Intense preparation paves the way for the Pope to meet with the ayatollah


BAGHDAD (Associated Press) – In the holiest city in Iraq, the Pope will meet the esteemed ayatollah and create history with a message of coexistence in a place plagued by bitter divisions.

One is the main patron of the Catholic Church around the world, and the other is a prominent figure in Shiite Islam with a strong say in the Iraqi street and beyond. Their confrontation will reverberate across Iraq, even across the border into neighboring Iran, which is mainly Shiite.

Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are scheduled to meet on Saturday for a period of 40 minutes at most, in part of the time alone, excluding the interpreters, at the home of the modest Shiite cleric in the city of Najaf. Every detail was scrutinized early on in tedious, behind-the-scenes preparations that went into everything from shoes to seat arrangements.

Geopolitical undertones weigh in on the meeting, along with the dual threats of a viral pandemic and constant tensions as Iranian-backed rogue groups launch missiles.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, showing solidarity from Sistani can help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and they hope will ease the intimidation of Shiite militias against their community.

Iraqi officials in the government also see the meeting’s symbolic power – as Tehran sees it.

The 90-year-old Sistani has been a constant counterweight to Iranian influence. Through the meeting, Francis implicitly recognizes him as the main interlocutor of Shiite Islam against his rival, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The news of the meeting intensified the long-running rivalry between the Shiite religious schools in Najaf and the Iranian city of Qom, which lies at the heart of the Shiite world.

“It will be a private visit without precedent in history, and it will not match any previous visits,” said a religious official in Najaf, involved in planning.

For the Vatican, it was a meeting in the making, one that eluded Francis’ ancestors.

“Najaf did not make it easy,” said a Christian religious official close to the planning by the Vatican, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the visit.

In December, Louis Sacco, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, told the AP that the church was trying to schedule a meeting between Francis and the ayatollah. It was included in the first draft of the program, “but when the (Vatican) delegation visited Najaf, there were problems,” he said, without going into details.

The church continued to insist.

“We know the importance and impact of Najaf on the Iraqi situation,” Sako said. And they decided what value would be to the Pope’s message for coexistence in Iraq, if he did not ask for the support of the strongest and most respected religious figure?

Sako finally confirmed the meeting in January, weeks after the Pope’s itinerary was compiled.

Sistani rarely has a say in governance matters. When he does so, he has changed the course of modern Iraqi history.

His decree provided a reason for many Iraqis to participate in the January 2005 elections, the first after the 2003 US-led invasion. His 2014 fatwa calling for healthy men to fight the Islamic State caused the numbers of Shiite militias to drastically swell. Large. In 2019, as anti-government protests swept the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The Vatican had hoped that Pope Francis would sign a document with Sistani pledging human brotherhood, just as he had done with the imam of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, residing in Egypt.

The signature was among the many elements that the two sides negotiated widely. Ultimately, Shiite religious officials in Najaf told the AP that the signing was not on the agenda, and Sistani would issue an oral statement instead.

Every minute of Saturday’s meeting is likely to unfold with delicacy like a scripted play.

The 84-year-old Pope’s caravan will travel along the busy, colonnaded Rasul Street in Najaf, which culminates at the Imam Ali shrine, one of the most revered sites for Shiites in the world.

To the side an alley is too narrow for cars. Here, Francis will walk 30 meters (yards) to the modest home of Sistani, which the cleric has leased decades ago. Waiting to be greeted at the entrance by the influential son of Sistani, Muhammad Rida.

Inside, with some steps to the right, the Pope will face the ayatollah head-on.

Each will make a simple gesture of mutual respect.

Francis will take off his shoes before entering Sistani’s room.

Sistani, who usually remains seated to visitors, will stand to greet Francis at the door and take him to a blue L-shaped sofa, inviting him to sit down.

A religious official in Najaf said, “This has never happened before, His Eminence, with any guest before.”

Religious officials said he would stand despite his poor health. Since the cleric broke his thigh last year, it has been firmly hidden inside. Francis suffers from sciatica.

He will give tea to the Pope.

The official said, “His Eminence will present to His Holiness a message of peace and love for all humankind.”

Gifts will be exchanged.

It is not clear what Najaf will give, but it is almost certain that Francis will present Sistani with bound copies of his most important writings, on top of which is his latest publication entitled “All Brothers” about the need for more brotherhood among all peoples to achieve this. A more peaceful, environmentally sustainable and just world.

So far, papal plans to visit Iraq have ended in failure.

The late Pope John Paul II could not go in 2000, when negotiations with the government of then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein collapsed.

One setback after another that almost spoiled the problem as well.

Iraq plunged into a second wave of Coronavirus last month, driven by the new, most contagious strain that first broke out in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, a series of missile attacks targeting the US presence resumed in the country. The United States blamed militias allied with Iran.

These same groups, which were strengthened after Sistani’s fatwa, are accused of terrorizing Christians and preventing them from returning to their homes. The Iraqi government and religious officials are concerned that these militias may carry out missile attacks in Baghdad or elsewhere to show their displeasure with Sistani’s meeting with Francis.

As Pope, Francis sits at the top of an official pyramid that governs the Catholic Church. Sistani’s position is more informal, based on tradition and reputation. He is considered one of the oldest Shiite religious scholars in the world, and a pioneer of light in the seminary of Najaf, which earned him international reverence.

Khamenei and the Qom Hawzas are competing for this position. The Sistani school of thought opposes the direct rule of the clerics, which is the system in force in Iran, where Khamenei has the final say in all matters.

“The visit might bother some people and they might try to delay or cancel the visit. I am concerned,” said a second official in Najaf. “Who could be upset? The Qom seminary,” he said, using the Arabic term in reference to the seminary.

Ibrahim Raisi, the chief judge of Iran, who is considered a potential presidential candidate or even successor to Khamenei, was unsuccessful in his attempts to meet Sistani on a final trip.

“This increased tension with the Iranians because his Eminence did not see my president, but he will meet His Holiness,” the official said.

Regardless of politics and rivalries, nearly everyone across the Iraqi multi-sectarian fabric will have something to gain from the brief encounter.

“I see the Pope’s visit to Najaf as the culmination of a global movement in the Islamic-Christian traditions to enhance security and peace in our country,” Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nadim told the press recently. “Because we are still tainted by tendencies towards violence and intolerance.”


Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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