Top Shi'ite cleric: Iraq must protect and welcome Christians as equals

Pope Francis got exactly what he wanted out of his historic pilgrimage to Iraq — and thus far, so have the Iraqis. The Pope arrived yesterday in the first-ever visit to the country by a pontiff, with the express aim of healing divisions and encouraging the regeneration of the decimated ancient Christian communities of Mesopotamia. As I wrote yesterday, the key to Francis’ trip was a meeting with the revered anti-theocratic Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has spent most of the last twenty years staying out of the limelight and offering few public comments, preferring to lead by example and by close counsel only.

Today, however, Sistani welcomed Francis publicly into his home — itself an unusual event for the 90-year-old cleric — and proclaimed that Iraqis had a duty to protect and welcome Christians as equals in their own homeland:

Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during an historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history. …

In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement — and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.

This could not have gone better for Francis. It might not have gone much better for Sistani either, whose anti-theocratic philosophy has struggled to maintain any standing against the influence of Iranian mullahs, who clearly profess the need to make the state an arm of the theocrats. The meeting with Pope Francis will give Sistani a chance to push back against that incursion and push Baghdad perhaps just a little more out of Tehran’s orbit.

The ayatollah’s office quickly produced its own statement hailing the meeting, adding that he also spoke on behalf of the Palestinians in the “occupied territories”:

The Ayatollah’s office released its own statement, saying that during the meeting, the discussion revolved around the great challenges facing humanity, the role of God and his messages, and the need to commit to higher values to overcome the challenges.

According to the statement, Sistani also spoke about injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution, the suppression of basic freedoms and the absence of social justice, especially wars, acts of violence, the economic blockade and the displacement of many peoples of the region who suffer, highlighting the Palestinian people “in the occupied territories.” …

Sistani represents the mainstream Shia, and according to the scholar [Hayder al-Khoei], all the other Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf welcome the papal visit and view it as historically significant, as well as a recognition of the importance of Najaf not just on a regional level but also on the international stage.

“Unfortunately, there are extremists in every religion and sect, and there are some people who do not want the pope to visit Iraq or to meet Sistani because such a visit and meeting will highlight the peaceful, tolerant and moderate voices in Iraq and this will make the contrast stronger between the peaceful voices and those who believe in violence as a solution,” he said.

Deustche Welle offers a good overall report on the meeting, an overview of the trip thus far, and then follows it with an insightful analysis of the Francis-Sistani meeting. The impact of Sistani’s hospitality and remarks will not be contained within just the Shi’ite community, Owen Holdaway predicts. The entire country wants to move on from the perception that terrorists control Iraq and that sectarian divisions are irresolvable:

Tomorrow, Francis will speak in Mosul, the one-time, so-called capital of the caliphate. Sky News reported earlier today from a destroyed and desecrated church from where the Pope would give some remarks tomorrow, and noted its significance as one of the last battlegrounds against ISIS in the city:

Francis’ pilgrimage has many objectives, of course. He wants to give Christians and other minorities in Baghdad and western Iraq more confidence and hope, and he wants to press Iraqi authorities to keep their promises to them in the months and years ahead. The personal risk of this trip has not been missed, both for Francis and for those who engage with him, including Sistani. That kind of courage carries a great deal of moral weight and assumed obligation, which the Iraqis have met with a massive security detail working on Francis’ behalf.

However, this meeting with Sistani is the heart of this trip, as I wrote yesterday. While the rest of Francis’ trip will provide marvelous symbolism about new beginnings and the resurrection of the Christian communities in Iraq, the real bridge-building took place in this meeting. Making Sistani a partner was a wise choice — for both men.