Pope’s belated gesture unlikely to end Iraqi Christians’ suffering

Any guarantees by Iraq’s top Shia cleric may be irrelevant given the control of power by his Shia hardliners
Thursday 04/03/2021
Workers stand near a poster of Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ahead of the pope’s planned visit to Iraq, in Najaf, Iraq, March 3, 2021. (REUTERS)
Workers stand near a poster of Pope Francis and Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ahead of the pope’s planned visit to Iraq, in Najaf, Iraq, March 3, 2021. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD--The Iraqis are playing down any expectations from the upcoming meeting that will bring together top Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Pope Francis during his historic visit to the country.

They believe the visit is likely to receive a lot of international attention from the perspective of tolerance and interfaith rapprochement but may not change much of the realities on the ground due to Sistani’s limited influence on armed Shia groups that target Christian and other minorities.

The 84-year-old pope is expected to visit the holy city of Najaf, which includes the shrine of the first of the Shia imams, Ali bin Abi Talib.

In the holy city, which is the seat of the Shia hawza, he will be greeted by the 90-year-old Sistani, who rarely appears in public.

The direct meeting between the two men is a pivotal event for Muslims in Iraq, of whom 60% are Shia.

Local observers say that Sistani plays a spiritual role and his political influence is limited in light of the loyalty of religious parties and militias to Iran. Most decisions attributed to him have been in favour of Tehran and the figures loyal to it, including his decision in 2014 calling for the creation of armed groups to fight ISIS.

The fateful decision turned into an invaluable card in Iran’s hands with the creation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), through which Tehran has come to dominate Iraq both politically and from a security perspective.

As for the Christian minority, many of whose members have left Iraq, a show of solidarity from Sistani may help stop them from being intimidated by Shia militias, experts say. But the impact is likely to be limited and Sistani’s guarantees to the Pope will not have much value as real decisions are made in Tehran.

Iraqi political writer Farouk Youssef believes that the pope will experience tough moments in Iraq, considering that the historic visit is a belated symbolic gesture towards the country’s Christians, who are in the throes of extreme despair.

Youssef said he wishes that the pope could meet with the leaders of Iraq in order to look the killers of Christ in the eyes instead of seeing them in Renaissance paintings or thinking about them in his readings of the Gospel. The Iraqi writer believes the Rome church was late in trying to save its people in Iraq.

Youssef told The Arab Weekly, “Because the pope is a cleric and a head of state, he knows very well the type of symbolic position that the cleric represents in the Muslim faith, and therefore he will meet Sistani as the leader of a religious sect and will not embarrass him by addressing Iraqi political issues, which the pope himself does not fully grasp.”

The Iraqi writer expects the pope not to dwell long on the Christians’ situation because he knows that Sistani cannot make any decision on the issue and will not sacrifice his standing by issuing a fatwa that will go unheeded.

“The pope understands more than others that talking about politics with Sistani is useless in such a short time span,” he added. “Therefore, one should not expect much from the visit, which will offer the occasion for a meeting between two men who will not meet again.”

“This visit by the pope sends a strong political message for a figure who is very much associated with the defence of Iraqis,” added Myriam Benraad, a French political scientist who specialises in the Arab world.

The Argentine pope often prefers direct meetings that are a symbol of tolerance and peace rather than delving into the theological complexities that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, ventured into, provoking mixed reactions.

Two years ago in Abu Dhabi, Francis and leading Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, signed a document on “human fraternity for world peace.”

They made a joint call for freedom of belief, although what stands out from that trip — the first by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula — was the image of the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics embracing a Sunni imam.

Sunnis account for almost 90% of the world’s Muslims, Shias 10%— the majority in Iran and Iraq. In Iraq, the population is 60% Shia and 37% Sunni.

The Abu Dhabi document called for freedom of belief and expression, advocating full citizenship for “minorities.”

But it does not go so far to acknowledge the right to hold no belief at all, or to convert, even drawing a parallel between “atheistic, agnostic or religious extremism” and “fanatic extremism.”

“The text, written in Arabic by two Egyptians, is symbolically very powerful but its contents push against open doors,” said Jean Druel, of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo.

“It deals with common issues. When Al-Azhar supports religious freedom, he means that Christians can go to mass.

“But atheism remains incomprehensible in the Arab Muslim world.”

The pope and his emissaries avoid flashpoint issues. In Abu Dhabi, Francis declared that religious freedom is “not limited only to freedom of worship.”

“Perfect freedom of religion is also the freedom to convert and change religion, as many Catholics have converted to Islam or Buddhism,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Congregation for the Oriental Churches at the Vatican, while suggesting the subject is taboo.

Nevertheless, he believes in the small steps of dialogue towards an “open Islam,” he said.

“It takes time, but it’s possible.”