Poster of Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani on an Iraqi street. Photo by Anmar Khalil/AP/Shutterstock

FEATURE

Pope Francis and Muslim Clerics Represent Hope for the Future of Interfaith Collaboration, Faith Leaders Say at Georgetown Event

By: Henry D. Brill

September 29, 2021

Dialogue between Pope Francis and Muslim clerics represents hope for the future of interfaith collaboration, according to faith leaders who spoke at a Georgetown University event on September 27, 2021.

The interfaith panel explored the significance of the 2021 papal visit to Iraq, where Pope Francis met with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an influential Shia cleric.

“Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq in March 2021 was the first time a pope had ever visited Iraq and held such a high-level meeting with a Shia leader in his home country,” explained Tamara Sonn, director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown.

Challenging Context

That Pope Francis visited Iraq as the COVID-19 pandemic and terrorism present major challenges to life in the Middle East highlights the significance of interreligious dialogue, according to the panel. 

“Even in this moment of the pandemic and security issues in Iraq, the Holy Father decided that he still needed to go,” explained Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. “It was a way for him to say to the world that we need to take the risk of dialogue.”

During his visit to Iraq, Pope Francis also played a pastoral role, providing comfort and hope for the Iraqi people during a time marked by conflict and uncertainty. 

“Pope Francis as a spiritual father is recognized by the whole world,” said Rev. George Toma, chorbishop of the Diocese of Eastern United States of the Assyrian Church of the East. “As a father, he went there to comfort the people who had been suffering and persecuted unjustly for a long period of time.” 

Everyday Encounter

The meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani took place in a rather modest setting, providing broader lessons on how to approach interreligious dialogue. 

Cardinal Cupich reflected on the message sent by the meeting between the Catholic leader and Shia cleric, commenting, 

To have the ayatollah welcome him in a very personal way—without a lot of fanfare, in a very modest setting—said to the world that these two could see each other as brothers, as having much in common. 

Finding commonality is an important step in interfaith engagement to solve global challenges, according to the panel. 

“We as people of faith have to find this commonality and work together to improve human conditions,” explained Imam Mohamed Magid, executive imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center. “Both of these great leaders have encouraged the grassroots, the followers, to engage in sincere dialogue and work together in the neighborhood.”

Promoting Pluralism 

Panelists also considered what the papal visit might mean for the promotion of religious pluralism in the Middle East, where the number of Christians has declined in recent years. 

“The visit of Pope Francis to Iraq and meeting with Ayatollah Sistani gave a big message not just to Christians but to Muslims as well: that we are close together, that we have to respect one another, regardless of our differences,” explained Rev. Toma. 

Imam Sayyid Mohammad Baqir Kashmiri, the North American representative of Ayatollah Sistani, echoed the importance of promoting pluralism in Iraq, commenting,

We, as religious authorities in Najaf, believe strongly that Iraq must keep the diversity of people, and we should not give any opportunities to our enemies to fill Iraq with one religion or one school of thought.

The apostolic visit to Iraq also provides hope for the future of interfaith relations in the United States, according to the panel. 

“This visit will give more momentum to the interfaith work done in America, especially with the Muslim and Catholic communities,” explained Imam Magid. “It’s one thing to ask communities to work together; it’s another thing to show it in a modern example.” 

This event was co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.