During a visit to Iraq this weekend, Pope Francis will meet one-on-one with the most respected imam of Shiite Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Their meeting in the sacred city of Najaf – no doubt one of affection between two learned men who preach peace – is more than a historic first or a symbol of reconciliation. In a Middle East torn by violence among the offshoots of the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, it may help redefine power in the region.
Many of the Mideast’s conflicts are driven by hate – among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and often within a faith, such as between Islam’s minority Shiites and majority Sunnis. By meeting as equals, the pope and grand ayatollah hope to reverse that. Their recognition of each other is an act of humility, a respecting of human differences while honoring each other as made in God’s image.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani is already well known for his calls to protect Iraqi Christians from terrorists and for them to be treated as equals. For his part, Pope Francis described his reason for the visit: “I come as a pilgrim, a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism.” In a subtle message to their followers, the meeting signals that each sees God (or Allah) in the other rather than insisting on a divinity in their own image.
That is the power in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. “The central insight of monotheism – that God is the parent of humanity, then we are all members of a single human family – has become more real in its implication than ever before,” wrote Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, in one of his last books, “Not In God’s Name,” before his death last November.
These religions, he insisted, gain power by not accepting a dualism that claims a conflict between two realities, good and evil, rather than the one reality of good. That dualism “divides humanity into the unshakeably good and the irredeemably evil, giving rise to a long history of bloodshed and barbarism of the kind we see being enacted today,” he writes.
Until all human institutions take a stand against hate and the great religions base their power on love, all efforts of diplomacy and military intervention will fail, he said. Mr. Sacks also points out that the parent of the three faiths, Abraham, had no military. He welcomed strangers into his tent with blessings in the same way that the grand ayatollah and the pope are meeting.
The pope’s visit will include another meaningful moment. On Saturday, he will join an interfaith ceremony in the ancient city of Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham. History for the three faiths will come back to its origins of unity for all humanity.
“The meeting between the pope and Ayatollah Sistani would represent a very, very profound statement about moderation in religion,” says Iraqi President Barham Salih. The pope’s visit, he adds, is based on its potential to “heal” divisions between faiths. That power for healing will be seen in the shared welcome and appreciation between two men in a simple home in Najaf.