BAGHDAD (AP) – In Iraq’s holiest city, a pontiff will meet with a revered ayatollah and make history with a message of coexistence in a place plagued by bitter divisions.
One is the senior pastor of the world Catholic Church, the other a preeminent figure in Shiite Islam whose opinion has a powerful influence on the Iraqi streets and beyond. Their encounter will resonate throughout Iraq, even across borders into neighboring mainly Shiite Iran.
Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani will meet on Saturday for up to 40 minutes, part of the time alone except for the interpreters, at the modest home of the Shiite cleric in Najaf city. Every detail was examined in advance in painstaking behind-the-scenes preparations that touched on everything from shoes to seating arrangements.
Geopolitical nuances weigh heavily on the meeting, along with twin threats of a viral pandemic and ongoing tensions with rocket-firing Iran-backed rogue groups.
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 by Shiite militiamen against their community.
Iraqi officials in the government also see the symbolic power of the gathering, as does Tehran.
Al-Sistani, 90, has been a constant counterbalance to Iran’s influence. With the meeting, Francis implicitly recognizes him as the main interlocutor of Shiite Islam over his rival, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. News of the meeting intensified long-standing rivalries between the Shiite seminaries of Najaf and the Iranian city of Qom over which it lies at the center of the Shiite world.
“It will be a private visit without precedent in history, and it will have no equal to any previous visit,” said a religious official in Najaf, involved in the planning.
For the Vatican, it was a meeting that ran for decades, one that eluded Francis’ predecessors.
“Najaf did not make it easy,” said a Christian religious official close to the planning from the Vatican side, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the visit.
In December, Louis Sako, the patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, told The Associated Press 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 elaborating.
The church kept insisting.
“We know the importance and impact of Najaf on the Iraqi situation,” Sako said. What value would the Pope’s message of coexistence in Iraq have, they determined, if he did not seek the support of his most powerful and respected religious figure?
Sako finally confirmed the meeting in January, weeks after the pontiff’s itinerary had been put together.
Al-Sistani rarely intervenes on governance issues. When it has, it has changed the course of modern Iraqi history.
An edict by him gave many Iraqis reasons to participate in the January 2005 elections, the first after the 2003 US-led invasion. His 2014 fatwa calling on healthy men to fight the Islamic State group greatly increased the ranks of Shiite militias. In 2019, when anti-government demonstrations took over the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
The Vatican’s hope was that Francis would sign a document with al-Sistani committing himself to human brotherhood, just as he did with al-Azhar’s influential great Imam of Sunni Islam, Ahmed el-Tayeb, based in Egypt.
The signature was one of many items on which the two sides negotiated extensively. In the end, Shiite religious officials in Najaf told the AP that a signature was not on the agenda, and al-Sistani will issue a verbal statement instead.
Every minute of Saturday’s meeting is likely to be played out as meticulously as a scripted play.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s convoy will stop along the busy, column-lined Rasool Street, culminating in the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered places in the world by Shiites.
To one side is an alley too narrow for cars. Here, Francis will walk the 30 meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the clergyman has rented for decades. Waiting to receive you at the entrance will be the influential son of al-Sistani, Mohammed Ridha.
Inside, and a few steps to the right, the pontiff will come face to face with the ayatollah.
Each one will make a simple gesture of mutual respect.
Francis will remove his shoes before entering al-Sistani’s room.
Al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, will rise to greet Francis at the door and escort him to a blue L-shaped sofa, inviting him to take a seat.
“His Eminence has not taken place before with any guests,” said a religious official from Najaf.
He will remain on his feet despite his fragile health, religious officials said. Since breaking his thigh last year, the clergyman has firmly established himself indoors. Francis suffers from sciatica.
Tea will be offered to the Pope.
“His Eminence will provide His Holiness with a message of peace and love for all mankind,” the official said.
Gifts will be exchanged.
It is not clear what Najaf will award, but it is almost certain that Francis will present al-Sistani bound copies of his most important writings, among which his latest encyclical “All Brothers” stands out, on the need for greater brotherhood among all peoples to achieve a more peaceful, ecologically sustainable and just world.
So far, papal plans to visit Iraq have failed.
The late Pope John Paul II was unable to go in 2000, when negotiations with the government of then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein broke down.
Setback after setback almost spoiled this one too.
Iraq fell to a second wave of the coronavirus last month fueled by the most infectious new strain that first broke out in the UK. At the same time, a series of rocket attacks on the US presence in the country resumed. The United States has blamed the Iranian-aligned militias.
Those same groups, strengthened after the al-Sistani fatwa, are accused of terrorizing Christians and preventing them from returning home. The Iraqi government and religious officials are concerned that these militias may carry out rocket attacks in Baghdad or elsewhere to show their disgust at al-Sistani’s meeting with Francis.
As Pope, Francis sits at the top of an official hierarchy that governs the Catholic Church. Al-Sistani’s position is more informal, based on tradition and reputation. He is considered one of the most prestigious Shiite religious scholars in the world, the leading light in the Najaf seminaries, earning him worldwide reverence.
Khamenei of Iran and the seminaries of Qom compete for that prestige. The Al-Sistani school of thought opposes the direct rule of the clergy, the system in force in Iran, where Khamenei has the last word on all matters.
“The visit might upset some people and they might try to delay or cancel the visit, I have this concern,” said a second official in Najaf. Who could be upset? Hawza of Qom, ”he said, using the Arabic term to refer to the seminars.
Ebrahim Raisi, Chief Justice of Iran, considered a potential presidential candidate or even successor to Khamenei, was unsuccessful in his attempts to meet with al-Sistani on a recent trip.
“This increased the tension with the Iranians, as His Eminence did not see Raisi but he will see His Holiness the Pope,” the official said.
Politics and rivalries aside, almost everyone in Iraq’s multi-denominational fabric will have something to gain from this brief encounter.
“I see the Pope’s visit to Najaf as the culmination of a global movement in the Islamic-Christian tradition to promote security and peace in our country,” Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nadhem recently told reporters. “As we are still tinged with tendencies towards violence and intolerance.”
Associated Press journalist Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.