Pictures of Pope Francis dressed in white and sat opposite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in a black cloak and a black turban dominated international news after their meeting on March 6 in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. This was seen as a momentous event: the first time that the leader of the Catholic church has met with a senior Shia religious authority.
Why is this meeting so important, and what message does it send to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – to say nothing of his supporters among the clergy in Qom and Najaf, who consider him the spiritual leader of Shias around the world? Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi, a member of Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers, and Hasan Fereshtian, a jurist and religious scholar, spoke to IranWire about this.
The Significance of the Meeting
On Friday, March 5, Pope Francis left the Vatican for the first time since the global outbreak of coronavirus for a four-day visit to Iraq. The trip was primarily intended to raise the morale of the battered Christian community in this country. But besides meeting with Iraqi government officials and local Catholic bishops and attending Mass, the supreme pontiff also met Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most senior living Shia religious authorities.
Pope Francis has been the most progressive head of the Catholic church in recent memory. He is well-known for his open-mindedness towards Muslims, immigrants and the LGBTQ community and has made many changes to the Catholic church’s internal rules and regulations. He has appointed several cardinals who reflect his priorities on a range of issues, including migration, climate change, the inclusion of gay Catholics, interreligious dialogue and shifting the power of the church away from Rome to bishops in Africa, Asia and South America. He has also named more than half of the voters within the College of Cardinals, where a two-thirds majority of those under the age of 80 are required to elect his successor, meaning he is also proactively shaping the future of the Catholic church for years to come.
In his drive for interfaith dialogue, however, Pope Francis has not stopped with the appointment of like-minded cardinals. Among other things, he has already met three times with Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar and the former president of al-Azhar University in Egypt: one of the most prestigious centers for Sunni Islamic learning in the world. But his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, immediately after 15 months of quarantine and while the world is still in the grip of a deadly pandemic, has clear political and religious messages for the Iranian Supreme Leader and his supporters in Qom.
Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi, a member of Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers, told IranWire: “This meeting is significant not only for Shias but also for Sunnis and Christians because it has spiritual and moral consequences as well as political ones. It sends the message that all religions can live peacefully together and respect each other, and that the followers of various religions should end the fabricated ideological wars, which are nothing but tools in the hands of political leaders. It shows that a human being must be valued wherever in the world he lives, and that his dignity is important.”
But for Hasan Fereshtian, a religious scholar who lives in France, the meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani has more overtly political connotations. “Choosing Najaf as the symbol of Shia Islam, a minority group among Muslims, and the person of Ayatollah Sistani, are both significant,” he says. “In the Muslim world, Iran is seen as the cradle of Shiism and the Islamic Republic claims to be the leader not only of Shias but of all Muslims.
“However, it is only natural that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic cannot hope to occupy such a high religious station, because he is part of the government. Whereas Ayatollah Sistani has no government position and so this mantle belongs to him.”
Why Did Pope Francis Not Choose to Visit Tehran and Qom?
The Islamic Republic’s claim to be the center of the Islamic world is not lost on anybody. But it appears that outside of Iran, world leaders and especially Pope Francis think otherwise.
According to Hasan Fereshtian, the situation of religious freedom in Iran is one reason why Pope Francis had to choose Iraq for this interfaith meeting. “The problems within the Islamic Republic, such as discrimination against religious minorities, prevent interfaith dialogue,” he told IranWire. “Given that a segment of the Iranian clergy are among the rulers of Iran, the Supreme Leader himself is a clergyman and ‘guardianship of the Islamic jurist’ is the foundational tenet of the system, it is only logical that Supreme Leader must be held accountable for how the regime treats religious minorities. The ruling clergy in Iran must account for why Sunnis cannot have a mosque in Iran, why Christians are denied equal rights with other citizens and, worse, why converts to Christianity are treated so badly.”
Furthermore, he adds, “if a number of citizens in a non-Muslim country convert to Islam, the Islamic Republic takes it for granted that it must support them. The same is true if some people convert to Shiism in a Sunni country and ask for their own mosques and places of worship. But the reverse is not true: if some Shias become Sunnis or some Muslims convert to Christianity in the Islamic Republic, they are going to be in trouble.”
