Shia Islam may be taking the place of the Sunni branch of the faith in making an effort to foster interreligious diplomacy in the Middle East, according to The Economist (Dec. 5). This shift is most evident in Najaf in Iraq, the most revered place in Shia Islam. The Shia holy site of the Imam Ali Shrine recently hosted an interfaith gathering of such diverse faiths as 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 interreligious 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.” Another interfaith initiative is already in place at the Faculty of Islamic Law at Kufa University, Najaf’s largest college. “We want to turn Najaf into a meeting place of religions,” says Walid Farajallah al-Asali, the dean and a cleric who specializes in the Babylonian Talmud. “There is even talk of a papal visit to Najaf. Followers of Grand Ayatollah Sistani have made similar gestures, with one imam in Lebanon giving sermons in Beirut’s Christian churches.”
The article comments: “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 emphasize their openness to others.” The open-door policy in Najaf’s holy sites is unusual enough in the Middle East, where such sites as Mecca and the Fatima Masumeh, the holiest shrine in Iran’s theological center of Qom, are for Muslims only. Critics charge that the ayatollahs’ openness “has yet to percolate down to their devotees,” a criticism the clerics say they are addressing. “Beyond the clerical ivory tower of Najaf,” Shia militias engaging in sectarian cleansing continues, as does popular prejudice against groups such as the Mandeans and Yazidis, the article concludes.