Here are more facts concerning the true situation of Jerusalem in science and history.
Jerusalem was never capital all along its Islamic history
If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqṣā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third Ḥaram and the first Qiblah; then
Why didn’t it ever serve as a capital city or even an important religious and political city at any time in Islamic history? When the Arab empire expanded by a deep process of imperialism and colonialism, and the Umayyad dynasty was established (661-750) and later on Abbasid dynasty (850-1250), Damascus and Baghdad respectively were established as the capitals, but not Jerusalem. When the Ottoman Empire established (1299-1922) and controlled the Arab lands including the land of Israel (1517-1919), it marked Istanbul (Constantinople) as its capital and not Jerusalem.
The Ottomans, like the Umayyads and the Abbasids were good Muslims, and they followed the Islamic Scripture properly. Does it sound logical that they did not know about the Mosque Muhammad had ostensibly built in Jerusalem? Why Istanbul, Damascus, and Baghdad and not Jerusalem? The fact is that there was nothing important in Jerusalem.
In between there were the Fatimid Caliphate (al-Fāṭimīyūn), an Isma’ili Shi’ite dynasty (909-1171) with its capital in Cairo; the Ayyubid dynasty (al-Ayyūbīyūn) of Kurdish origin (1174-1250), that ruled much of the Middle East during the 12th and 13th centuries, with its capital in Cairo (1174–1250) and Allepo (1250–1260); and Mamlūk Sultanate (Sulṭanat al-Mamālīk) (1250-1517) that ruled over Egypt, the Levant and Hijaz, with its capital in Cairo.
What is important that all these could have established their capital in Jerusalem, following Muhammad’s teaching and commandment, but they did not, as there was no legacy at all of Muhammad concerning Jerusalem. Moreover, Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, cleaned it up from their institutions, and still left the city after calling the Jews to return to it.
From the onset of Islamic rule in 638 to its end 1917, including for the Crusader rule from 1099 to 1187, Jerusalem was never the capital of any Muslim state, nor even a provincial capital, until late Ottoman times, when it only became a special provincial religious site (Vilayet) separate from its larger provincial area [Sanjak].
Even during the 20th century Amin al-Husseini, who for the first time raised the importance of Jerusalem as a political weapon using religious symbols, did not call to mark it the capital of the Arab-Islamic inhabitants. He concentrated his ideas on its religious sanctity and the duty to remove the infidels from it. Moreover, even king ‘Abdallah, whose main interest 1948 war against Israel was to occupy Jerusalem, did not establish it as the Hashemite capital, and Amman remained the capital of Jordan.
How that is over the 1400 years of Islamic rule, Jerusalem did not enjoy the political prestige and religious importance that Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul did? How that is Jerusalem managed to retain its Judeo-Christian character throughout most of the historical period to the middle of the 20th century? Indeed, only under Jewish rule Jerusalem kept its importance as the only capital.
Jerusalem does not have an Islamic name
If Jerusalem was so important to Islam and if Muhammed visited the city and built a mosque there on the Temple Mount called al-Aqşa, and if Jerusalem is the third Ḥaram and the first Qiblah then
How that is Jerusalem do not have even a Muslim name? The first name in all of Islam was given by ‘Umar in 638 after the conquest of Jerusalem. That name was: Iīlya, Madīnat Bayt al-Maqdis. Iīlya was the Roman name for Jerusalem: Aelia Capitolina, a name chosen by Emperor Hadrian whose first name was Ilius, and at the center the “Forum” with Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty and Love. The Ḥadīth mentions the name Iīlya in connection Muhammad’s letter to Heraclius, the Roman emperor to surrender to Islam and to accept its religion.
Bayt al-Maqdis in Arabic is from the Hebrew Beit ha-Miqdāsh which means the Holy Temple (literally, the House of the Sanctuary) of the Jews.
