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Who is Ali al-Sistani, the Muslim leader whom the Pope will meet in Iraq?

February 2, 2021 CNA Daily News 2

Baghdad, Iraq, Feb 2, 2021 / 03:19 pm (CNA).- During his upcoming trip to Iraq, Pope Francis will meet with the Shia Muslim leader Ali al-Sistani, a man in his 90s who many international analysts consider a decisive player in the region since the end of the Iraq War.

Pope Francis will visit Iraq March 5-8. According to the Holy See Press Office, Pope Francis will visit Baghdad, the site of Ur, Mosul, Bakhdida, and Erbil.

The details of the schedule of Pope Francis’ voyage have not yet been released yet. However, Raphael Cardinal Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, revealed some of Pope Francis’ possible activities.

In a Jan. 28 meeting with journalists organized by the French Bishops Conference and the association Oeuvre d’Orient, Cardinal Sako said Pope Francis would have on March 6 a private meeting with Ali al-Sistani.

According to Cardinal Sako, the two leaders will release a joint declaration against “all those who attack life.” Cardinal Sako could not confirm if the two would sign a document on human fraternity, as is the cardinal’s wish.

According to Chaldean sources, Cardinal Sako has been working for two years behind the scenes to see this meeting happen. Right after the Declaration on Human Fraternity, signed by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, a major figure in Sunni Islam, in February 2019, Cardinal Sako said that it would be important that the Pope might make a similar gesture with a Shia leader.

Cardinal Sako deemed that having a declaration for human fraternity signed with a Shia leader would be necessary for Pope Francis to embrace all the Islamic world. And Al-Sistani seems to be the most qualified person.

Ali al-Sistani was born in 1930. Hailing from Iran, he moved to Najaf in the 1950s. In 1993, al-Sistani succeeded Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei in Najaf’s Hawza, the senior Shia clerical leadership.

The Senior Vatican watcher Sandro Magister described al-Sistani in 2007 as “the most authoritative and consistent supporter of a vision of Islamic quietism.”

al-Sistani’s view was in contrast with that of the Iranian ayatollah Khomeini, who lived in Najaf from 1965 to 1978. Khomeini thought that “only a good society can create good believers,” and on this basis, he empowered the Muslim clergy and set the foundation for the theocratic state of Iran.

On the contrary, al-Sistani maintains that “only good citizens can create a good society.” In the last decade, al-Sistani has raised as the most heard and influential voice in Shia Islam and Iraq.

al-Sistani became famous outside of Iraq only after the overturn of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. His opinions on the fall of Saddam Hussein and the end of the Baathist regime quickly grabbed international media’s headlines.

In particular al-Sistani sent a message to the Iraqi people, saying that he “wished the Iraqis to overcome this difficult period of their history without being framed in sectarian and ethnic conflicts.”

The 2004 Battle of Najaf pitted US and Iraqi forces against the Mahdi Army, a Shia Islamis militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr. al-Sistani was in London for a medical visit when the battle began, and he promptly returned to Najaf, advocating a truce between the parties.

Between 2006 and 2007, Iraq experienced a wave of sectarian violence that broke with the strike of two military imams’ shrines in Samarra. Even in that extreme situation, al-Sistani showed his moderate side: he asked to abstain from violence and condemn the acts of violence “striking and dividing the country.”

al-Sistani backs the separation between religion and politics, and he supports a civil government based on the people’s will, not a common position among Muslims.

In 2017, Iraqi forces were about to defeat the Islamic State that had invaded the Nineveh Plains three years before. al-Sistani’s intervention was crucial. He called all Iraqi citizens to take arms to defend the country, regardless of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. Thousands of volunteers responded to the call and formed the Popular Mobilization Forces, playing a crucial role in stopping the Islamic State.
That al-Sistani has a different view from the Iranian Shia was evident in 2014, when the Iraqi premier was Nouri al-Maliki, considered a strategic partner to Iran. al-Sistani did not back his confirmation as premier, although he had won the elections. However, al-Sistani’s position did not go unheard: Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shia, was appointed Prime Minister.

Recently, al-Sistani hit the headlines for another initiative: Ahmed al-Safi, one of his public representatives, asked in his behalf the abolition of pensions and privileges for high ranked officials. The saved resources, he suggested, should be allocated to provide service and alleviate the low-income population’s situation.

The pension for a member of parliament amounts to $6,500 a month, and is for life, which goes along with security, housing, and other privileges.

Iraq’s 2020 was not only characterized by the spread of COVID but also by protests. Thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand for a change in the political-institutional system and the end of rampant corruption.

The protesters sent several appeals to al-Sistani since they believed he was the only one able to understand their requests. And so it was natural to most of the international observers to set the gaze on al-Sistani since they knew that every word of his was going to be listened to.

al-Sistani is also strongly opposed to any kind of external interference on Iraqi issues. After the Iraq War, he weighed in the public debate asking to call for new elections, thus pushing the transition between US Ambassador Lewis Paul Bremer, who had served as Provisional Coalition Administrator of Iraq, and the interim government led by Ayad Allawi.

Despite his advanced age and precarious health conditions, al-Sistani is still considered a stability factor in Iraq.

For local observers, Pope Francis’ meeting with al-Sistani will, in the end, close the circle. First, the Pope backed the re-opening of the dialogue with Al-Azhar. The renewed rapport with Al-Azhar led to Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt in 2017, then to five consecutive meetings between the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed by the Pope and the imam in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4, 2019.

Now, it is time for Pope Francis to extend his arms to Shia Islam, and Cardinal Sako saw in a meeting with al-Sistani an excellent opportunity to do that. The meeting between the Pope and al-Sistani could also tell the Iraqi people that the Pope backs the “quietist” –non-violent, more spiritual- wing of the Muslim world.

All of these issues will be part of the March 6 meeting. It will not be in Najaf, as Cardinal Sako hoped. It will be, anyway, an important meeting.