The pope, the ayatollah and the hopes of millions: Iraq trip brings risks — and rare promise

Saphora Smith and Claudio Lavanga
·6 min read

When two frail elderly men meet in Iraq on Saturday, they will carry with them the hope of millions for better relations between Christianity and Islam.

The meeting of Pope Francis and Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims, is believed to be the first between a pope and an Iraqi grand ayatollah.

Their brief encounter in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf will be written into history and comes at a crucial time for Iraq, a diverse, multifaith country deeply scarred by sectarian violence.

Francis’ first foreign trip since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the first papal visit to Iraq also offers a moment of national pride for Iraqis and a rare opportunity to be at the center of a positive international news story.

“I long to meet you, see your faces, visit your land, ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilization,” Francis said Thursday ahead of his visit. “I arrive among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat: ‘You are all brothers.’”

The papal visit is risky. Francis will be traveling amid a second wave of the coronavirus there, and soon after 10 rockets rained down on the Ain al-Asad air base, northwest of Baghdad, on Wednesday.

But a morale boost is much needed: Iraq is still struggling to heal after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 plunged the country into chaos. The pandemic, low oil prices and tensions between Iran and the United States all add to its malaise.

“I am happy because such an important figure is going to visit Iraq,” Miqdad Radhi, a Shiite waiter in Baghdad, said. “We badly need to live as one people, no matter which faith or sect we follow, and the visit of the pope will help strengthen unity among Iraqis.”

Image: Iraqi Shiites flash victory signs (Karim Kadim / AP file)
Image: Iraqi Shiites flash victory signs (Karim Kadim / AP file)

Francis, 84, has spent years trying to improve Christian-Muslim relations, and his meeting with al-Sistani will be one of his most important with a Shiite leader. He has already forged ties with the prominent Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo, with whom he signed a document of fraternity in 2019.

“Francis over the last few years has been indeed very bent on building what we might call a religious alliance between Christianity and Islam,” said Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Francis and a fellow in contemporary church history at the University of Oxford. “The alliance really consists of forging bonds of friendship and trust with Muslim leaders.”

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis built strong relationships with Muslim leaders, Ivereigh said, and while at the Vatican he has worked to build a Christian-Muslim alliance as a way to combat the cycle of Islamic terrorism and nationalist populist reactions.

Al-Sistani, 90, has similarly called for peaceful coexistence and dialogue among faiths, according to Hayder al-Khoei, director of foreign relations at the Al-Khoei Institute, a seminary and interfaith academy based in Najaf.

As the Islamic State militant group targeted Shiites, Christians, Yazidis, among others, al-Sistani embraced victims no matter what their faith, added al-Khoei, whose grandfather was the Grand Ayatollah Abul Qassim al-Khoei, a predecessor of al-Sistani.

“I think it’s part of the DNA of the religious establishment in Najaf,” he added, referring to religious tolerance and dialogue.

Image: Imam Ali's shrine  (Haidar Hamdani / AFP via Getty Images file)
Image: Imam Ali's shrine (Haidar Hamdani / AFP via Getty Images file)

Al-Sistani’s role is more informal than the pope’s and is based on his following. Both elderly, Francis suffers from sciatica and last year al-Sistani underwent surgery for a fractured bone.

Described as a reclusive leader who is rarely seen in public, the grand ayatollah has nevertheless maintained a powerful voice in Iraq and built a strong following in the Shiite-majority country and beyond.

While he is Iranian-born, he is seen as a counterweight to Iran as he represents a Shiite school of thought opposed to direct rule by clerics, the system in place across the border.

Thaer al-Saidy, a student in the religious establishment in Najaf known as the Hawza and a follower of al-Sistani, said the grand ayatollah was the “spiritual father” of all Iraqis irrespective of their faith.

In 2014, the grand ayatollah issued an order for all able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS, a move that today is widely seen as crucial in having helped turn the tide against the militants.

“He preserved the unity of Iraq and preserved the religious minorities of all faiths and sects,” al-Saidy said, reflecting on that order.

The 2014 call to arms also, however, massively swelled the ranks of Shiite militias which today wield enormous influence in Iraq.

After years of sectarian conflict, most Iraqis are desperate for peaceful coexistence among faiths. But there is one group in particular that hopes Francis’ visit will help heal deep wounds.

Iraq’s ancient Christian community was targeted long before ISIS came to occupy vast swaths of the country in 2014, going back to the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein and beyond.

Under ISIS, Christians were again forced to flee their homes, accelerating the decline of an already dwindling population. In a 2019 report, the U.S. Department of State cited Christian leaders’ estimates that there were fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, compared to somewhere between 800,000 and 1.4 million people before 2002.

The majority of Christians in Iraq are Chaldean Catholics, an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church, according to the report.

Iraqi Christians hope the pontiff’s presence will shine a light on their suffering.

“I think the government is going to pay more attention to us after the visit of the pope,” said Wissam Joseph, 38, a Christian whose family was forced to flee Al Qaeda when the militants took over his Baghdad neighborhood in 2008.

Joseph is among those who believe the Iraqi government has done little to help Christians who were forced to leave their homes. Despite Iraq’s announcement in December 2017 that it had defeated ISIS, some Christians still have not returned to their properties, many of which were destroyed in the fighting.

In 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry designated that the militants were responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Shiites, as well as Christians. ISIS also targeted Sunnis, among others, who would not adhere to the group’s strict interpretation of Islam.

Image: Hamdaniya, Iraq (Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters file)
Image: Hamdaniya, Iraq (Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters file)

Iraqis are proud to live in the birthplace of Abraham, the prophet of central importance to Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some hope the pontiff’s visit will remind the world of this rich history.

“To see his holiness walk on the same soil whence Abraham has walked in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, that would be a wonderful thing,” said Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq initiative at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“This will remind people that Iraq is actually the place where it all began. Iraq is not called the cradle of civilizations for nothing.”

Sheikh Fakher Khalaf Khudeda, a Yazidi religious leader from Sinjar, in northern Iraq, echoed those from across the religious spectrum who hope Francis’ visit can somehow lead to a more peaceful nation.

“The pope is visiting the country and brings with him a message of peace, this message is not only for Muslims and Christians, but for all Iraqis from all faiths,” he said.

Saphora Smith reported from the U.K., Claudio Lavanga reported from Rome.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.