CORDIAL encounters between representatives of different creeds are common enough in the Western world, whether the organisers are universities, governments or NGOs. (In the latter case, inter-faith activity is often aimed at building bridges by tackling a commonly perceived problem, from the environment to slavery.)
But as an Economist colleague has discovered, inter-religious diplomacy is a rather new feature of life in Najaf, the Iraqi city which is the most revered place in Shia Islam. On one recent day, there was a surprising scene, when set against the hatreds engulfing the wider Middle East. Inside the bejewelled Imam Ali Shrine, the holiest place for Shia Islam, a turbaned cleric was leading a delegation of women representing what remains of Iraq’s colourful sectarian make-up.
The party included 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 inter-religious 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.
These days, news stories about religion in Iraq usually focus on the ghastly deeds of Islamic State which controls a swathe of the country's Sunni-dominated territory and has slaughtered or expelled rival religious groups. The inter-faith diplomacy of the country’s Shia ayatollahs has gone almost unnoticed, though it deserves some attention. Take another recent vignette.
Jawad al-Khoei, a Shia cleric who is preparing the new study centre, reacted in a rather unexpected way when a Christian bishop was about to enter the Imam Ali Shrine and discreetly tried to hide his crucifix in his cassock. "I told [the Christian prelate] he could only enter if he kept it [in view]," recalls Mr Khoei, a senior lecturer at the Shia seminary in Najaf and a follower of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered leader of Shia Islam.
He adds that he is discussing a papal visit to Najaf with the Vatican. Another of Mr Sistani’s followers in Lebanon gives sermons in Beirut’s Christian churches. 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 emphasise their openness to others. The access enjoyed by outsiders to the Imam Ali Shrine marks a contrast with many other holy places.
Only Muslims may visit Mecca; the Ottoman system of granting permits to non-Muslims was stopped when the Saudis took over the place. Iran restricts non-Muslim entry to Fatima Masumeh, the holiest shrine in its theological centre of Qom. As part of a delicate balance, Israel curbs the access of non-Muslims to Islam’s third holiest shrine, al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.
But Najaf’s clerics pride themselves on their open-door policy. “Holy places are for all believers,” says Ezzedin al-Hakim, a son of another Grand Ayatollah. Set to open next spring, the al-Balaghi Interfaith Academy is named after an ayatollah who learned Hebrew with the rabbis who once taught at the prophet Ezekiel’s tomb, a sacred site located half an hour's drive away at Dhul-Kifl.
The centre is aimed at the 13,000 Shia seminarians studying in Najaf, and will house seven auditoriums, a library for 1.5m books and a Turkish bath; its teaching staff, says Mr Khoei, will be predominantly non-Muslims. “We want Yazidis to teach the Yazidi faith, Sabaeans to teach about Sabeans, and Christians to teach Christianity,” he says.
Another inter-faith programme is already up and running 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 faculty dean and a turbaned cleric, speaking after a lecture on the Bablylonian Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law compiled in the Sura Academy, once located nearby.
“All Iraqi students know about Judaism is the conflict with Israel. We have to explain the beliefs of Judaism.” At a book fair at the back of Imam Ali Shrine, Lwiss Saliba, a lecturer from Saint Joseph, Beirut’s Jesuit university, mans a stall of holy texts he has translated and published in Arabic, including scriptures from the Bahai faith, which are formally banned by an Iraqi law from the 1970s as well as in Iran.
"The ayatollahs are resolute in their determination to see equal rights for all, regardless of sect,” says Mr Khoei. “If the people elect a Christian as leader, he should lead." Critics complain that the ayatollahs’ openness has yet to percolate down to their devotees, a charge the clerics say they are addressing.
At an evening gathering at Najaf’s Writers' Union, some of the Yazidi and Mandean women dispensed with their scarves and, from the podium, told off Iraq’s education ministry for failing to amend the school textbooks which deride religious minorities, calling the Yazidis Satan-worshippers and berating the Sabeans for bowing to stars.
The women received such an enthusiastic reception from the hall that a Christian woman from Baghdad pronounced she would move to Najaf with her family. But for all Najaf’s outreach, the disappearance of minorities from southern Iraq is almost as pronounced as further north. Amara, a southern city with a hodgepodge of sects on the banks of the Tigris, lost its last Jews 50 years ago, and now its Christians and Mandeans look set to go the same way.
Of the 400 Christian families in the city before America’s 2003 invasion, only twelve remain. “Four families left three weeks ago,” bemoans their community leader, who insists he will be last to go. Mandeans tell a similar tale. In 15 years, their numbers have fallen from 50,000 concentrated in the south to 4,000. Pull factors as well as push ones are to blame, says a Mandean exiled in the Gulf.
His clergy have ostracised couples who intermarry and western governments give the region's minorities preferential treatment for migration. “Every parent has to grapple with the dilemma of whether he could offer his children a better life abroad,” he says. But intolerance also plays its part. For all the clerical reprimands, Shia militias have engaged in sectarian cleansing, chasing out long-standing Sunni communities across much of the south.
Mandean parents at their faith's temple in Basra, the main southern city, worry that teachers are encouraging students to mock their daughters for not wearing the veil. Some say they have been spat on.
Impressive as the new stress on inter-faith diplomacy may be, its practitioners still struggle to spread the message beyond the clerical ivory tower in Najaf, and to reach the religious politicians and militiamen who also claim to be acting in their faith's name. Only when that happens will it be possible to say that Shia Islam in Iraq has "embraced the other".
BY N.P. AND ERASMUS