BAGHDAD, IRAQ – Today, in a historic meeting, Pope Francis met one of Iraq’s most influential spiritual leaders for Shiite Muslims, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. This visit, says an Iraqi priest and expert in Shiite Islam, is historic, not only because it has never happened before, but because of its symbolism. “Both men have an important role in peace and stability,” says Iraqi priest Fr. Ameer Jaje OP, Director of the Arab Section at the International Dominican University in Paris, a native of Qaraqosh in Iraq. “Al-Sistani, for example, between 2006 and 2008 was an important force for peace during the country’s civil war. He even issued a fatwa calling for an end to the cycle of violence.” “In spite of a bombing targeting Samarra’s most important mosque, al-Sistani forbade the shedding of any Iraqi blood in response: Christian, Shia, or Sunni. If it had been any other leader, the situation could have been a lot worse.”
At today’s meeting, the Pope and al-Sistani did not sign a Human Fraternity declaration, as the Pope did with a major Sunni leader in 2019. Although there had been some speculation the pair might sign such a document, Fr. Jaje told ACN that there had not been enough lead time to organize such an effort. Such a document might come later. “It’s not because they don’t want to do so. It was only a question of time,” he said. “The symbolism of this meeting, however, will be worth more than any signature.”
For Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority, this meeting represents a hope that the country, dominated by Shia militias, will embrace pluralism and diversity. Al-Sistani is revered by many Iraqi Shia Muslims, but Fr. Jaje admits there is a division. Some 70% of the country embraces the Ayatollah’s tendency towards the separation of religion and state. The remaining 30%, however, veers towards an interpretation of Shia Islam closer to that of theocratic Iran, the country’s influential neighbor. “The real problem is this 30%,” he says. “They use Islam as a political tool.”
The Christians of Baghdad hope that the Pope’s visit will save their community from the brink of extinction. One Church official told ACN that the number of Catholics in Baghdad was no more than a few hundred, after years of threats and bombings. At a papal event in Baghdad at Our Lady of Salvation Church, the site of a 2010 terrorist attack, the number of attendees at a viewing site for the local Christian population was around 500. These numbers are a dramatic decline from 1979 when 14% of the city was Christian, a figure high enough that most Baghdadis in their 40s and 50s today can remember Christian children attending their schools alongside them.
Waffa, a Syriac Orthodox woman in Baghdad who has few friends and family remaining in the city, told ACN that the Pope’s visit gives her hope. “Life is hard here in Baghdad. For example, people will look at me in a judgmental way for not wearing the hijab, and in recent years there have been threats made against Christians. The problem, however, is not the Iraqi people: it is the religious parties.” For now, the biggest challenge facing Baghdadi Christians is less immediate security concerns, but a lack of local acceptance and a need for hope. If Pope Francis’s attempts to build bridges with Muslim leaders bear any fruit, it may have the very real effect of saving a community struggling to secure its own future.