Visit of Pope to Najaf, Iraq


Mohammed Khaku
The 84-year-old pontiff first-ever pastoral pilgrimage to the birthplace of Prophet Abraham in Iraq and meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is step in right direction for healing, strengthening Christians in Iraq and Shia Muslim dialogue. Pope Francis will receive one of the best welcome. The welcome banner are featuring with his Images from Baghdad airport to the shrine city of Najaf. From the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham in Ur to Mosul, roads have been paved and churches decorated. The pope’s visit will pose huge security challenges especially during the pandemic and the country that has seen decades of violence. Pope Francis is to arrive on Friday the holiest day of the Muslims aiming to encourage the dwindling Christian community to remain in their ancient homeland. Among the most extraordinary moments of the trip will be his one-on-one meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The meeting of two most powerful religious personality with deep faith and piety is a tremendous achievement to invest peace and tolerance. Francis will meet al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, which has so much history and theology of the Shia revolve. I am not a Christian, but I see in Pope’s face the embodiment of peace and humility. He has no ego; he lives in small monastic room in the Vatican guesthouse. Pope Francis journey in pilgrimage with the Shiite people is the show of love and similarity between the two great religious leaders. Who is Ayatollah al-Sistani? The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was born in 1929 near Iran’s holy city of Mashhad. He leads more than 150 million Shiites around the world, through the Islamic seminary (Hawza), the so-called “Shiite Vatican,” in Najaf, Iraq. He is considered a marja, or religious guide, the closest thing to a pope in Islam.Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was nominated by Iraqi Christians in 2005 for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was listed as most influential and intellectual’s person in 2005. He is an extraordinarily important figure in the Shiite Islamic world and head of the Najaf religious seminary (hawza). al-Sistani has played prominent role as peacemaker and brokered agreements between different political parties. In the crucial election of 2005, he has guided Iraqi political leaders towards justice and insisting women participation in the politics.The two most important edicts which prevented Iraq in to sectarian war were not respond in bombing of the holiest shrine in Samara. He said these attacks came from Wahhabi Salafi radicals, urging calm. And the second edict was urging Iraqi’s to support the government in the fight against ISIS. The meeting with al-Sistani will build bridges between Shi’ites and catholic. However, many do not know that there are lots of parallels between Shi’ism and Catholicism: The concept of intercession (Tawassul) through great Saint like Hussain, Jesus, Mary or Fatemeh: a strong emphasis on clerical authority of Marjaeya (Pope); belief in the 12 Imams (Saints); theology of sacrifice and atonement: belief in free will as to the doctrine of pre-destination: pilgrimage to holy sites like Karbala, Najaf and Mashhad for healing: commemorations and celebration of holly days such as Ashura and Chelum. In 2006 I had an opportunity of visiting all of these holy sites in Iraq and had an opportunity to meet with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. We were escorted in to a simple carpeted room with pillows against the walls to await his arrival. When he entered, we all stood to greet him spontaneously with “God is Great.”There was a natural surge of love and admiration. He wore a black robe with a black turban and even with his white beard, he looked much younger than I expected. He was quite alert and healthy-looking. When we were all seated, he addressed us in Farsi with Persian accent and one of our group members, Amina Inoles, a convert from Texas, translated. He talked so softly and humbly yet commanding, and receptive. It was clear why he is so loved by millions of Muslims. He is the most extraordinary person I have ever met. Before he started the conversation, he sat in immaculate silence and perfect equilibrium. He was in an ocean of peacefulness. The entire group’s eyes were upon the Ayatollah, and he did not show any signs self-consciousness. His first words were to ask that the Lord to accept our pilgrimage, welcome us to Najaf and expressed his happiness to see us. Most of the questions were about religious issues. One person asked him what Muslims in America should raise their children and he advised us to teach our children our language and culture.As I sat next to him, I could not help but stare at him and feel proud to be in his presence. I wish that all politicians, journalists and leaders could take time to visit him. He is the most charismatic leader of the 21st century. Ayatollah al-Sistani wields enormous influence over Iraq’s majority Shiites but he remains a mystery to many in the west. He is one of Iraq’s most powerful men yet he is not even an Iraqi, but an Iranian. Sistani doesn’t teach the necessity of aggressive Dawa (Islamic evangelism) or Jihad against non-Muslims as do the Wahabis and Saudis. Sistani lives very modestly yet he presides over an organization which controls millions of dollars in donations (khums) and religious taxes (zakat). This has had no effect on the ayatollah’s life. He controls no army; he leads no political party and he harbors no political ambitions. Nor does he campaign or spin propaganda.