Somewhat later on the Muslims used a shortened version of that title to Bayt al-Maqdis alone, emphasizing the Jewish sources of Jerusalem. The name al-Quds (the Holy City) referring to Jerusalem, became popular among Arabic speakers, is derived from the Aramaic root Q-D-S, still maintaining the Jewish word Kudsha (holy). It was introduced in the 10th century, it was unknown to the famous Muslim clerics and exegetes of the 9th century.
It is well-known that according to Islamic tradition the region of Mecca and Medina is called Arḍ al-Quds. Jerusalem was never called by that name, and the name simply called al-Quds was given to it only in the 10th century with heavy Jewish influence. It is believed that the historian and theologian al-Muqaddasi, was probably the first one to use that term from 985 on.
The name al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf, commonly used today by Muslims to refer specifically to the Temple Mount as a means of distinguishing it from the Jewish Holy Temple, came into use only during the 19th century Ottoman Empire. This name had always been the name of the Ka’aba in Mecca. The name “Het al-Buraq”, which ostensibly refers to the Jewish Western Wall is a recent invention of the Palestinians from 1929, following the riots in Jerusalem and Hebron but was used extensively during the time of Yasser Arafat.
One important phenomenon that took place in Muslim history is that any time the Muslims captured a town they Arabized, Islamized and changed the names. Therefore, Damascus (Dimashq in Arabic), a pre-Semitic name known from the 15th century BC, Dammeśeq in Biblical Hebrew, was given the Arabic name “Ash-shām.” In Egypt, al-Qāhirah (Coptic: Kahire, the place of the sun, the ancient name of Heliopolis), means “the Conqueror”, established by the Fatimid dynasty in 968. It has replaced the city name al-Fustāt, the first capital of Egypt under Islamic rule, established by ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas in 641. Both Islamic names came after the old historical capital of Egypt, Memphis. Indeed, if Jerusalem was indeed so important to Islam, why wasn’t it ever given an Islamic name?
Jerusalem was neglected as long as it was under Muslim rule
If Jerusalem was so important to Islam religiously; and if Muhammad reached the city and established a mosque on the Temple Mount called al-Aqṣā; and if Jerusalem is indeed the third Ḥaram and the first Qiblah; then
Why was it abandoned by ‘Umar bin al-Khattāb immediately after being captured? He signed a treaty of protection with the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, Dhimma, left to the town to the Christians and Jews, and established the regional capital in Caesarea. After almost 60 years it thrived and became prosperous under the Umayyad dynasty, Jerusalem descended into the depths of oblivion and misery. When the Dome of the Rock collapsed on the 5th of December, 1033, along with the walls of the city, nothing was done by the Muslims to restore these structures for many years.
Again, after a short period of time of fighting the Crusaders, Jerusalem came back under Islamic rule, immediately to relinquish it and calling the Jews to reenter the city. Indeed, during the four hundred years of the Abbasid Dynasty, including the Fatimid, the Ayyubid and Mamluk rule, and during the four-hundred year of the Ottoman occupation, Jerusalem was a neglected city, devoid of any political importance, with destitute social and economic state. Though Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinforced its public structures, he only did so because Jerusalem was a transit city for pilgrims to Mecca, not because of its importance. The city still suffered a state of disrepair and negligence.
Under the Ottomans rule it was placed under the administration of the Damascus Vilayet (province) or Sidon region. Only in the 19th century, it became a (Vilayet), but still much less important than Gaza, Jaffa, Beirut, and other cities around. This is a clear indication how unimportant Jerusalem was to Islam during its history.
Jerusalem was never an Arab or Muslim City from the inhabitants’ perspective. In the mid-19th century, Jerusalem was neglected and impoverished, with a population that did not exceed 8,000. In 1842, the Prussian Consulate in Jerusalem estimated that Jerusalem’s total population of 15,150, of which 7120 were Jews. In April 1854 by Karl Marx stated that “the sedentary population of Jerusalem numbers about 15,500 souls, of whom 4,000 are Muslims and 8,000 Jews.” In 1864, the British Consulate reported that while the total population of Jerusalem were 15,000, there were 8000 Jews, 4500 Muslims and 2500 Christians. In 1898, “In this City of the Jews, where the Jewish population outnumbers all others three to one…” In 1914 there were 45,000 Jews in Jerusalem out of 65,000. This is another perspective how Jerusalem was unimportant religiously in Islam. And at the time of Israeli statehood in 1948, 100,000 Jews lived in the city, compared to only 65,000 Arabs.
