Iranians are happy about the Pope-Sistani meeting, not the fundamentalists
by Khosrow Ebrahimi

The meeting between the pontiff and the Shia cleric confirms Sistani’s role as world leader of Shiism. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic, Qom has tried to undermine Najaf's place. Kayhan, a newspaper close to religious extremists, mocked the meeting. Others, including some in Qom, see it as a new effort to bring peace to the Middle East.

Tehran (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis's visit to Iraq on March 5-8 has had several repercussions in Iran, especially the meeting between Francis, the leader of world Catholicism, and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most important Shia religious leaders.

Some, including Mohammad Masjedjamei, former Iranian ambassador to the Holy See, mentioned Pope John Paul II's desire to visit Iraq 21 years ago and the opposition to it by then-leader Saddam Hussein.

For many Iranians, the most important part of the trip was the pontiff's visit to al-Sistani,  which is of great value for peace in the region and the safety of Iraqi Christians.

At present, Sistani is the world's most important Shia leader, and the city of Najaf, where he lives, has been for centuries the home of Shia leaders.

After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran's political clergy sought to change this situation, by trying to turn Qom – the main seat of Iran’s Shia clergy located in central Iran – into the centre of world Shiism.

So far, they have not been successful, and this is due precisely to Sistani's presence in Najaf where he has stayed clear of the harsh policies of Iranian Islamic clerics.

In this respect, Sistani has always stressed the need for peace, the prevention of violence, and the non-interference of religion in politics. This attitude has not pleased Iranian leaders.

Less than three months ago, Ibrahim Raisi, the Chief Justice of Iran, appointed by Khamenei - went to Iraq, but Sistani did not receive him. This refusal was seen as a defeat.

Had the meeting taken place, Raisi could have envisaged running for the upcoming presidential election (scheduled for mid-June 2021) and could also have won.

In response to Sistani's lack of "localism" and to show that he has no place in Iran’s Shia leadership, the Kayhan newspaper published a piece practically mocking the meeting between Sistani and the pope.

Kayhan is the most important voice of the fundamentalist and extremist faction in Iran’s establishment, and it is very close to Khamenei.

The article links the Pope's trip to Iraq to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad (3 January 2020), pointing out that Soleimani's activities in Iraq had been carried out with Sistani's permission. However, Sistani's office has never been confirmed this claim.

The newspaper ends its article comparing Sistani's home to the Pope’s residence in Rome, betraying an attitude that shows how Iranian fundamentalists are not happy with this trip.

The papal visit gives more and more legitimacy to Sistani’s leadership among Shias, narrowing Khamenei’s capacity to reach that position, which he has been dreaming about and promoting for many years.

Meanwhile, only a small group of Shia clerics in Qom welcomed the trip, calling it the beginning of another effort to bring peace to the Middle East.

The news of the trip, however, was deliberately ignored by the state propaganda apparatus of the Islamic Republic of Iran.