Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Pope-Sistani Riddle – LewRockwell

Posted by M. C. on March 11, 2021

Francis and Sistani delivered anti-war, anti-genocide and anti-sectarian messages beyond the comprehension of most Western media

By Pepe Escobar
Asia Times

By any historical measure, it was a game-changer: the first meeting since the 7th century between a Roman Catholic Pope and a Shiite spiritual leader regarded as a “source of emulation.”

It will take a long time to assess the full implications of the immensely intriguing 50-minute face-to-face conversation, with interpreters only, between Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Sistani at his humble home in a Najaf alley near the dazzling Imam Ali shrine.

An avowedly imperfect parallel is that for the Shiite community of the faithful, Najaf is as pregnant with meaning as Jerusalem is for Christianity.

The official Vatican spin is that Pope Francis went on a carefully choreographed “pilgrimage” to Iraq under the sign of “brotherhood” – not only in terms of geopolitics but as a shield against religious sectarianism, be it Sunnis against Shiites or Muslims against Christians.

Francis went back to the main theme in an extremely frank exchange (in Italian) with the media on his plane back to Rome. Yet what’s most extraordinary is his candid assessment of Ayatollah Sistani.

The Pope stressed, “Ayatollah Sistani has a saying, I hope to recall it properly: ‘Men are either brothers by religion or equal by creation.’” Francis sees the bridging of this duality also as a cultural journey.

He qualified the meeting with Sistani as delivering a “universal message,” and praised the Grand Ayatollah as “a sage” and “a man of God”: “Listening to him, one cannot but notice it. He’s a person who carries wisdom and also prudence. He told me that for over ten years he has not received ‘people who come to visit me but have other political aims.’”

The Pope added: “He was very respectful, and I felt honored, even in the final salutations. He never stands up, but he did, to salute me, twice. A humble, and wise, man. It felt good to my soul, this meeting.”

A glimpse of the warmth was revealed in this image, absent from Western mainstream media – which, to a large extent, tried to gaslight, sabotage, ignore, black out or sectarianize the meeting, usually under barely disguised layers of “Shiite threat” propaganda.

They did that because, at the core, Francis and Sistani were delivering an anti-war, anti-genocide, anti-sectarian, and anti-occupation message, which cannot but incur the wrath of the usual suspects.

There were a few frantic attempts to portray the meeting as the Pope privileging quietist Najaf over militant Qom in the Shiite universe – or, in raw terms, Sistani over Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. That’s nonsense. For context, see the contrast between Najaf and Qom in my Persian Miniatures e-book published by Asia Times.

The Pope has recently written to Ayatollah Shirazi in Iran. Tehran keeps an ambassador in the Vatican and has collaborated for years on scientific research protocols. This pilgrimage, though, was all about Iraq. Unlike those of the West, the media of the Axis of Resistance (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon) gave it wall-to-wall coverage.

That crucial fatwa

I have been privileged to track Ayatollah Sistani’s movements since the early 2000s, and have visited his office in Najaf several times.

In 2003, when the scarecrow du jour, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, literally blew up revered Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in front of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Sistani pleaded for no retaliation: The American occupation machine was too powerful and Sistani saw the divide-and-rule dangers of a sectarian Sunni-Shiite war.

Yet in 2004 he single-handedly stared down the mighty occupation apparatus and the dreadful Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) when they were contemplating a bloodbath to get rid of the incandescent cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, then holed up in Najaf.

In 2014, Sistani issued a fatwa conferring legitimacy upon the weaponizing of Iraqi civilians to fight ISIS/Daesh – especially as the takfiris were aiming to attack the quadruple, sacred Shi’ite sanctuaries in Iraq: Najaf, Karbala, Kazimiya and Samarra.

So it was Sistani who legitimized the birth of armed defensive groups which coalesced in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or Hashd a-Shaabi, later incorporated into the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

The PMUs were – and remain – an umbrella group, with some closer to Tehran than others and working under the strategic supervision of Major General Qassem Soleimani until his assassination via an American drone strike at Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020.

Never promised you a rose garden

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