VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Iraq's top prelate is persuading Pope Francis to sign an interfaith covenant with Shia Islam's top cleric, similar to the human fraternity declaration the pontiff ratified with the global leader of Sunni Muslims in Abu Dhabi 2019.
"It is a desire we share with the Shiite [Muslims]," Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans Louis Raphaël Sako said in light of the pope's forthcoming trip to Iraq, confirming the meeting between Francis and Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani in Najaf on March 6.
"I insisted a lot that the pope sign a text similar to the Document on Human Fraternity, but I am not sure that it will be done," revealed Cdl. Sako at a press conference organized by the L' Oeuvre d'Orient Thursday.
"The pope has already met [Grand Imam Ahmed] al-Tayyeb, the highest Sunni authority, and I think it is very important that he can also meet that of the Shiites and act as a bridge between Shia and Sunni," said Sako, noting that Francis' intra-Islamic bridge-building could "have a huge impact at the international level on peaceful coexistence and dialogue."
"The document on human brotherhood for world peace and common coexistence is a universal text, and it will not be necessary to change it," the prelate stressed.
Brother Amir Jajé, an Iraqi Dominican expert on Shiite relations and a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, expressed hope al-Sistani would sign the covenant.
"It is well-known that there is not only Christian-Sunni dialogue, but there is also Shiite-Christian dialogue," observed Fr. Rif'at Bader, director of the Jordan-based Catholic Center for Studies and Media. Pope Francis wants "to promote dialogue and common living between all the religious components."
But distinguished Islamic historian Robert Spencer told Church Militant that Pope Francis is on a fool's errand and that "Francis' mission, whatever purpose that he thinks it is going to serve, is pointless."
"If Francis or Iraqi clerics think that the pope can achieve reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia by bringing al-Sistani together with his friend al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar, he drastically underestimates the theological contempt Islam inculcates for Christians and Christianity," Spencer remarked.
"Al-Sistani may be using the pope to reinforce the image of moderation he gained in the international media in the early 2000s. But Francis will get nothing out of it besides a photo-op of dubious value," said Spencer, author of over 21 books on Islam and the Middle East.
As for the persecuted Christians of Iraq, Spencer adds, "Francis is neither going to request, nor would al-Sistani grant, any aid or protection to these believers who have suffered savage persecution."
Spencer emphasized that the Muslim-Christian dialogue with al-Tayyeb, "has not saved one Christian from being persecuted or kept one church from being destroyed, or caused one jihadi to lay down his arms. This meeting will not change that."
Al-Sistani's recent anti-Israel fatwas (rulings) may add to the complexity of the papal visit.
"It is not permissible for a Muslim to buy products of the countries that are in a state of war with Islam and Muslims, for example, Israel," al-Sistani ruled in October 2020, adding that it was not "permissible to buy from shops that dedicate part of their profits to supporting Israel."
"Al-Sistani supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an insidious campaign which would see Israel destroyed and Jews once again made vulnerable to global persecution," columnist Karen Harradine told Church Militant.
Harradine, a Jewish anthropologist, elaborated:
That Pope Francis is cuddling up with a despotic cleric harboring a deep hatred for Israel and Jews is profoundly disturbing. He is also naïve in the extreme to think that if al-Sistani signs this document on human fraternity it will help Iraqi Christians targeted for their faith. It's a load of woke nonsense, which ignores a real impediment to peace in the Middle East — this obsession to destroy the Jewish State held by al-Sistani and his ilk.
A Middle Eastern expert in Islamic jurisprudence informed Church Militant that al-Sistani, touted as a moderate, had raised eyebrows with a number of other rulings.
The cleric has issued a fatwa prohibiting a man from shaking hands "with a woman without a barrier, such as gloves, unless refraining from shaking hands will put him in a considerable harm or unbearable difficulty."
The ayatollah also regards Muslims migrating to non-Islamic countries as a great sin on the same level as murdering another Muslim.
However, al-Sistani recommends believers "travel to non-Muslim countries for the purpose of spreading the religion [of Islam] and its teaching, provided that he can safeguard himself and his young children against the dangers of loss of the faith."
Sistani has written extensively on the topic of Muslims living "in exile" in Western countries, political scientist Reidar Visser points out in his monograph "Sistani, the United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellianism?"
According to Visser, the ayatollah permits Muslims in non-Muslim countries to break the local law in some cases if they don't commit a crime according to the Islamic code of conduct.
"This is so because the non-Muslim state has no legitimacy in itself, according to Sistani," Visser writes. For example, "tax evasion is permissible unless the general reputation of Muslims is harmed."
Sistani identifies pragmatic or distinctly Islamic justifications instead of paying any attention to the Western laws as such. There is no doubt about the ulterior motive: This guidance is offered so that Muslims be able to lead their lives according to "the noble principles of the Islamic Sharia."
Cardinal Sako, however, is eager for the pontiff and ayatollah to sign the covenant on brotherhood.
The document on human brotherhood for world peace and common coexistence "is a universal text and it will not be necessary to change it," he noted.
"We are waiting for the Holy See to say something about this proposal shared with Najaf. As is well known, the Shiites are the majority in Iraq and the great ayatollah here has enormous religious, political and social significance," Sako said.
Francis is expected to arrive in Baghdad March 5 and meet Iraqi civil authorities and Catholic clergy. The next day he will go to Ur of the Chaldees, birthplace of Abraham, to participate in an interreligious celebration and prayer with Muslims, Jews, Mandaeans and Yazidis.
"The interreligious meeting should focus on the figure of Abraham. In the Koran, as well as in the Bible, there are passages relating to Abraham. Thus, a message could start from Ur to the whole world: We are all, in faith, children of Abraham," observed Sako.