When and why Jerusalem has become Important to Muslims?
From all this evidence, comes the big question: when and why Jerusalem has become Important to Muslims? It was not important and even was not mentioned during Muhammad’s life. It was not important to ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattāb, the conqueror of Jerusalem, who left it to the Christians immediate after its occupation. It became important to the Umayyads only after the revolt of Ibn al-Zubayr, for 60 years. It was again totally neglected during the Abbasid’s rule, and came back to Islamic consciousness only when it was captured by the crusaders in 1099.
The Christians destroyed mosques and synagogues, and replaced them with churches. Most of all, they made Jerusalem the apex of their religious quest. The change occurred only after Salah ad-Din al-Ayyūbi (Saladin) was appointed in 1187. Fadā’īl al-Quds literature, created by the Umayyad dynasty was distributed and this was the first time the importance of Jerusalem was stated religiously. Still, Salah ad-Din al-Ayyūbi did not take any steps to change the capital of the Islamic world, or to establish Jerusalem’s religious significance.
Jerusalem was even more neglected under the entire rule of the Ottoman Empire, for 400 years. It was forgotten, neglected, and came into oblivion compare to other cities. The change came only after the immigration of the Jews, and the Jewish-Zionist plans to establish a Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem.
Only then Amin al-Ḥusseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an anti-Semite and member of the Nazi Party, with his political-religious ambitions, identified the potential of Jerusalem to attract the support of the Arab states and the Muslim world to his struggle against the Jews. Nobody had a greater influence on the Jerusalem Issue than al-Ḥusseini, who as president of the Supreme Muslim Council, was not only the supreme religious authority but also the central figure in Palestinian nationalism.
Husseini saw Jerusalem as the crystallization point for the “rebirth of Islam” and Palestine in its center. Under his encouragement, ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassām group, the terrorist “Black Hand,” whose name is borne by Ḥamās’s homicide bombers, was the first to unite the ideology of a devout return to the original 7th century Islam. The “Arab revolt” of 1936-1939 was sparked and led by Ḥusseini. The “Jewish threat” and “saving Jerusalem” was a central theme in the Islamic propaganda. The call was to embark on a Jihad to defend the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
One cannot be surprised that Yasser Arafat, who was a nephew of uncle Amin al-Ḥusseini, took the same road of anti-Semitism and Jerusalem at the center of the struggle against Israel. Yasser Arafat, Rahman Abd al-Raūf al-Qidwa al-Ḥusseini, was born in Cairo. He was not a refugee of 1948 war, and only since 1967, after the Israeli liberation of Jerusalem, he “discovered” Jerusalem as a political issue. The crowds of praying Muslims were not there until the leaders began claiming that Jerusalem is their first Qiblah and Third Ḥaram, from 1994 on. This “discovery” was not displayed before, as long as east Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation.
Before Arafat, it was Abdullah, King of Jordan, who realized the importance of Jerusalem for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and decided to conquer Jerusalem at all costs in 1948. His intention was to make Jerusalem the capital of Jordan. He thought that by doing so he would be able to achieve some religious importance for his kingdom following the loss by the Hashemite family of Mecca and Medina to the dynasty of Ibn Saud. He also sought to enhance his political significance, his prestige and status, and his legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab nations. But he was deterred by the strong resistance of the Arab and Muslim leaders. Amman remained the capital.
However, Arafat systematically pursued his goal of having the Arabs support the notion of Jerusalem’s critical importance for them as the Palestinian’s capital and its ties to Islam. In that capacity Jerusalem could serve as a point of Identification and national pride in order to create a Palestinian people and nation, which never existed at any time in the past. Arafat strove to have the West recognize Jerusalem as the Muslim capital of the world and to recognize him as the Muslim’s political leader.
