Pope and Grand Ayatollah join forces to condemn extremism
من الصحافة اخترنا لكم
The historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq this week was freighted with symbolism, designed to lift the morale of what he called a martyred church in a martyred land and, above all, to raise the banners of pluralism. Francis called on Iraqis, shattered by decades of war, tyranny and ethnosectarian carnage, to show that “fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than hatred”. Amid chants in Aramaic, the language of Christ, Francis likened the array of age-old Christian communities to “so many individually coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet”. Seen in cold print, such rhetoric might seem trite. Situated in an epic, if brief, tour of the Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation, his words soared like the doves loosed in his honour. In the northern city of Mosul, capital of the brief but savage “caliphate” of Isis, the Pope prayed amid gutted churches, desecrated by the jihadis then reduced to rubble by US air strikes. In the south, at a prayer ceremony in Ur — by tradition the birthplace of Abraham, prophet of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — he said “hating our brothers and sisters [is] the greatest blasphemy”. But the high point of Francis’s trip was meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The 90-year-old Iranian-born spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia majority received the Pope in his austere alleyway house in Najaf, shrine city of Ali, the Shia imam and fourth caliph at the time of the 7th Century schism between Sunni and Shia Islam. Sistani rarely sees visitors or appears in public but nevertheless towers over Iraq. He is from the quietist Shia tradition that opposes clerics holding political power, as in Iran’s Islamic Republic. Yet he fought the US-led occupation authorities after the 2003 invasion, demanding an elected constituent assembly. After Isis rampaged across the country in 2014, his authority helped bring down the sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. When Francis visited the United Arab Emirates in 2019, he signed a document proclaiming human fraternity with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Sunni centre of learning in Cairo. Nothing was signed in Najaf, probably to avoid provoking Iran, whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is held to resent Sistani’s theological pre-eminence and global following. Yet the Grand Ayatollah and the Pope, two personally ascetic men who advocate social justice, are pooling their immense moral authority to combat extremism. They counter the narrative of many Arab despots, who blackmail the world into accepting that the alternative to their rule is Islamist theocracy, as well as the tendency of some Christian prelates in the east to see freedom in opposition to religious pluralism. Francis made a point of thanking Sistani for helping Christians to survive through Iraq’s darkest years. The Levant is a mosaic of religion and civilisation, teeming with syncretic and esoteric rites. Yet, ever since the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon, the region has faced the spectre of the birthplace of Christianity emptied of Christians. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Christian sects and other minorities were caught in the crossfire of jihadis and Shia militias. Accused of complicity with foreign predators, Christians fled, their numbers plummeting from roughly 1.3m to 300,000. When Isis surged into Mosul in 2014, it daubed the letter ‘N’ for Nazarenes on Christian doors, triggering a second flight. The Catholic pontiff has proven ability to capture the imagination of people of other faiths or no faith. Whether his public embrace of pluralism in Iraq can staunch the exodus of Arab Christians, and protect those who remain, is a tougher test.