Last week the Iranian security services-aligned Fars News Agency published a dramatic report entitled "The last nail in the coffin of normalization of relations with Tel Aviv in the meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and the Pope".
The article quoted Grand Ayatollah Hafez Bashir Hossein al-Najafi, one of the most senior Shia clerics in Iraq, as saying: "The source of emulation has driven the last nail into the coffin of the plan to normalize relations with the Zionist regime."
It was in fact a lift of an interview conducted by the Iraqi magazine Al-Maaloumah, in which the cleric’s representative and his son, Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, had declared: "The plan to normalize relations cannot cross through Najaf”. They also conceded that the Najaf authorities were guardians of all people, including minorities, and that dialogue between the Pope and Sistani was “an important step for humanity”.
Grand Ayatollah Hafez Bashir Hossein al-Najafi is originally from Pakistan. His presence in the political arena in Iraq is said to have faded since the fall of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein, since which time he has preferred to defer to Ayatollah Sistani on political matters.
Naturally this opaque statement was seized on by Iranian media (which also used the term “the Zionist regime” instead of Israel in its coverage). But at any point during the meeting with the Pope, did Ayatollah Sistani actually say no to the normalization of relations with Israel?
The Formal Response
In the official statement released after the meeting of Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis, no explicit reference to cancelation of the plan to normalize relations with Israel was made. The statement, published on Ayatollah Sistani's website, instead read as follows:
"During the meeting, the discussion revolved around the great challenges that humanity faces in this era and the role of faith in God Almighty and His messages, and the commitment to high moral values, in overcoming them. His Eminence talked about injustice, oppression, poverty, religious and intellectual persecution, the suppression of basic freedoms and the absence of social justice, especially in the wars, acts of violence, economic blockades, displacement and so on, and especially of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.”
"During the courtesy visit,” the Vatican’s statement read, “which lasted about forty-five minutes, the Holy Father stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing – through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue – to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family. The meeting was an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up – together with the Shiite community – in defence of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people."
In the tweets posted by Pope Francis account during the papal visit to Iraq, a recurrent theme was the supreme pontiff’s insistence on the right of the Iraqi people, Muslims and Christians alike, to a peaceful life, and the rejection of violence. He specifically emphasized two red lines: “no to terrorism", and "no to religious violence".
To gain clarity on the content of the meeting, IranWire contacted Ayatollah Sistani's office in Najaf to ask if the normalization of Arab-Israeli relations had been specifically raised during the discussion. The response was as follows:
"Ayatollah Sistani and the Pope spoke about the religious and spiritual issues of the world, including the oppressed people of Palestine. But the issue of normalizing the relationship was not raised during the meeting between the two dignitaries."
What is the Normalization Project, and Where Does Sistani Stand on it?
The plan for the normalization of diplomatic relations between Arab states and Israel has come about after years of negotiations between various parties. It was ultimately brokered by the United States on September 16, 2020, and formalized firstly with the signing of the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel in America. Other countries including Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have since followed suit.
There is little publicly-available evidence for Ayatollah Sistani’s position on the matter and it appears he has made no official announcement about it. He did, however, issue an official statement condemning the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017.
That statement read: "This act has hurt the sentiment of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims. But it never will never alter the fact that Jerusalem is an occupied territory and that it must go back to its original owners, the Palestinians. However, it will take a long time to achieve this goal. The Islamic Ummah needs to redouble its efforts and unite in its words."
This statement shows Ayatollah's position towards Jerusalem and its belonging to Muslims. But taken alone, it cannot be considered a sign of Ayatollah Sistani's opposition or non-opposition to the over-arching normalization of relations between Arabs and Israel.
The Source of Emulation for Iraqi Shiites, or Shiites of the World?
The choice of Najaf as the destination of Pope Francis' trip, and his decision to meet with Ayatollah Sistani -- instead of traveling to Tehran and meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – has once again raised the issue of the leadership of the Shiite world in the media, along with the supposed rivalry between Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah Khamenei.
Notably in its report, Fars News Agency used the title "Supreme Shiite Authority in Iraq" to introduce Ayatollah Sistani. This deliberately positioned him as a high-ranking cleric within the borders of one country, not as the most influential Shia Muslim in the world.
Past IranWire surveys have found that Ayatollah Sistani, as the authority who carried out the funeral prayers for the Iranian-born Ayatollah al-Khoei, the most learned Shia authority at the time, is widely regarded as being the most senior figure in the Shiite world. For many years, Qom Seminary refused to accept his authority, but eventually even this Iranian state-aligned body felt compelled to defer to him.
Two years ago Dr. Yasser Mirdamadi, a scholar of religion who is also related to Khamenei, published an article on BBC Persian in which he asserted that a schism had emerged in Qom between those Shia jurisprudentialists who supported the Islamic Republic and revolution, and those with a “secular” approach. “The most important representative of ‘secular jurisprudence’ or minority jurisprudence in modern Shi'ism is Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf,” he wrote. “In contrast, the most important representative of ‘revolutionary jurisprudence’ or majority jurisprudence is Ayatollah Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Tehran.”
In another of his articles he interviews Elvire Corboz, a lecturer in contemporary Islam and the Middle East in the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Asked how Sistani could be considered the most senior source of emulation without definitive statistics on his following, the latter was cited as suggesting: “Perhaps one of the most convincing answers is that Sistani's socio-political influence in post-Saddam Iraq and beyond, without any official political or social position in the Iraqi power structure or elsewhere, is itself a testament to his high influence. This influence cannot necessarily be translated into a large number of followers. He may also have a lot of influence on those who are not followers of him, in terms of jurisprudence."
Recently Fars News Agency published an article entitled "The last nail in the coffin of normalization of relations with Tel Aviv in the meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and the Pope."
Neither the official statement on Ayatollah Sistani’s website nor the official statement of the Vatican suggested the issue of normalization of Arab-Israeli relations had come up during the meeting. The non-discussion of this issue has since been confirmed to IranWire by Sistani’s office. Rather the pair discussed the suffering of many people in different countries, including the Palestinian people, and how to alleviate it.
An examination of Pope Francis' subsequent remarks also indicate that the issue of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians took precedence over this discussion. A shared opposition to terrorism and religious violence appears to have been at the forefront of the Pope’s mind after the meeting.
As such IranWire categorizes Fars News Agency’s attempt to portray the meeting between Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Pope Francis as a political one, and to declare Ayatollah Sistani’s opposition to the normalization of relations with Israel, as "not true”: a false statement about a specific new event or something that has not previously been proven to be true using existing facts and evidence.
You can read more about our fact-checking methodology here.
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