From Najaf to Qom, Pope Francis renews call for dialogue with Shiism

The pontiff today received the chancellor of a prestigious Iranian religious university. In Iraq, a three-day conference organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio and the Al-Khoei Institute ended today. For Chaldean Patriarch Sako, “centres of coexistence” should be set up to promote fraternity, exchange and cooperation to meet global challenges.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq and his message to the country’s highest Shia authority, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, appear to be bearing fruit.

A three-day conference titled “Catholics and Shiites facing the future” began on Wednesday in Najaf and ended today in Baghdad, organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio and the Al-Khoei Institute.

This morning, the pontiff met with Ayatollah Seyed Abulhassan Hassan Navab, chancellor of the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, Iran, for a private audience at the Vatican.

Both are a sign that two years after Francis's historic apostolic journey to Iraq, dialogue between Catholics and Shias is growing, getting stronger in the name of Mary, who is venerated by Christians and Muslims alike for her “power of love, freedom of heart, peace of conscience,” as the Chaldean patriarch, Card Louis Raphael Sako, put it recently.

The conference in Iraq provided an opportunity for exchange and discussions, a chance to take stock of the path undertaken so far, and start new initiatives for the future.

“Dialogue between religions is not a sign of weakness but a manifestation of God's dialogue with humanity,” said For Card Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, prefect of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue. In fact, “fraternity is a challenge for all humanity.”

The cardinal used the occasion to deliver a personal message from the pontiff to Ayatollah al-Sistani, who took part in an historic meeting two years ago.

On the first day of the conference, Al-Ishkawari, professor at the High Shiite Seminary in Najaf, pointed out that the goal of interfaith dialogue “is not to unite religions into one, but to work together for the common good".

Likewise, in his address, Shahid Al-Baghdadi, director general of the Imam Ali Shrine, expressed hope that the meeting could be “part of a larger project whereby wise men and women,” both “Christians and Muslims, could build an idea of fraternity”.

Al-Khoei Institute Secretary General Jawad Al-Kohei, focused on “looking for shared aspects in ethical values and mutual respect” among religions.

For his part, Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Card Sako, one of the speakers in Wednesday’s session, said that the “human and spiritual dimension" of fraternity must be oriented towards “living together in peace", far from "enmity, violence and fear".

God, he stressed, judges "on love”, not "according to religions" for "all men are his children and brothers for one another", the rule being one “of universal fraternity”.

Citing al-Sistani's words when he welcomed the pope, Sako said: “We are part of you, and you are part of us.” This, he notes, is a “true fatwa, a legal ruling that must be respected.”

To this end, it is time to “reconsider and reform some old concepts and laws" and put aside "extremist and harmful interpretations” that can lead to “the crimes against humanity by al-Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State)” based on “accusations against non-Muslims of blasphemy and polytheism.” This, he thinks, "is a great sin for which God will judge them.”

Another example of this is “the Islamisation of underage Christians when one of the parents is Muslim."

Ultimately, “I believe that God's dream is that all human beings live as brothers and sisters in great joy and happiness. This should be the dream of religions and the dream of ordinary people" and everyone should contribute to "realising it.”

In Baghdad, where the conference ended today, more discussions were held, with Patriarch Sako concluding with a list today’s main global challenges: from the Russian war in Ukraine to the unresolved Palestinian question, from climate and environmental challenges to religious extremism and terrorism, passing through the process of “secularisation of the West”.

Faced with these challenges, the cardinal proposed "the creation of centres of coexistence that promote a spirit of love and cooperation among people, on ethical and religious grounds, in order to preserve the unity of society itself.”

Meanwhile, before his audience with Pope Francis today, Ayatollah Abulhassan Navab visited the Pontifical Academy of Mary (PAMI)[*] yesterday.

In his address, the chancellor of the University for Religions and Religious Confessions in Qom spoke of two "invisible armies", ignorance and fear, who sow war and violence.

The visit provided an opportunity to the Iranian and Pontifical universities to sign an agreement to spread a culture of peace and interfaith dialogue through projects to be extended to schools and universities in other countries, eliminating barriers and ending hostility and biases.

[*] Pontificia Academia Mariana Internationalis