Pope Francis moves at full speed toward Saturday’s visit with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

This will be an unprecedented meeting at the private residence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the city of Najaf. The meeting sends many messages given the risks posed by covid and the complexity of security logistics. The Grand Ayatollah is notoriously reclusive, and rarely weighs in on matters of governance; his sermons are delivered by proxy, and foreign dignitaries have not been welcomed into his private sanctuary in the past.

Francis is going to Iraq on a mission to encourage Christians to persevere and remain, and to emphasize that they have an important role to play in rebuilding Iraq. Iraqi Christians were believed to number around 1.4 million in 2003. Today there are about 250,000 left. Secondarily, Pope Francis, whose official title is Bishop of Rome, effectively the chief pastor of the Worldwide Catholic Church, had hoped that al-Sistani would take part in the signing of a document pledging human fraternity, just as he did with Sunni Islam’s influential grand imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, based in Egypt. However, given the negotiations over the many topics on the agenda al-Sistani has decided that he will make an announcement of the pledge.

This carries great significance given the ayatollah’s reluctance to weight in on geopolitical matters. His 2014 fatwa calling all able-bodied men to resist the IS led to explosive growth in Shiite Militias, and spelled the beginning of the end to IS grip on power. The resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in 2019 was thanks, in no small part to one of his sermons. His opinions and directives influence minds and motives all across Iraq and far beyond.

Iran’s influence is being called into question here. With the meeting, Francis is implicitly elevating al-Sistani as the voice of Shiite Islam over his rival, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The challenge has now been clearly stated; which city stands at the center of the Shiite world, Qom or Najaf.

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