The image is one that will remain from Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq: on March 6, in Nadjaf (150 km south of Baghdad), he spoke for 50 minutes behind closed doors with the great Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, nonagenarian in the black turban and major authority for the Iraqi Shiites, who see in him a source of imitation (marja-e-taqlid). On the plane that brought him back to Rome two days later, Francis was full of praise for this « sage » Muslim, “A man of God”, confident that this interview had made him “Good for the soul”.
→ READ. Pope’s journey: in Nadjaf, an already historic meeting between Francis and Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani
Now Ayatollah Al Sistani could soon meet another major religious authority, internal to the Muslim world this time: Ahmed Al Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, a prestigious Sunni institution based in Cairo (Egypt). The very one that Pope Francis has already met on several occasions – in Cairo, Rome or Abu-Dhabi – and with whom he signed, in February 2019, a declaration on human fraternity.
Information about the possibility of such a meeting was given by Jawad Al Khoei, secretary general of the Al Khoei Institute, an influential Iraqi Shiite institution, to the Saudi Arabian television channel Al Arabiya. The Italian site Il Sismografo took it up on Monday, May 10: “He confirmed, for the first time in public, that preparations are underway for a meeting” between the two men.
“Frank and friendly” discussions
“Islam flies with the wings of Sunnis and Shiites”, adds the one who is also the grandson of the great Ayatollah Aboul Qassem Al Khoei, another great figure of Iraqi Shiism. Jawad Al Khoei says he has already met the Imam of Al-Azhar on several occasions and had with him “Frank and friendly discussions”. He also affirms that Nadjaf approves the rapprochement between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which began in 2015.
The two countries, which share a very wide border, had severed their relations during the Gulf War in 1990. In 2003, the fall of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein had not changed the situation: on the contrary, Iraq in Shiite majority had then approached Iran, historical rival of the Saudi kingdom. Even today, many observers denounce Iranian interference in Iraq, in particular through pro-Iran Shiite militias which proliferate in the territory.
→ ANALYSIS. How Iran weaves its web in the Middle East
Baghdad and Riyadh, however, timidly moved closer after 2015, including a series of bilateral visits. But tensions remain very high between Riyadh and Tehran, and the Shiite and Sunni authorities have practically no bilateral relations for several centuries. A meeting between Ayatollah Al Sistani and Ahmed Al Tayeb would therefore be a historic event. All the more so as Ali Al Sistani, hostile to religious interference in the political sphere, is often reluctant in the face of proposals for official meetings.
The Pope is leading the way?
According to Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, the request would rather come from Ahmed Al Tayeb. “The Sheikh of Al Azhar has been invited to Iraq, and he said he would like to visit Ayatollah Al Sistani”, he reported during a press conference organized by L’Œuvre d’Orient, Tuesday, May 11, before qualifying such a prospect of « positive ». “Of course, it is not necessary to compare it with the extraordinary visit of the Pope (last March, Editor’s note.), but I believe it would also be an important visit. “
Did Pope Francis’ meeting with Al Sistani open the way to a rapprochement between Sunni and Shiite religious authorities? Hard to say at this point. If there is a meeting, it should in any case take place in Nadjaf, where the pope’s unprecedented visit took place on March 6. Jawad Al-Khoei, by whom the information has been made public these days, had also played a key role in this summit meeting: he was even one of the few people to have been able to attend, at least in part.