The End of Self-Styled Leadership
Since Khamenei was declared an ayatollah, a religious authority, he has been disquieted by the presence of Ayatollah Sistani. This estrangement intensified with the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the start of Iran’s more overt political and military interference in Iraq.
Since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani has consistently asked for an end to the intervention of foreign governments in Iraqi affairs. Witness, for instance, his support for the 2019 protests in Iraq, when one of the key demands of people in the streets was an end to Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of their country, a demand that was well-expressed in the chant: “Baghdad must be liberated; Iran must go!”
Ali Khamenei has tried to keep up appearances, and keeps his unease under wraps. But Ayatollah Sistani, meanwhile, has clearly shown his displeasure with actions taken by the Islamic Republic. He has expressed his annoyance repeatedly by refusing to receive Iranian officials close to Khamenei. The three most prominent Iranian figures Sistani has shunned are former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while he was still a favorite of Khamenei, General Ghasem Soleimani, then-commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force, and, most recently, chief justice Ebrahim Raeesi.
In 2008, remarks that Sistani allegedly made about the differences between former President Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei made headlines. According to Masih Mohajeri, then editor-in-chief of Jomhouri Eslami newspaper, he had told Rafsanjani that he had read his memoir twice and had realized that there were “deep differences” between him and the Supreme Leader.
The that Pope Francis traveled to Iraq instead of Iran and met with Ayatollah Sistani instead of Khamenei therefore sends an important political and religious message: one that signifies an end to the Islamic Republic’s claim to being the leader of the Muslim world.
“Close supporters of Mr. Khamenei present him as leader of the Shia world, even sometimes as the leader of the Muslim world, and he does not deny it,” says Fereshtian. “He even sends messages to young people in Europe and the US which shows that he desires this title and wants to hold on to it.
“Therefore, when the first meeting of the Pope in the region is with Ayatollah Sistani, it has consequences for the regime. But also, it could have not been otherwise. When clergymen become rulers, they lose their moral and religious high ground and are viewed just like any other politician.”
Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi also believes that the end of Khamenei’s self-styled leadership of the Muslim world is the result of Ayatollah Sistani’s character and demeanor. “Ayatollah Sistani has kept himself at the apex of spirituality and morality,” he says. “He has not entangled himself in minor political issues and, by trying to preserve Iraq’s independence and sovereignty, has preserved his spiritual influence not only among the Shias but also among Sunnis. A religious authority who interferes less in political issues is more popular with the people than one who meddles more in politics.”
What Could Tehran’s Reaction to the Meeting be?
Both Meybodi and Fereshtian believe it is unlikely that the officials of the Islamic Republic would react negatively to pope’s meeting with Ayatollah Sistani, at least not publicly.
“Anybody who has grasped the messages from God’s prophets knows that their directions were only ever intended to establish unity among the people,” says Meybodi. “I do not think there is anybody among religious authorities who would be against such a sentiment by itself. Peaceful coexistence and protecting human rights is a universal message that nobody can oppose. Of course, it is always possible that there are truly narrow-minded people who would oppose it.”
“Even though the clergymen who support Mr. Khamenei might be unhappy,” Fereshtian adds, “they cannot publicly denounce it. True, they might be displeased that the Pope has visited Iraq instead of Iran, but it is unlikely they will confess to this in public.”
Khamenei, his supporters among the clergy and the Iranian officials under his command might well refrain from publicly expressing their displeasure with the meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani. But direct attacks on Sistani by Khamenei’s cabal are not unheard of. In 2004, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the differences of approach between Najaf and Qom came to the fore in Iranian media. Those close to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic initially sought to defame him, with Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, infamously calling him an American and British agent at Tehran Friday prayers.
More recently, Hossein Shariatmadari, managing editor of the newspaper Kayhan, denounced the 2019 meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Jeanine Antoinette Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, and condemned the words exchanged in the meeting. Later he was forced to retract his criticism and apologize, saying he had misread the situation.
Khamenei’s retaliatory measures against Ayatollah Sistani are also not limited to statements sporadically made by his acolytes. Sistani is now 90 years old and Khamenei once tried to line up a successor for him. An office for Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, former head of the Iranian judiciary and the chairman of the Expediency Council, was opened for him in Najaf so that a person close to Khamenei could succeed Sistani. But he did not live to see the death of Sistani and himself died in 2018.