The 6th of March is the day of the private meeting with Ayatollah Al-Sistani and that of the symbolic meeting with Patriarch Abraham. While Shiite militias announce they will refrain from carrying hostile acts during the papal visit, Daesh claims an attack on Iraqi state forces in Diyala and Salahaddin, Sunni territories between the Arab and the Kurdish areas. The episode has not been confirmed yet by the authorities.
Ayatollah Sistani is a religious and a political man in the most elevated sense of the term: apparently detached from “party-system” politics, he is instead a skilled weaver of the Country’s strategy. His religious opinions are capable to bring down governments, something that has already happened. As a jurist expert not only in Islamic law but also in Western political theory, he has developed a juridical thought that legitimates the use of Western instruments for the management of public powers. Shiism lets him do it through the interpretation of sacred law in an innovative sense. His thought is in open opposition to the juridical theory of the “governant of the Jurist” (“velayat-e faqih”) that in his native Iran structured the Khomeinist State. That same State now wants to extend its influence in Iraq in the name of the Shiite unity consecrated in its own Constitution.
Sistani and his law school define a Shiism that is an alternative to the Iranian one. And this is the point with the Papacy, the West and the true “foreign policy” aspect of today’s visit. A fatwa by Sistani or by his followers (as long as they are qualified as “sources of emulation”), legitimizes the Shiite community to accept a constitutional system of government created with the West. Religiously, some jurists of the Najaf School are equivalent to Ayatollah Khamenei, who enjoys a very specific status (Supreme Leader) only in Iran but not abroad, where the Shiite believer can choose to either recognize that supremacy or not. This closes the doors to certain Iranian pretenses and explains the reason why Sistani last year refused to meet with Ibrahim Raisi, the head of the Persian judiciary. It also explains why the Iranian press is mistreating Francis’s project so explicitly. After the invasion, Iraq recovered thanks to immense efforts made by Iran, that now sees its influence in the country limited to Sadr’s groups.
The language used by both parties in the statements released following the meeting reflects the homogeneity of vocabulary and shared views, perfectly and uniformly reported by Iraqi newspapers: communion / synthesis between issues dear to both Catholicism and Shiism are the need to defend oneself from prevarications, a sense of injustice (ظلم, zalam) that precedes and ennobles the very existence of the “community” (the martyrdom of Christ for the Church and that of ‘Ali for the Shiite maḏhab), the universality of human rights as a creature of God (حقّ – haqq- The phrase reported by all the press organs of the area). The terminology used is as much political as it is juridical-religious, and it was evidently structured to be digestible by both sides as consistent with divine dictation. It is no coincidence that Francis travels with Mons.Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans, who is a doctor in eastern patristics and history, and with Cardinal Ayuso Guixot, graduated in Islamic sciences at the Pontifical Institute for the Studies on Arabistics and Islamology and a doctor in dogmatic theology, now President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The solidity of the terminology, and the care given in presenting it to the press, is evident. Iranpress and Teheran Times report Sistani’s statements without commenting. Kayhan, an ultra-conservative paper, neither report the news (Kayan’s website was accessed at 2 PM Italian time).
In Iraqi Shiism the sense of oppression, perceived but perhaps not so justified politically during the last fifteen years, was fueled during the Baathist period. At that stage, the Sunnis ruled the country with a non-secondary contribution of Chaldean Christians (Sistani himself was summoned and humiliated by Saddam Hussein following a Shiite revolt in 1974), who are now completely rehabilitated by the visit of Francis.
Najaf school is seen as the most important institutional actor capable of guaranteeing protection in view of a possible return home of many Christians. Sistani released a statement, reported by all the press, according to which Christians have the right to live in Iraq (a right that was never denied even by the extremists) enjoying all constitutional rights (here it is the important point). Francis finds in al-Sistani an ideal interlocutor given the correspondence of the Catholic hierarchical structures with that of the Shiite School, which makes possible a meeting between two “equal” both religious and (in the broader term) political leaders. The shared views on the need to guarantee stability, a concept already present in the Turkish press yesterday – see the interview with the Turkish Ambassador to the Vatican published by Anadolu Ajansi – is likewise important. Today it is al-Jazeera, a Qatari newspaper in the same orbit of Turkey, that elaborates the concept of the need for “stability”.
