On March 5, Pope Francis arrived in Iraq in the first-ever visit by the head of the Catholic Church to the majority Muslim country. On March 6, the pope will travel to the city of Najaf, where he is scheduled to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a preeminent Shia Muslim religious authority. Pope Francis expressed his determination to visit Iraq, despite an escalation of tensions and violence preceding his arrival, including a March 3 missile attack on Ain al-Asad air base, which hosts U.S.-led coalition forces. In a video message to the Iraqis, the pope said: “Let us not allow the terrible suffering you have experienced, which grieves me so much, to prevail. Let us not give up in the face of the spread of evil.” On this visit to the region, Pope Francis has also visited Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Albania, Morocco, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
The visit to Najaf seems designed to convey papal understanding for the special importance Najaf holds for Shia Muslims as the location of the tomb of Imam Ali, whom Shia Muslims see as the direct successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Annually, Ali’s tomb is visited by millions of believers. Najaf is also the center of al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya religious seminary, headed by Sistani, where thousands of top Shia religious clerics have studied, forming among the most significant religious referential authorities of Shia Muslims across the world.
The visit also serves as a forceful reminder of the unique status and influence of Ayatollah Sistani both in Iraq and among many Shia Muslims around the world. Although holding Iranian nationality, Sistani is known for his independence from the Iranian Islamic political system. He does not subscribe to the concept of the guardianship of the jurist – vilayet e-faqih – a general authority of religious jurisprudence. Sistani has supported dialogue between the Iraqi government and those of the neighboring Gulf Arab states, promoted nonviolence, and urged Shia Muslims to coexist with other communities.
In an interview, the influential cleric Jawad al-Khoei, the secretary-general of al-Khoei Institute in Najaf and grandson of the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei, said, “Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq is a very important and historical event, because the Pope will visit a number of Iraqi cities in the north and south of Iraq. His visit is expected to be a message of humanitarian brotherhood, call to peace, and denial of violence in the name of religion. We see that the Pope is not just the leader of Catholics but also an icon of peace.”
The pontiff’s visit to the holy city of Najaf has been eagerly anticipated, with vast social media campaigns and many Iraqi media personalities and youth activists expressing excitement and posting side-by-side photos of Pope Francis and Sistani. Also, officials in Najaf have worked extensively to form local committees for security, logistics, and media preparations for the historic meeting. Throughout Najaf, there are Vatican flags as a sign of warm welcome.
In December 2020 when the first version of Pope Francis’ itinerary for his visit to Iraq was released, it did not include Najaf or a meeting to be held between the pope and Sistani. This prompted concerns from some Iraqis who believed that if the pope visited Iraq without meeting Sistani, it would strengthen support for more radical groups at the expense of moderates. In discussions, many Iraqis expressed fears that the Shia “armed militias” and Sunni “fundamentalist organizations” would be the greatest winners if Pope Francis and Sistani failed to meet. They also expected that some “parties” would spread misinformation that this visit would be “of a sectarian color” promoting the interests of Christians only, ignoring the concerns of Iraqis from other religious groups. However, Cardinal Louis Sako, the patriarch of the Baghdad-based Chaldean Catholic Church, announced in January that a meeting would be held between Pope Francis and Sistani in Najaf easing these concerns and boosting the voices calling for the continuity of interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Iraq.
Talks between the two spiritual leaders will almost certainly end up affirming fairly broad ecumenical principles of human dialogue, tolerance, and renunciation of violence in a positive message to the millions of believers around the world. The meeting also aims to bring together a larger group of religious, political, and intellectual activists under the auspices of Sistani and Pope Francis, who can collaborate on projects in the future between Muslims and Christians.
Pope Francis’ visit has of course been eagerly anticipated by millions of Iraqi Christians who were displaced or exposed to violence and physical and mental torture during attacks by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In responding to such violence, the pope was expected to echo previous condemnations by Iraqi political and spiritual leaders, including forceful statements on the issue issued by Sistani over the years that have stressed “the importance and necessity of respecting the rights of the Christian citizens as well as all other religious minorities. One of them is their right to live in their homeland, Iraq, in security and peace.”
Acts of violence in the run-up to the visit, while possibly motivated by other concerns, not unrelated to the presence of U.S. forces, also seemed aimed at disrupting plans for the pope’s visit and obstructing the effort to strengthen ties, for example, between the Vatican and Najaf. Unknown assailants attacked foreign embassies in Baghdad and launched missiles at Erbil Airport. And yet the visit so far has proceeded as planned. Like most papal visits, this one is likely to be long on symbolism and broadly phrased calls for peace, protection of religious minorities, and religious tolerance. But that the visit to Iraq has taken place at all, and including a visit to Najaf, represents a substantive achievement for all of Iraq’s people.