As we have seen, over the 1,300 years of Muslim rule the following facts are observed: Jerusalem was not mentioned in Islamic Scriptures, and was given the status of Ḥaram only when it came under Infidels’ rule. Jerusalem was never the capital of any Islamic political entity or even an important provincial capital during all its Islamic occupation. The name of Jerusalem in Islamic sources indicates that the city did not belong to the nation of Islam. Religious and other learning institutions were not established. And no less important indication, Jerusalem was always neglected and in oblivion under Islamic rule.
Jerusalem became important politically when it was occupied by others. Religion was used as a veil to confer legitimacy on the Muslims while waging an external campaign against the infidels the Christians and the Jews. Three major periods are distinguished in the Islamic relationship to Jerusalem: the Umayyad; the Ayyūbi and the Jewish-Zionist periods. However, the first who really understood Jerusalem case as an Islamic political symbol was Amin al-Ḥusseini. Yet, the one leader who best understood the importance of Jerusalem as a political epicenter was Arafat.
It is of noteworthy, the Land of Israel and Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple Mount are not called “al-Aqṣā” which means the far-away Land, but rather the “nearby land.” The reason is simple, because geographically it is the land closest to Mecca and Medina. It is clear that Muhammad and the Sahābah did not attribute any importance to Jerusalem, and consequently no conclusion from this evidence is possible except that Jerusalem had no religious or any other kind of significance for Islam.
Jerusalem has become important only for political reasons: it was raised up as an alternative to Mecca against Ibn al-Zubayr’s revolt; it was raised up to fight the crusaders; and it is raised up against Israel. Indeed, Jerusalem’s importance in the Islamic world only appears evident when non-Muslims control or capture the city. Only at those points in history did Islamic leaders claim Jerusalem to be their first turn of prayer and their third holy city.
Had it not been for the struggle between the Umayyad and Abdallah Ibn al-Zubayr, no mosque would have been built in Jerusalem with the name of al-Aqṣā, and no claims would have been made by Muslims about the sanctity for them of Jerusalem. Had it not been for the Christian Crusaders and their aspiration to establish the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” and had it not been for Zionism’s activity and establishment of the Jewish State of Israel, Jerusalem would have remained on the margin of the Islamic world. No national-political struggle over the city would have ever arisen, and certainly not a struggle accompanied by the invention of an entire set of myths lacking any historical –religious-political foundation. Indeed, the struggle for Jerusalem is the mere political use of religion for political ends.
At the same time this decision marks the Israeli political defeat. Israeli leaders should have comprehended the Palestinians’ strategy, but their treatment of the subject of Jerusalem testifies to their consummate failure in this matter. Israel should have repeated incessantly that Jerusalem was never the capital of any People or nation at any time in history except for the Jewish People. Unfortunately, Israel bases its policy on defensive-retaliatory measures, under the slogan of “the full cup of blood,” and not on pro-active strategy based on “think first before you act.”
Still, why should the Palestinian leaders make such an incredible lies and ludicrous fabrications? On the face of it, lying, knowingly distorting the truth, in Arab-Islamic culture is simple and easy. However, it is in fact a highly sophisticated strategy. Domestically, this fictional nonsense helps shape Palestinian culture, beliefs, and political behavior of building a national identity. Yet, the important side is the international. The Palestinian leaders know that the world is mired with anti-Israel approach. Unfortunately these rhetorical fabrications resonates deeply anti-Zionism, which has become the new anti-Semitism.
Therefore, the strategy is to deceive and mislead the world by de-legitimizing Israel’s existence and de-humanizing its reality. Western media is the best example of how this strategy succeeds. It has been silent about the fantastic historical fabrications of the Palestinians. It just does not bother itself to engage with the moralistic narratives and the out of the blue stories that stem from outer galaxy about Palestinians having existed 9,000 years ago and Jerusalem being its capital since.
For Western politicians, the media, and human rights organizations the Palestinians’ lies, hatred, anti-Semitism and inhuman incitement are overwhelming the basic common sense. The new “multiculturalism religion” dictates that the sincerity of the Palestinians cannot be challenged since to do so would require making subjective judgments. The post modernism situation means downgrading objectivity as much as elevating multiple narratives as being equally valid, and at the same time there is valuation of feelings over scientific facts.
For example, the PLO representative to the United Nations, stated that Palestinians had “lived under the rule of a plethora of empires: the Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Israelites, Persians, Greeks, Crusaders, Mongols, Ottomans, and finally, the British…. Palestinian Christians are the descendants of Jesus and guardians of the cradle of Christianity.” No comment from The Washington Post editorial.
Most instructive is the case of Reuters. It engages in systematically biased storytelling in favor of the Palestinians that “is able to influence audience affective behavior and motivate direct action along the same trajectory.”
Western critical scientific filters are closed and has become one-way street. Science is no longer free and in fact in our contemporary “multiculturalism religion,” science, history, and common sense no longer matters. Anti-reality continues to spread.
Appendix: Jerusalem and Judaism
Jerusalem, wrote Martin Gilbert, is not a ‘mere’ city. “It holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people.” For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have looked to Jerusalem as their spiritual, political, and historical capital, even when they did not physically rule over the city.
Eli E. Hertz puts it: throughout its long history, Jerusalem has served, and still serves, as the political capital of only one nation, the Jews. Unfortunately, history would not be kind to the Jewish people. Four hundred and ten years after King Solomon completed construction of Jerusalem, the Babylonians seized and destroyed the city, forcing the Jews into exile. Fifty years later, the Jews were permitted to return after Persia conquered Babylon. The Jews’ first order of business was to reclaim Jerusalem as their capital and rebuild the Holy Second Temple.
Jerusalem was more than the Jewish kingdom’s political capital – it holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people. Their thoughts and prayers were directed toward Jerusalem. Jewish ritual practice, holiday celebration, and lifecycle events include recognition of Jerusalem as a core element of the Jewish spiritual existence. Jerusalem was a spiritual beacon, and Jews never relinquished their bond to Jerusalem and to the Land of Israel. No matter where Jews lived throughout the world for those two millennia, their thoughts and prayers were directed toward Jerusalem as a core element of the Jewish experience.
It is fair enough to declare that Jewish life without Jerusalem is defective, and Jews without Jerusalem are crippled. It is indeed
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its purpose, may my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not mention you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”
The Bible mentions ‘Jerusalem’ directly 349 times, or with its many other names that glorify it, 669 times. “Zion,” another name for ‘Jerusalem,’ is mentioned 154 times, a total of 823 references. In the Jewish Scripture Jerusalem has 72 names, all of them glorify in admiration its eternal beauty. In the New Testament Jerusalem is mentioned 142 times, and the context always concerns incidents involving Israel in Jerusalem. The Gospels and the General Epistles deal at length with the story of Jesus, who lived in Jerusalem when the Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount.
Indeed, two crucial historical facts demonstrate the unshakeable bond between the Jewish People, the Land of Israel and the Jewish religion – and Jerusalem figures at the center of this bond. Any meticulous historical study would demonstrate that:
First, throughout history many nations ruled over the Land of Israel but only the Jewish people established their country there, three times – during the time of the First and Second Temples, and at the establishment of the State of Israel. The Jews did not establish a state anywhere else and always insisted on returning to their Land and establishing their sovereignty there exclusively. This is a permanent bond. In contrast, and astonishingly enough to prove the Hand of God, never had any of the empires and religions that ruled here established their country in this territory as a unique and separate sovereign state.
Secondly, During the Jewish diaspora many foreign rulers ruled over Jerusalem (Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamelukes, Ottomans, British, and more), but no political entity made Jerusalem its capital and none attached any importance to Jerusalem. This something to note and consider: Jerusalem was never the capital city of any other nation, empire or religion that ruled the area with the exception of the brief period of the crusader “Kingdom of Jerusalem”.
