Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani‘s fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS
By Sameer Arshad Khatlani
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 91-year-old head of Iraq’s clerical establishment Hawza, is known to be reclusive. He mainly issues messages through his representatives and rarely appears in the public, on the television, or receives visitors. Sistani, however, made an exception when he hosted Pope Francis at his modest home on Najaf’s Rasool Street. Sistani stood outside his austere meeting room to greet the pope when Francis walked a few hundred meters to meet the ayatollah for the 40-minute meeting in March 2021. Francis, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, took off his shoes before white doves symbolizing peace were released when the pontiff entered the doorway. He cradled Sistani’s hands during the meeting as the two discussed ways of stopping violence in the name of religion.
Sistani told Francis that Iraq’s Christians deserve to ‘live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights’ as Francis thanked the ayatollah for raising ‘his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.’ The meeting came amid increasing acknowledgment of Sistani’s role in unifying Iraq, which helped it defeat the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist group masquerading as Caliphate, in July 2017.
Sistani’s fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS. It encouraged thousands of volunteers to sign up for Popular Mobilization Forces better known by its Arabic acronym Hashd to fight the group. ISIS controlled a bigger territory than Austria and 40% of Iraq and a third of Syria at its peak when the Iraqi state almost collapsed when its American-trained forces fled Mosul in June 2014 and allowed the terrorist group to overrun the city.
Francis’s visit would not have been possible without the bridge-building Sistani played a key role in and helped unify the country to take on ISIS effectively. ISIS’s brutality triggered a sense of urgency that helped Iraqis rise above regional, ethnic and sectarian divides to help defeat it. Rayan al-Kildani’s Christian Babylon Brigade militia was among those who fought ISIS under the Hashd umbrella. A resident of a predominantly Christian village in a mountain range with crosses even taller than lampposts every 100m near Mosul, Kildani described to BBC in 2016 how they fought side by side with the Muslim militias. Kildani added they have really good defense forces now and no one is ‘going to do anything bad to the Christians’ and that their suffering is over.
Francis echoed Kildani when the pontiff visited Mosul as the Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet for him. Children in festive dresses lined the streets and waved Iraqi flags to welcome Francis as he arrived at Mosul’s Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square years after the city was virtually reduced to rubble in the fighting against ISIS. He said Christians received assistance from Muslims when they returned to the town. Francis underlined the need for reaffirming their conviction ‘that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’ His audience held olive branches as Francis led prayers in Mosul.
The pontiff led the first prayers at the renovated Church of the Holy Immaculate Conception, which was damaged during the war, in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, where Christians trace their roots back to almost as far as Jesus’s lifetime. He visited Mosul as a pilgrim for peace and said terrorism and death never have the last word. The pope said even amid the ravages of terrorism, they can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death. He referred to Iraq’s history of pluralism and hoped its legacy would be ensured. Francis called religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity ‘a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia.’ He said it is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated.
A cross made from wooden chairs from churches across the region was also erected in Mosul’s Church Square in the honour of Francis, who visited Erbil in northern Iraq to express his gratitude to the local community for offering refuge to Christians during the war on ISIS.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier welcomed Francis when he arrived in Baghdad. A choir was also arranged for the pope when he entered the airport. Crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as Francis left for a welcome at the presidential palace. Traffic circles en route were decorated with the Vatican’s yellow and white flags. At the presidential reception, the pope spoke about Iraq’s diversity, which he said is to be treasured. He addressed leaders of several denominations at the cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad and held a mass at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.
The papal visit was a major boost to inter-faith harmony in Iraq as it emerges from terrorism, dictatorship, occupation, and the civil war. As the New York Times rightly emphasized: ‘[…] in some ways [Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.’ Theirs was a meeting of the minds. It was a step towards realizing unity among the world’s major faiths. The pope made a case for it at a multi-faith gathering he addressed during the same trip in Iraq’s Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews trace their roots to. Francis quoted a passage in the Bible in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his offspring will be. He emphasized Abraham saw the promise of his progeny in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis said, referring to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The pope urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity while underlining they illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan