Iran Dailies Show Mixed Reactions To Pope's Visit To Iraq, Meeting With Sistani

Publication Date: 6/3/2021

Source: Iran International

Many newspapers in Tehran on Saturday covered Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq and his meeting with Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani with a mixture of cautious factual reporting devoid of opinion and analysis, and a rare acknowledgement of Sistani’s superiority to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Even newspapers that tried not to ignore the event showed an understandable hesitation motivated by fear of annoying Khamenei and his supporters by giving prominence to the most senior Shiite cleric who enjoys wide respect and support among Shiites in the Middle East and particularly in the Persian Gulf countries, without the political and military power that Khamenei wields as a head of state.

Sistani has played a deft role since the 2003 United States invasion, preferring to stay clear of routine politics while calling for reconciliation and understanding between ethnic and religious groups. This is in contrast to Khamenei's influence through militia groups trained and funded by the Islamic Republic.

In 2014, he called on followers to join militias fighting the Islamic State group (Isis) “to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places.” In 2020 he sent condolences to Iran after a US drone strike(link is external) killed the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Setareh Sobh (the ‘Morning Star’) was the only paper in Tehran that, in a caption underneath pictures of Pope Francis and Sistani, referred to the Iranian-born cleric as “the source of emulation of the world’s Shiites.” A source of emulation is a high-ranking Shiite cleric whom believers choose to follow in matters such as social and personal life, economy and politics.

Pro-reform Arman-e Melli noted the “extensive global coverage of the pope’s visit to Iraq” without referring to Sistani. The paper featured a commentary by former Iranian diplomat Ali Khorram who argued that the visit would help reduce violence in Iraq and reassure the country’s Christians, of whom a million out of 1.5 million have left since the US-led invasion of 2003.

Khorram further said that the people and government of Iraq, as well as the US-led military forces, would benefit from the visit. Khorram suggested the pope’s visit might have a balancing impact on hostilities between Iran and the US.

The government-owned Iran newspaper, the reformist Ebtekar, and the government-owned Shahrvand, all characterized the visit simply as the pope visiting Iraq without acknowledging the significance of his meeting with Sistani. In clear contrast, the hardline Jomhuri Eslami's headline − albeit not one prominent on the front page − was ‘The Pope Meets Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf Today.”

Most conservative papers ignored the visit. But some stressed the role played by Iran in organizing Iraqi forces(link is external) against Isis, which is virulently anti-Christian as well as anti-Shia.

Kayhan, funded by Khamenei’s office, addressed the Pope in a front-page headline ‘Mr. Pope, did you know that Soleimani and Abu Mahdi who were killed by America were the saviors of the church and the Christians?’ Kayhan stressed the role of Soleimani and Iran-aligned groups in fighting after 2014 against Isis(link is external). In a bare factual report, Kayhan claimed that this was the message from the “resistance” and the Iraqi people of Iraq to Pope Francis.

The ultraconservative newspaper Vatan Emrooz featured a large picture of the pope under the headline: ‘Long live the shadow of the resistance!’ The report claimed that it was the “resistance’s fight” with Isis that had brought Iraq a level of security where the pope’s visit was possible. This report, which did not mention Sistani, also highlighted Soleimani’s role.

Major reformist dailies Shargh and Etemad were preoccupied with domestic political developments. Etemad covered the pope’s visit on page 6, Shargh on page 8, while Aftab Yazd, which is close to the left-wing Militant Clerics Association ignored the visit and the pope’s first meeting with one of the world’s highest ranking Shiite clerics.


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