quotes Why Pope Francis chose Al-Sistani’s religious authority over Iranian model

16 March 2021
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Updated 16 March 2021

Why Pope Francis chose Al-Sistani’s religious authority over Iranian model

Pope Francis concluded his recent visit to Iraq with a religious ceremony and a joint statement with Grand Ayotallah Ali Al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric.

The pope had long wanted to visit Iraq and the ancient city of Ur, said to be the birthplace of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish patriarch Ibrahim.

However, Saddam Hussein rejected the idea of a Roman Catholic pontiff visiting Iraq, and, after his fall, the security situation made any such visit to the country impossible.

Iraqi Christians have been the victims of political groups using the name of religion and militias loyal to the mullahs in Tehran. These groups either joined in the persecution of the minority community or watched as bystanders.

In armed conflicts since 2003, almost 2,000 Christians have been killed, and their homes and churches destroyed, while their population has fallen by 80 percent.

In the governorate where the archaeological site of Ur is located, only one Christian family remains.
What the pope did was not random, however, and his visit to the religious establishment in Najaf, also known as Hawza, and meeting with Al-Sistani were carefully considered.

The pontiff, along with the Vatican and perhaps the entire Christian world, believes that Al-Sistani tends to support the political establishment and merely provides advice to politicians rather than engaging directly in politics.

Examples of this include his efforts to encourage Iraqis to participate in the 2005 elections, confronting Daesh in 2014, and forcing the government of Abdul Mahdi to resign in 2019.

In comparison, Iranian leader Ali Al-Khamenei directly interferes with the political direction of the Tehran government.
The Iraqi-Arab religious authority is realistic and pragmatic to a greater degree than the Iranian religious authority, and focuses on social matters.

Although Al-Sistani was born in Tehran, he always maintains a distance from the Iranian regime. One evidence for this is his refusal to greet the head of the Iranian judiciary after Iranian opposition journalist Ruhollah Zam was kidnapped in Iraq by the Revolutionary Guards and sentenced to death.

Al-Sistani is also not known to have a hard-line stance against Sunni Islam, as is the case with Al-Khamenei.

It is imperative to take advantage of the conflict between the Najaf Hawza and Qom in Iran over the leadership of the Shiites around the world, especially since the Christian world and specifically the US — the most religious country after Italy— view Al-Sistani as the most appropriate Shiite option.

Al-Sistani is concerned with internal issues and has no regional aspirations. He reportedly rejects partisanship, extremism, violence, corruption and abuse of power.

The moderate Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia must take advantage of this balanced Shiite equation, and adopt it in the policies of confrontation with the Iranian Shiite model and its proxies in the region.

• Dr. Bader bin Saud is a weekly columnist in both Al Riyadh and Okaz newspapers.