December 6, 2015


In Shia Muslims' holiest site, a new openness to other faiths (N.P. AND ERASMUS, 12/05/15, tHE eCONOMIST)

[A]s an Economist colleague has discovered, inter-religious diplomacy is a rather new feature of life in Najaf, the Iraqi city which is the most revered place in Shia Islam.  

On one recent day, there was a surprising scene, when set against the hatreds engulfing the wider Middle East. Inside the bejewelled Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest place for Shia Islam, a turbaned cleric was leading a delegation of women representing what remains of Iraq's colourful sectarian make-up. The party included Melkite and Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims and members of smaller religious minorities, such as Yazidis and Mandeans. They also visited an 11-story academy for inter-religious studies, under construction opposite the shrine's gates. And in an apparently unprecedented gesture, a Grand Ayatollah, one of four clergy of that rank in Najaf, invited them in for a bite to eat.

These days, news stories about religion in Iraq usually focus on the ghastly deeds of Islamic State which controls a swathe of the country's Sunni-dominated territory and has slaughtered or expelled rival religious groups. The inter-faith diplomacy of the country's Shia ayatollahs has gone almost unnoticed, though it deserves some attention.

Take another recent vignette. Jawad Al-Khoei, a Shia cleric who is preparing the new study centre, reacted in a rather unexpected way when a Christian bishop was about to enter the Imam Ali Shrine and discreetly tried to hide his crucifix in his cassock. "I told [the Christian prelate] he could only enter if he kept it [in view]," recalls Mr Khoei, who is a prominent representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most revered leader of Shia Islam. He adds that he is discussing a papal visit to Najaf with the Vatican. Another of Mr Sistani's representatives in Lebanon gives sermons in Beirut's Christian churches.

It was not always so. A century ago, the country's Shia clergy considered it sacrilege to shake hands or sit at table with non-Muslims, on grounds that the presence of non-believers would render their food impure. But now a historical reversal seems to be going on. For centuries, Iraq's multi-faith tradition has been preserved under Sunni leadership; now, as Sunni fanatics assault that tradition, the Shia clerics of Najaf are keen to emphasise their openness to others.

It's the Third Great Foundation.

Posted by at December 6, 2015 8:42 AM