Iraqi press in general underlines the “humbleness” of the Ayatollah’s residence and the fact that he has resided there for decades, paying a normal rent, perhaps in order to create a bridge between the image of the religious of Najaf and that of a Pope universally known for its simplicity. A bridge then was then perfected by the gesture of the greeting “among equals” (both standing) between the two leaders, greatly amplified by the press in the region.
Kurdish agency Rudawa, not an official Body of the Region but certainly contiguous to its President, and then to Turkey, discusses Pope Francis’ visit both in the “Middle East” section and in the one dedicated to the internal reality of Kurdistan, making of it an internal question. There, it publishes appeals by displaced Iraqi Christians who, hosted in Kurdistan, denounce the urgent need for concrete aid. It is in the Turkish press that the greatest enthusiasm towards the event is to be found: Hurriyet asserts that “the world continues to experience the thrill of a such a first visit in history” (Dünya tarihte ilk defa gerçekleşen ziyaretin heyecanının yaşamaya devam ediyor).
In Ur, Francis joins both John Paul II in his political-diplomatic vision and John XXIII in his spiritual vision (“looking at the sky”) while meeting with different religious confessions. For Francis, it is easy to combine universalism and dialogue with Muslims because Iraqi religious minorities are all (at least in the view of some Islamic legal schools), “people of the book” and therefore legitimized to live in the territories where Islamic Law is in force. The fact that Jews, Christians and Sabeans were explicitly mentioned by Muhammad himself helps. For the Mandaeans and the Yazidis, however explicitly mentioned by the Pontiff, homologation was granted “by analogy”.
This is how Francis is entitled to speak of “believers” using a terminology that assumes value both for Muslims and for Christians, uniting them as believers in the God of Abraham. It is not rhetoric but a solid attempt to create a broad theological interpretation of the concept of religious legitimacy, second to that of Father Paolo dall’Oglio and his definition of “Islam”. That explains the reading of the Koran in Ur, reported by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet which underlines the attempt to reconstruct a connective tissue between monotheists dating back to Abraham. The newspaper reports two long quotes from the words of the Pontiff who recalls how “it all began in Ur” with Abraham and how we are all his followers and we should build up together on a common ground (İbrahim Peygamber ile ilişkisinden söz ederek başlayan Papa, “Birlik, beraberlik ve iman Ur’dan başladı. Biz, İbrahim’in torunlarıyız. Birbirimizi sevmeliyiz. Birbirimizden ayrı çalışmamalıyız. Bu toprakları birlikte ihya edebiliriz) and how “our brotherhood shall be reinforced” (Kardeşliğimizi güçlendirmeliyiz. Barışçıl yaşamı inşa etmeden ve birbirimize destek çıkmadan barış gelmez), living in pease and by mutual help, being otherwise unable to attain peace.
While al-Jazeera spends many words on the historical importance of Ur as the cradle of civilization, it is the Turkish press that emphasizes the “political” importance of the event.
Anadolu Ajansi reports, once again, a long quote on the papal position on terrorism that “uses religion”, asserting that we should not allow religion to be used as a cover and instead defend freedom of religion and freedom of thought (”Terör, dini kullanıyor. Biz de, dinin bir kılıf olarak kullanılmasına izin vermemeliyiz. Terör, tarihin bir parçası olan Irak’a da lottırdı. Din ve fikir çeşitliliğini, özgürlüğünü savunmalıyız”). Given the association between Daesh and PKK made yesterday, it is possible that this declaration will be given a specific political value that will be used in the near future.
Iranpress insists on that, without the sacrifice of Gen. Soleimani and others, the safety of Pope Francis could not have been guaranteed: is that only a further reference to the insecurity created following the 2003 invasion, albeit explicit in the text, or is it also a reference to the importance that Iran has in maintaining that stability from which some now want it to be excluded?
The second day of the visit clearly demonstrates how contributing to Iraqi political and institutional stability is Francis’ main objective: a country deprived of four fifths of its Christian community becomes an insuperable wound for the Eastern Churches, and Francis intends to connect wherever it finds fertile ground. Within part of Shiite Iraq, of course, but also, and surprisingly, in Ankara.