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80/4 (37.5 ov)

The very withdrawn 90-year-old, whose sermons are usually given by a representative, will hold a rare face-to-face meeting with the Pope on Saturday

File picture of Pope Francis. Reuters

Baghdad: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme religious authority of Shiite Muslims in Iraq, has wielded subtle but unprecedented power for a clergyman and led his followers through decades of dictatorship, occupation and conflict.

The very withdrawn 90-year-old will meet the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, in the holy shrine city of Najaf on Saturday during his first papal visit to Iraq.

It will be a rare face-to-face meeting for Sistani, whose sermons usually come from one Representatives are held.

That has not tarnished its effect: his words have sent thousands of Iraqis to polling stations, protest sites and battlefields since the US-led invasion in 2003. “Despite widespread abandonment of religion around the world, awe of Sistani remains unmoved,” said Marsin Alshamary, a research fellow at the Brookings Institute.

The thin, fluffy clergyman had to play the conventional role of the revered establishment that as “Marjaiyah” is known to reconcile the expectation since 2003 that it would also have a political voice.

He did so carefully, moving away from the non-political legacy of the “Marjaiyah” while trying to preserve it . “Sistani is not a quietist, but neither is he a revolutionary,” said Alshamary.

Sistani was born in 1930 in the Iranian city of Mashhad into a family of revered clergymen and began his religious studies at the age of five. He later moved to Iraq and rose through the ranks of Shiite clergy to Grand Ayatollah in the 1990s.

But after 2003, Sistani stepped out of isolation and played an unprecedented public role while Iraq was under a “vacuum for real leadership, “Alshamary said.

The clergyman resolutely opposed the US-led occupation, insisted that Iraq be swiftly granted full sovereignty, and campaigned for elections to have one in Parliament in 2005 To form a pan-Shiite coalition.

Sistani was a voice of moderation who repeatedly called for calm during the brutal sectarian conflict in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 and even brokered ceasefires between warring parties.

In June 2014, he issued a historic edict calling on the Iraqis to raise arms against the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic state group who had swept parts of the north.

This led to the establishment of Hashed al-Shaabi, a loose network of armed factions, many of which are close to Iran and which now exerts great political and military influence.

In 2015, he assigned AFP in a written response to interview questions informed his reform crusade that he had hoped elected officials could lead Iraq without his intervention. “Unfortunately, things turned out differently,” he said.

When mass rallies broke out against the government in 2019, he supported their demands and met frequently with the United Nations’ top official in Iraq to set a reform roadmap.

His call to parliament to end support for then Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi led to the Prime Minister’s resignation.

Nevertheless, he was criticized by demonstrators who were looking for a harder line and fought by political actors.

Around the time the coronavirus pandemic first hit Iraq in the spring of 2020, Sistani fell silent and stopped giving weekly sermons.

In the only known imagery of him, he is fluent in Persian, but he is also known for fighting back against the growing clout of Iran.

This is partly due to the centuries-old rivalry between Najaf and the Iranian Qom Ren, over which the seat of Shiite religious authority is.

“Sistani kept Iran consistently at a distance because he saw himself as a competitor to Qom and did not want to be dictated by Iran,” said Kenneth Katzman, an analyst at the US Congressional Research Service.

Sistani has allegedly turned down offers of Iraqi citizenship twice but is widely regarded as a national symbol.

“Sistani has never denied that he is Iranian, but in many ways he is more Iraqi than Iraqi Leader, “said Hayder al-Khoei, an Iraqi politics and Shiite religious affairs researcher who met Sistani several times.

Another difference is the role of religion in politics: while Iran is ruled by clergy, it has Sistani always shunned any formal role in government.

Alshamary said this could make him “wary” to join the document on “human brotherhood”, an interfaith ugly text condemning extremism as Catholic clergymen would expect it to be.

Francis signed it in February 2019 with Sunni leader Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo.

Francis and Sistani will meet for a “private visit” in Najaf, where Sistani lives in a Spartan environment.

Despite his humble appearance and non-Iraqi roots, he is considered an essential figure in Iraq’s recent history viewed. “Nobody else will ever take such a position,” said Alshamary. “He led Iraq through all these difficult times.”

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Ref: https://www.firstpost.com