This entity, Crusaders, was not established in the aim of creating a separate political entity, but rather to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupation. Conversely, Jerusalem was the capital city of the Jewish nation (and only the Jewish nation) in three separate periods: during the reign of the houses of David and Solomon that began at the end of the 10th century B.C.E.; during the time of the Second Temple and until its destruction in the year 70 C.E.; and since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
The outcome result of these two facts is that Jerusalem only flourished and blossomed when under Jewish rule. Throughout most of history while Jerusalem was ruled by others, it remained in a neglected and miserable state. Only under Jewish rule did it become an important city, the capital of a nation.
After nearly 1900 years the Jews have returned en masse to the Land of Israel, established their state and immediately made Jerusalem their capital. They returned in significant numbers to the city in the 20th century, though throughout all it history Jewish presence has existed.
Archaeological Finds. During the past several decades Jerusalem has been extensively excavated. Findings have been unearthed, and those findings substantiate the existence of ancient Jewish life in the Land of Israel. Herewith is only a small list.
A Hebrew University archaeologist discovered a Jerusalem city wall from the time of King Solomon (10th century BCE). The finding “is the first time that a structure from that time has been found that may correlate with written descriptions of Solomon’s building in Jerusalem.” Artifacts found inside excavations around the City of David and within the Old City, date the Jewish presence in Jerusalem as far back as 1000 BCE, during the time of King David.
Many symbols of a menorah were found on coins. Hebraic inscriptions from the time of the First Temple were found. Seals with Hebrew writing dating to the time of the Bible were discovered. About a year ago 33 seals with ancient Hebrew writing were discovered. These date back to the time of the First Temple. The writing on one of the seals reads: “To Hizkiyahu [ben] Ahaz, King of Judah”, and researchers date this finding to the time of King Hezekiah who ruled Jerusalem in 600 B.C.E.
First Temple period findings, an ancient Hebrew seal dated to the First Temple period (approximately 2,800 years ago) was found in excavations near the northern section of the Western Wall. The following words are imprinted into the coin: “To Netanyahu Ben Yaash”. This was apparently a private seal used by a Jew in Jerusalem.
Many ancient Jewish specimens were found at the City of David with Bullae used by private individuals, including Gemaryahu Ben Shafan, who is mentioned in the book of Zekariah and lived during the reign of Yehoyakim King of Judah (2,600 years ago).
The Siloam shaft was also discovered. It was the ancient city of Jerusalem’s source of water. This shaft was dug as an underground tunnel through which water brought to Jerusalem at the time of King Hezekiah (700 B.C.E. found in the Book of Kings II, 20: 20. A Hebrew inscription describing the digging process was unsurfaced where the two groups of excavators met.
Archaeological findings on the Temple Mount: Under the façade of the mosque a ritual bath associated with the Second Temple Period was discovered. Seals of private individuals were found as well as a seal with the words “Yehochal Ben Shilmiyahu Ben Shevi”, a senior minister in King Zedekiah’s government (Jeremiah, 37:3).
Also many coins dating back to the First and Second Temple periods, ritual baths, and a synagogue from the time of the Second Temple were found. At the entrance to one synagogue is a Greek inscription:
“Theodosius, the son of Vatanos, priest and president of the synagogue, son of the president of the synagogue, grandson of the president of the synagogue, built the synagogue in order to read from the Torah and study the commandments, and built the inn, the rooms, and the water facilities to host the needy who come from abroad, which his forefathers, sages, and Samonidas instituted.”
Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields
When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.
The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.
Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.
Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.
To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.
With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.
Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”
“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.
Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.
“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.
Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.
That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.
In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.
The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.
The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.
That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”
Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”
Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit
The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.
The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.
In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.
It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.
The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.
Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.
Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.
The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.
Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations
Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.
Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.
Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.
How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.
Consider three recent instances.
First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.
Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”
Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.
Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.
Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.
Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.
For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.
In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.
Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.
Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.
In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”
Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.
These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.
The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.
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