By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
On Wednesday, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and Imam Sayyid M. B. Kashmiri, Representative of Ayatollah Al-Sistani in the U.S., discussed Pope Francis's historic visit with Ayatollah Al-Sistani. That visit took place on 6 March, the second day of Pope Francis's three-day 'pilgrimage' to Iraq.
The online discussion was hosted by the Archdiocese of Washington and moderated by Tamara Sonn, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the History of Islam and Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She introduced the event characterizing the meeting between Pope Francis and the Ayatollah as "a first, but not the last, the beginning of a process."
Pope Francis's journey to Iraq
Regarding the importance of the Pope’s journey to Iraq, Cardinal Gregory emphasized the strong desire Pope Francis expressed to be near Iraq’s Christians and to “those who have suffered”. Going to visit them was a tangible way of communicating that "the suffering they have endured matters", the Cardinal said.
Imam Kashmiri characterized Pope Francis’s visit as “not only in support of peace but it was also a challenge to terrorism.” This is the aspect that has brought hope to Iraqis regardless of the minority they may belong to. The Imam also said Al-Sistani’s perspective is that it is “important to keep minorities alive in Iraq” because all of these minorities contributed to the constructing the number of civilizations that have been present in Iraq over the millennia. Thus, the Iraqi’s “deserve such holy visits”, he said.
Pope's with Al-Sistani: a model
In a country such as Iraq "ravaged by conflict and war for many years”, Cardinal Gregory believes Pope Francis is tangibly demonstrating the type of dialogue he has been promoting for a long time. "Pope Francis went to visit Al-Sistani to create a relationship of dialogue and respect," the Cardinal said. Therefore, he continued, others who want to embrace this model can look to the example of the Pope and Al-Sistani engaging in healthy dialogue. The fact that "these two religious leaders with so much at stake" could meet face to face, shows that overcoming fears of the other can be done and is worthy of imitation, Cardinal Gregory noted.
Picking up on that thought, Imam Kashmiri called their meeting "an inspiration to everyone". He said it "will put a lot of responsibility on other religious scholars in the world." This meeting, he continued is a clarion call for "collaboration and cooperation between scholars in different parts of the world. The ball is in our court right now" to "put pressure on various governments in the world who can create the change needed to bring peace to people who are suffering," and to right injustices, the Imam stated.
Summing up this topic, Cardinal Gregory said the Pope and the Ayatollah "have raised the bar considerably in our religious traditions. We cannot abandon this opportunity to advance fraternity and collaboration. This will enrich and improve the faith experience of both communities."
Catholic and Muslim relations in the U.S.
This brought the discussion to the domestic level. Imam Kashmiri stated that Christianity and Islam "share some commonalities." Working together on the basis of these commonalities, he said, "can be utilized in a way to model collaboration to members of other faiths." A specific example he then gave for the U.S. context is working together to "promote family, religious and human values and the future of our young people."
With this concrete demonstration from the Pope and the Ayatollah that "people from different religious traditions can work together in dialogue and mutual respect", Cardinal Gregory suggested that Catholics and Muslims collaborate in the area of "works of charity." "Both religions place an emphasis on charitable work. This is where collaboration and dialogue can focus," he said.