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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.


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Austrian court strikes down ban on Muslim headscarves in schools

December 15, 2020 CNA Daily News 0

CNA Staff, Dec 15, 2020 / 04:21 pm (CNA).- A ban on headscarves for elementary school students was discriminatory and unconstitutional because it singled out Muslim girls’ headscarves, the Austrian Constitutional Court has ruled.

The court said the law banning headscarves for girls under 10 years old “contravened the principle of equality in relation to freedom of religion, belief and conscience.”

Drafters tried to keep the text of the law neutral, banning “ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head.”

Judge Christoph Grabenwarter, however, said additional material from the government made it clear that the law could only be understood as targeting Muslim head coverings. The law violated the principle of equality and the state’s obligation to be religiously neutral because it singled out Muslim students.

Grabenwarter voiced concern of the ban’s effects on students.

“It carries the risk of hindering Muslim girls’ access to education and more precisely of shutting them off from society,” Grabenwarter said, according to the German news site Deutsche Welle.

Austria’s coalition government of the center-right People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party passed the measure in 2019, just days before the government collapsed amid a corruption scandal.

Backers depicted the proposal as a “child protection law,” claiming it protected girls and women against sexism and politicized Islam. They also said it would protect the nation’s culture from Islamic influences and the infiltration of parallel societies.

The new government, a coalition of the People’s Party and the left-wing Green Party, had wanted to extend the ban to girls under age 14.

Two Muslim children and their parents challenged the law, noting that it applied only to headscarves and not to smaller religious head coverings like those of Jewish or Sikh boys. In addition to religious freedom and equality concerns, they objected to the law’s infringement on religious upbringing of children.

Umit Vural, president of the Austrian Islamic Faith Community, praised the decision, the German news site Deutsche Welle said.

“Equal opportunity and the autonomy of girls and women in our society cannot be achieved through bans,” said Vumal, who also criticized pressuring girls to wear a headscarf.

“We don’t condone disparaging attitudes towards women who decide against the headscarf… and we also cannot agree with the curtailing of the religious freedom of those Muslim women who understand the headscarf to be an integral part of their lived religious practice.”

People’s Party Education Minister Heinz Fassmann said the ministry would “take note of the judgement and look into its arguments.”

“I regret that girls will not have the opportunity to make their way through the education system free from compulsion,” he said, according to Agence France Presse.

In 2018 the Muslim community in Austria had voiced concerns over the proposal, calling the proposal “counterproductive.” They said that “very few” girls under age 10 wear headscarves to school.


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Pope Francis prays for victims of Islamist attack in Nigeria that left 30 beheaded

December 2, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

Vatican City, Dec 2, 2020 / 11:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis said Wednesday that he was praying for Nigeria following a massacre of at least 110 farmers in which Islamist militants beheaded an estimated 30 people.

“I want to assure my prayers for Nigeria, where blood has unfortunately been spilled once more in a terrorist massacre,” the pope said at the end of his general audience Dec. 2.

“Last Saturday, in the northeast of the country, more than 100 farmers were brutally killed. May God welcome them in His peace and comfort their families, and convert the hearts of those who commit similar atrocities which gravely offend His name.”

The Nov. 28 attack in Borno State is the most violent direct attack against civilians in Nigeria this year, according to Edward Kallon, the United Nations’ Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria.

Among the 110 people killed, roughly 30 people were beheaded by the militants, according to Reuters. Amnesty International has also reported that 10 women are missing after the attack.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but local anti-jihadist militia told AFP that the Boko Haram operate in the area and frequently attack farmers. The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has also been named as a possible perpetrator of the massacre.

More than 12,000 Christians in Nigeria have been killed in Islamist attacks since June 2015, according to a 2020 report by the Nigerian human rights organization, the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety). 

The same report found that 600 Christians were killed in Nigeria in the first five months of 2020. 

Christians in Nigeria have been beheaded and set on fire, farms have been set ablaze, and priests and seminarians have been targeted for kidnapping and ransom.

Fr. Matthew Dajo, a priest from the Archdiocese of Abuja, was kidnapped on Nov. 22. He has not been released, according to the archdiocesan spokesman.

Dajo was abducted by gunmen during an attack on the town of Yangoji, where his parish St. Anthony’s Catholic Church is located. Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja has issued a call for prayers for his safe release.

Kidnappings of Catholics in Nigeria are an ongoing problem that not only affects priests and seminarians, but also lay faithful, Kaigama said.

Since 2011, Islamist group Boko Haram has been behind many abductions, including that of 110 students kidnapped from their boarding school in Feb. 2018. Of those kidnapped, one Christian girl, Leah Sharibu, is still being held.

The local Islamic State-affiliated group has also carried out attacks in Nigeria. The group was formed after the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2015. The group was then renamed the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

In February, U.S Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told CNA that the situation in Nigeria was deteriorating.

“There’s a lot of people getting killed in Nigeria, and we’re afraid it is going to spread a great deal in that region,” he told CNA. “It is one that’s really popped up on my radar screens — in the last couple of years, but particularly this past year.”

“I think we’ve got to prod the [Nigerian President Muhammadu] Buhari government more. They can do more,” he said. “They’re not bringing these people to justice that are killing religious adherents. They don’t seem to have the sense of urgency to act.”