March 6, 2021 – Timeline whereby a new chapter of inter religious dialogue may well be written.
Hasnain Walji. Ph.D.
The first-ever papal visit to Iraq is significant in many aspects. Firstly, this visit to Nabi Ibrahim’s birthplace reminds Jews, Christians, and Muslims of their shared heritage of the Abrahamic faiths. The meeting of His Holiness Pope Francis and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf will mark a new era of a Christian-Shia Muslim relationship based on mutual understanding.
Both these fragile octogenarians have shown towering strength and firm resoluteness by espousing love, tolerance, and kindness in the face of many challenges the world face today. The meeting will serve to emphasize the need for peace and harmony in a world troubled by strife and conflict. Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani share very similar perspectives: both knowing the value of peace are prepared to go the extra mile to attain it. This meeting is a testimony of that determination and resolve.
Secondly, the profundity of the meeting in Najaf, the site of the grand mausoleum of Ali Ib Abi Talib, the first Imam of the Shia and the fourth Caliph, becomes all the more so, as it evokes his famous aphorism about justice, peace and love: “A person is either your brother in faith, or your equal in humanity. An apt espousal of the spirit of the meeting
Thirdly, the meeting is particularly symbolic for Iraq’s Christians, for whom the encounter will mark a new era of better interfaith relations. A senior Vatican official Claudio Maria Celli said: “the Pope intends to reach the hearts of all Iraqis. He doesn’t want to talk just to the Christians who live in that country …” He added that he hopes for “reconstruction for a people who have the right to rebuild peace thanks to the collaboration and respect between the religious and national identities that are present in Iraq. The Pope believes very much in a dialogue between religions.”
No doubt that as these two leaders meet, they will underscore the importance of spreading love and peace worldwide. The Pope would not be unaware of the pivotal role of Ayatollah Sistani for many years in defending Iraq from sectarianism as well his emphasis on the need to protect the minorities and ensure their rights be enshrined in the Iraqi constitution.
This meeting, which has taken years of preparation, marks the first time that the Catholic Church leader will visit the modest house of the highest-ranking Shia Muslim scholar. This 40-minute meeting on Saturday, March 6 has been meticulously planned with careful protocols. Not lost on the organizers is the respect that Ayatollah Sistani will accord to the Pope. Usually seated when welcoming visitors, he will stand, despite his frailty and a recent injury, to greet Pope Francis at the door and usher him in to take a seat.
Beyond the etiquette and protocols, the meeting will inspire people worldwide towards richer interfaith dialogue, creating harmony and spreading love within humanity and counter those who espouse hate. The meeting will send a clear message that they cannot succeed in their attempts to divide and conquer.
It also has the exciting potential of opening up even greater possibilities of intellectual discourse and collaboration in seminaries and academia. This enhancement of thought leadership by scholars from the Muslim and Christian traditions can help nurture a generation of thinkers to pursue a path of real and meaningful dialogue without the fear of reprisals or sacrificing one’s theological position.
This summit will serve to enhance relations between Catholic leaders and Muslim scholars across the world. Such public association of two prominent faith leaders, revered by hundreds of millions across the globe, is bound to have a lasting impact of faiths on maintaining goodwill and harmony, challenging the false and negative portrayal of religions at the center of conflict and violence in the world today.
All in all, on March 6, 2021, may well be a timeline whereby a new chapter of inter religious dialogue will be written. It will help empower the moderate voices across the globe who want to live peace and harmony in a world with many competing ideologies, special interests, and global conflict.