Iraqi academic: Pope Francis points way forward for dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites

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Iraqi academic: Pope Francis points way forward for dialogue between Sunnis and ShiitesMilan (AsiaNews) - The theme of Islamic-Christian dialogue and that within the Muslim world, Shiite and Sunni, has re-emerged on several levels this November in conjunction with high profile meetings attended by the highest religious figures.

From the Forum for Dialogue in Bahrain with Pope Francis and the Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, to the Forum for Peace in Abu Dhabi with the participation of Muslim, Christian and Jewish personalities, the path indicated by the Pontiff in 2019 continues, albeit amidst limitations and obstacles.

Recently, the Patriarch of Baghdad of the Chaldeans Card. Louis Raphael Sako stressed that "dialogue and reconciliation" are necessary for "regional stability and security" and the "divisions" between Shiites and Sunnis must be overcome through "direct" confrontation and "respect".

The Emirates also set the stage for unprecedented words from al-Tayyeb, who issued a rare call for unity: 'I call on my brothers, Muslim scholars around the world and from every doctrine, sect and school of thought to promote internal dialogue within Islam. "Let us reject together all hate speech, provocation and excommunication," added the imam of the university in Cairo, among the most authoritative centres of Sunni Islam, "and let us put aside ancient and modern conflict, in all its forms.

We explored these issues with Saad Salloum, journalist, associate professor of political science at al-Mustanṣiriyya University in Baghdad and winner of numerous awards, who through the Masarat Foundation, of which he is president, supports the ideal of dialogue.

Interviewed by AsiaNews, he stressed that it is "fundamental" that dialogue be maintained and strengthened between Christians and Muslims, but equally important that the "internal [...] dialogue between Sunnis and Shiites" be affirmed in a concrete and constructive manner. A reflection in line with the appeal of the Imam of al-Azhar and among the most important fruits "of the pope's trips" to the Middle East. A first result of this unity of intent was seen in the street protests in Iraq, in which "young people of different ethnicities and confessions" came "together" to demonstrate "to reform the political system".

Below is the full interview:

From Bahrain to Abu Dhabi, important forums were held attended by, among others, Pope Francis and the imam of al-Azhar. What value do they have in terms of dialogue between faiths?

The forums in Bahrain and the Emirates are an integral part of and complement the pope's visit to Abu Dhabi in 2019, the meeting with Sheikh al-Tayyeb and the signing of the document on human fraternity and finally the trip to Iraq and the face-to-face meeting with al-Sistani in Najaf. These last two events are part of the journey and reflect the pontiff's policy, which sees dialogue between Christians and Muslims as fundamental, but dialogue within Islam, between Sunnis and Shiites, as equally important. And this is also why the Imam of al-Azhar, when he met Francis in Bahrain, raised the internal issue between Sunnis and Shias. Placing this issue at the centre of attention is one of the most important reflections of the apostolic journeys [to the Middle East] and the call for dialogue.

The pope has taken several steps towards the Muslim world, fruit of a common understanding with the Imam of al-Azhar. But has this path had a foothold in society?

Of course it has! Today there are visible elements on the social level or on the level of the people. The pope's visit is not just a meeting between leaders, with al-Tayyeb or al-Sistani. When his image is shown on television or social media, there is an awareness that Christianity and Christians are an integral part of life [in the region]. And to see Christians and Muslims together at the highest level is a message to ordinary people: today the pontiff is a kind of 'folk hero', a bringer of peace and a symbol of being a religious leader and making a positive impact of how clergy can be part of the solution, not part of the problem as was the case in the past.

Prof. Salloum, going back to al-Tayyeb's words, at what point are relations between Sunni and Shia Islam today?

The internal struggle within the Muslim world changes the identity and face of the Middle East. We have two capitals, or two regional powers [Saudi Arabia and Iran], and each represents one of the two interpretations of Islam. There are many nations involved in this struggle, although many would like to maintain a position of neutrality in this conflict. The pope's role in this dialogue, his visits are an attempt to change this, to push the political leaders of these countries to think a thousand times before focusing on competition. On the contrary, they must build bridges. The leaders of the two doctrines met the pontiff and want to show that Islam is part of this new world. With Christianity and Judaism it shares a common descent from Abraham, and together they must lay the foundations to sustain peace, not conflict. We have witnessed the destruction of many nations such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and this is one of the reflections of the internal struggle within Islam. The pope's visit is a light to find a solution.

Patriarch Sako called for more confrontation between the two worlds. Should Sunnis and Shiites talk to each other more and better in your opinion?
What the Chaldean primate said and what I myself have repeated many times on Iraqi and Lebanese television, in universities and congresses, and with the work of our Masarat foundation is precisely to support this internal dialogue. It is a premise, an introduction to dialogue with other faiths. The words of the pope and the patriarch [and the invitation of the imam of al-Azhar] are what we need to change the reality of the Middle East on a social, political, cultural and religious level.

How would you define the Iraqi reality today from an internal dialogue perspective?
After Isis and the destruction of Mosul, Sinjar, the Nineveh Plain and the jihadist crimes against humanity, after the Yazidi genocide, the Iraqi people have really started to reflect and ask themselves how they can avoid this happening again. Iraq tops the Middle East nations for atrocities experienced in the internal struggle within the Muslim world. For 17 years after the 2003 US invasion, we have seen the destruction of the Shia community, the Sunni community, the loss of sovereignty. People want to live their lives; hearts, mindsets have changed in Iraq before other nations. This was seen in the protests of October 2019, when many young people of different ethnicities and denominations, from Christians to Yazidis, from Sunnis to Shias, came together in Tahrir Square to demonstrate in an attempt to reform the political system.

Are the value of forgiveness and the exegesis of sacred texts still two elements that differentiate Islam and Christianity? And is it possible, or desirable, to imagine progress?
In the Koran and the Bible there are passages that speak of tolerance and coexistence. It is not only a question of interpretation, but also of having an environment that socially and politically supports this interpretation. I think the difference between East and West is that we have not had, at least so far, a social and political environment based on the element of tolerance. However, something is shaking the region and the new generations seem to be more oriented towards this perspective, towards a change of signs, of passages, of interpretations.

What steps must be taken to resolve internal disputes, struggles, divisions?
We must insist on internal dialogue, this is the first step we should take. Dialogue must be strengthened, we must build bridges, make community. I myself, in my studies and in the work promoted by my foundation, am pushing precisely in this direction.

Peace and reconciliation between the two souls of the Muslim world are necessary for stability. Even the Imam of al-Azhar makes a rare appeal for internal dialogue. Analysis and future prospects in an interview with professor and expert Saad Salloum.