THE POPE IN IRAQ: Religious leader’s visit plays part in long-standing Shia religious rivalry

On Friday, March 5, 2021, Pope Francis, the world’s leader of the Catholic Church, is planning to start his historic visit to Iraq. This will begin with a meeting with the Iraqi President in Baghdad, followed by meetings with local Christian leaders.

By Mustafa Habib

The next day, Saturday, Pope Francis will travel to Najaf to meet with the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, Ali al-Sistani. Then there will be a multi-faith meeting in the city of Ur in Dhi Qar province – this is reputed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, who is said to be the father of the three faiths, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

The next day, Sunday, Pope Francis will travel to Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he will conduct a mass. The religious leader will also travel to the nearby northern city of Mosul, which was once controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. There he will pray for victims of this and other conflicts.

But it is Pope Francis’ stop in Najaf that is likely to be most significant. The Pope often calls for interfaith dialogue, and this is important especially for the two main sects of Islam, the Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims.

This will also be the Pope’s first trip to a predominantly Shiite Muslim country. He has already visited Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, all of which are Sunni Muslim-majority nations.

While in Egypt, Pope Francis met with one of the world’s leading Sunni Muslim clerics, Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar in Egypt.

But the meeting in Najaf means more to Shiite Muslims than that. The only other spiritual leader that challenges al-Sistani for dominance among Shiite Muslims is Iranian spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei is based in the Iranian city of Qom and the rivalry between the two schools of Shia Islam goes back centuries. The two religious centers have very different philosophies too. Clerics in Qom believe that they are custodians of the Iranian people and that, therefore, they should have political power. As a result, Iran is a theological state. Whereas the clerics in Najaf, in Iraq, prescribe separation of church and state.

Contemporary Iraq has plenty of examples of how this rivalry has played out. Al-Sistani, of Najaf, supported young Iraqi anti-government protests against political corruption. Meanwhile groups allied with Iran stood against the protesters and Iranian officials described the demonstrations as a conspiracy.

There is also disagreement between the two sides about Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF. These are semi-official paramilitary groups that were made up by volunteers to fight against the extremist Islamic State group. The groups are now a contentious part of Iraq’s security forces. Al-Sistani believes the groups should be fully incorporated into Iraq’s military. But Iranian officials, who support some of these groups with weapons, pay and guidance, want the PMF to remain independent of the rest of the Iraqi forces.

This led the paramilitary groups allied to al-Sistani to defect from the PMF, saying that from now on they would only take orders directly from Iraqi state actors.

“The conflict between the Najaf authorities led by al-Sistani and Qom led by Khamenei is moral and intellectual struggle,” Aqeel al-Waili, a student of theology based in Najaf, says. “It is about the question of who is the rightful spiritual leader of Shiite Muslims.”

Al-Waili believes the Pope’s visit will give Najaf precedence on the global stage and will put emphasis on Najaf’s attitude toward politics.

“In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the Vatican and Najaf on issues like non-involvement in politics and keeping religion private,” he argued.

Last week, a delegation from Rome arrived in Najaf to arrange the upcoming meeting between the two spiritual leaders.

And while most Iraqis seem to be eagerly awaiting the visit and the positive attention it would bring their country, Shiite Muslim forces close to Iran remained unenthusiastic.

Prominent cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who aligneds himself mostly with Najaf, also put out an official statement saying that the uptick in rocket attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone, where embassies and government offices are based, are all attempts to hinder Pope Francis’ visit .

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