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“The Pope is not Just the Leader of Catholics but Also an Icon of Peace”

Jawad al-Khoei during a conference organized by Oasis in Milan, 2013

Francis’ trip to Iraq from the perspective of Jawad al-Khoei, Secretary-General of the al-Khoei Institute in Najaf, a centre that promotes Shi‘a theological knowledge and interfaith dialogue, which insisted that the Pontiff visit the Iraqi holy city

Last update: 2021-02-26 09:16:17

A grandson of Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, one of the most influential contemporary Shi‘ite authorities, Jawad al-Khoei is the Secretary-General of the Al-Khoei Institute, whose aim is to keep alive the teaching tradition of the Iraqi city of Najaf and promote interfaith dialogue. We asked him what he expects from the Pope’s visit and what the country’s most urgent problems are.


Interview by Claudio Fontana


The first version of Pope Francis’ itinerary for his visit to Iraq did not include Najaf. Your institute publicly commented on that absence and suggested that a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani should take place. Why do you consider this meeting to be so important? What are your expectations about Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq?


Najaf has a good working relationship with the Vatican, and multiple scholars from the Hawza of Najaf have visited the Vatican. Catholic Priests have also visited Najaf multiple times, but this would be the first meeting in history between the head of the Catholic Church and the head of the religious establishment in Najaf. 

In 2015, a Shi‘a-Sunni intrafaith meeting was held in Rome through a partnership with the Community of Sant ’Egidio. In 2016, a Shi‘a-Catholic conference was held at the Catholic Institute in Paris, and a delegation from the Catholic Institute visited us in Najaf two years later. 

The Pope’s trip to Iraq is a historic and highly significant event because he will be visiting several Iraqi cities from the north to the south. It will be a message of human fraternity, a call to peace, and a rejection of violence in the name of the religion. We do not just consider the Pope to be the leader of Catholics, but also to be an icon of peace. And that is why many Iraqis from all backgrounds and segments of society welcome the Papal visit and are pleased that the Pope has chosen Iraq for his first overseas trip since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.


The al-Khoei Institute is strongly engaged in interfaith dialogue. In your opinion, what role can interfaith dialogue play in shaping the future of Iraq and the Middle East more broadly?


We have no viable option in the region besides interfaith dialogue. The Middle East is not unique in terms of violence caused by religious conflict. Many other regions of the world, including Europe itself, went through centuries of civil wars and religious conflicts, but eventually they overcame these problems and created peaceful societies. We believe that the future of the Middle East will be similar. 

Interfaith dialogue is vital for all peaceful societies because it enables us to understand one another—regardless of our differences—and to realise that we are all in the same boat, facing the same challenges. The security of Muslims depends on the security of Christians and the security of Christians depends on the security of Muslims. There can be no security for Muslims if there is no security for non-Muslims, and vice versa.


Over the last several years Iraqi society has become increasingly militarized. Even religious communities have been transformed into quasi-militarized sects. Is it possible to reverse this situation?


Unfortunately, due to the numerous wars Iraq has gone through in recent history, our society has become increasingly militarised, especially since the ISIS occupation of large swathes of the country and the military response to this occupation, which was necessary to liberate our land from the terrorist group. The situation can be reversed but it will take both time and the political will of local leaders. And it will also require the international community to stop fighting proxy wars and stop using religion to justify political violence. 

In 2014, after ISIS occupied Mosul and other Iraqi cities, it was the fatwa of Ayatollah Sistani calling on all Iraqis to defend Iraq that turned the tide against the terrorists. If it wasn’t for this intervention and the 30,000 martyrs who gave their lives to defeat terrorism, the Pope’s visit to Mosul and Baghdad would not be possible.


The Iraqi political scene is characterised by protests against the government, which have been partly limited by the outbreak of Covid-19. What are the most urgent problems the country has to tackle?


Iraq faces myriad problems that have accumulated over decades and have contributed to the deterioration of services that we now witness. There is no doubt that corruption remains the biggest challenge since the emergence of ISIS, and they are, in some ways, two sides of the same coin: corruption spurs terrorism and terrorism gives others an excuse to continue and expand their corrupt network. 

The economic situation is also a consequence of a mentality which has relied for decades on the rentier state and an expanding public sector. However, the recent fall in oil prices have made this issue more acute. We hope that it will also force the Iraqi political class to think more seriously about developing a more sustainable economic programme that doesn’t just rely on oil revenues to maintain the status quo.


Especially since 2003, foreign influence has been very strong. Is it realistic to imagine a future in which Iraq will be a truly autonomous country again?


When ISIS first occupied Mosul, many voices said this was the end of Iraq. On the contrary, however, the emergence of this terrorist group united Iraq because everyone realised that they shared a common enemy. This hateful ideology is not just a threat to Iraq and Iraqis but to all humanity. The sense of patriotism we see in Iraq now is much stronger. If you pay attention to the political discourse, sectarianism, which was once instrumentalised by politicians during elections to win votes, is now rejected by the Iraqi people and the same politicians who used sectarian language have a much more nationalist rhetoric now. This doesn’t mean they have changed their beliefs per se, but it is an indication that they realise that the Iraqi street has moved beyond sectarianism.

We have also seen the emergence of more cross-sectarian civil society and political movements in Iraq that are active and who seek to change the situation on the ground.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation