he saw us,” said Francis as he called for seeing in the stars a message of unity. Francis also held a mass in Baghdad, where a choir was arranged upon his arrival in Iraq as crowds waved Vatican flags to welcome him.
Francis’s meeting with Sistani underlined a growing global recognition of the role Iraq’s top cleric has played in shaping the country since the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 with an emphasis on the separation between politics and religion and harmony. Sistani told Francis that Christians deserve to “live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights”. Francis thanked Sistani for raising “his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted’”. In its report on the meeting, The New York Times emphasised: “…Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible, and powerful. His decisions carry weight.”
In 2005, columnist Thomas L Friedman sought Sistani’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, arguing “if some kind of democracy takes root” in Iraq, “it will also be due in large measure” to the cleric’s instincts and directives. Friedman’s endorsement came in the backdrop of Sistani’s insistence on a direct election in 2005 rejecting a proposal for regional caucuses. Sistani did not let the polls be postponed despite a violent response to the US occupation. He has since urged against retaliation to sectarian attacks, prompted harmony, and proved the importance of bridge-building in neutralising violence in the name of religion that taps into disaffection for political ends.
The views expressed are personal