CNEWA Connections: A Meeting Between Bridge Builders in Iraq

Language is as much a slave to fashion as anything that comes down the runways of Paris, New York and Los Angeles. Expressions become “in” often because everyone is using them. Some of my favorites used to describe events are: historic, unprecedented, groundbreaking and, of course, the ever-popular jaw-dropping.

Media used these superlatives and many others to describe the recent visit of Pope Francis to Iraq. While the four-day trip was strenuous for the 84-year-old pope, he was downright cool and composed in comparison with the horde of breathless reporters and pundits describing every movement, every statement, every gesture of the pope as “unprecedented.”

While these descriptors are understandable — the trip was, by any measure, historic  important points often get overlooked in the endless quest for what is “jaw-dropping.”

In reflecting back on the pope’s visit, two pivotal aspects require further consideration. The first is clearly the impact the visit had on the suffering Christians of Iraq. What the nature of that impact is and how it will affect the future of Christianity there and in the region remains to be seen.

The second aspect is the interreligious impact the visit may have, beginning with Islam and the Shiite community and then with the small minority religious groups in Iraqi society and, by extension, throughout the world.

Today, we will look at the interreligious aspects of the visit; later this week, we will look at the impact it has had on the Christians of Iraq.

One of the most important moments of Francis’ visit to Iraq was his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Hussayni al-Sistani. I’ve known about Ayatollah al-Sistani for more than 10 years and have followed his blog site. I greatly admire his intelligence and wisdom. When I heard Francis was going to visit him, my response was definitely not, “Ayatollah who?” I was extremely happy about the visit.

It is true that the visit of Francis and al-Sistani was historic and a blessing. However, it was not just a routine or impromptu meeting. It happened because of decades of careful planning that laid the groundwork. 

“The visit of Pope Francis to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is the visit of the great bridge builder of Catholicism with the great bridge builder of Shiite Islam.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The Holy See has enjoyed good and very careful relations with Shiite Islam for more than 40 years. There have been dialogues and an exchange of scholars and diplomats. In 2005, then-president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Most recently, the Reverend Christopher Clohessy, a professor at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI), was granted Iran’s World Book Award as Distinguished Researcher of Shii Studies.

The visit to Najaf, therefore, was not a casual encounter. True, the pope and the ayatollah had never met, but neither were they total strangers to each other. Neither was the visit purely pro forma. There was a deeper significance.

Shiite Islam has two spiritual and intellectual poles: Iran and southern Iraq. Traditionally, vibrant exchanges have existed between the scholars of the holy cities of Qom in Iran and Najaf in Iraq. The exchanges, as might be expected, have been heated at times.

During the presidency of Saddam Hussein (1979-2003), the Sunni dictator of Iraq, the Shiite community in southern Iraq was brutally oppressed and persecuted. Many Shiite leaders, were brutally murdered, including Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr on 9 April 1980. This oppression resulted in the eclipse of Najaf as an important center of Shiite learning and piety. The vacuum was filled by Qom.

With the new situation in Iraq, the Shiite community of southern Iraq, as well as the intellectual center of Najaf, are being revived. To borrow a metaphor that Pope John Paul II used of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, Shiite Islam is now breathing with two lungs.

And Catholic-Shiite relations, previously restricted to Iran because of the political situation in Iraq, are now being re-established by the visit of Pope Francis with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, which has a huge impact on the Shiite community.

However, the impact goes beyond the Shiite community and extends to the entire Muslim world. Although Shiites comprise less than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide, relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have not been good. These poor relations are a threat not only to the security of Muslims but to the security of the entire world. One need only look at the hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia to see the effects of such poor relations.

One of the means used to isolate the Shiite community is to identify it with the current government of Iran. Terms like “fundamentalist” and “terrorist” are both common and unjustified. Unknown to many people in the West, Shiite Islam has a deep intellectual and theological tradition that is no more monolithic than that of Roman Catholicism. A renewed dialogue with the entire spectrum of Shiite Islam is to be welcomed as being to the benefit of all.

The visit of Pope Francis to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is the visit of the great bridge builder of Catholicism with the great bridge builder of Shiite Islam. By journeying to Najaf, the pope expressed his respect for the intellectual and spiritual endeavor of Shiite Islam, symbolized in the holy city that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third imam of Shiite Islam.

This visit was neither spontaneous nor ephemeral, and it was based on decades of fruitful and at times difficult dialogue. It is not a visit whose impact will evaporate after the media return home in search of more “jaw-dropping” events.

Indeed, with the pope’s visit to Najaf, the world witnessed something rare and significant: the nurturing and nourishing of seeds planted 40 years ago. We can reasonably hope they will grow into fruitful trees.

A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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