First Published: 2003-05-01

Najaf's religious leaders stay away from politics

Sistani says men of religion must not get involved in administrative affairs as Shiites mass in Najaf.


Middle East Online

By Mohamed Hasni - NAJAF, Iraq

Iraqi Shiites celebrate the anniversary of Prophet Mohammed's death

Shiite Muslims staged mass processions in this holy city on Wednesday and Thursday to mark the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammad's death in 632 AD, but their religious leaders steered clear of politics.

An address by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which aides said would be delivered after prayers on Wednesday evening, did not materialize.

Three other senior religious leaders - Bashir Najafi, Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim and Ishak Fayyad - stuck to the spiritual character of the occasion, which the faithful celebrated as a victory against the Baathist regime of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Sayyed Sistani is not talking to the press or making public statements," said an aide watching over the street where the residence of the "marjaa," or source of emulation, is located.

Sistani's residence, close to the mausoleum of Ali, the prophet's son-in-law and first imam of the Shiites, is guarded like a fortress.

Tens of thousands of black-clad men, women and children mourned openly, self-flagellating, pounding their chests and glorifying "the prophet's family" - manifestations that were banned under the ousted regime.

As in the case of the recent pilgrimage to Karbala, another holy city to the north of Najaf, commemorating the 40th day after the decapitation of Imam Hussein in 680, pilgrims have flocked here from various parts of predominantly Shiite southern Iraq and other regions of the country.

Each group taking part in the procession, identifiable by a flag bearing the name of its hometown or district, made its way through the crowd to reach the esplanade of Imam Ali's mausoleum, turned into a sea of black.

Each group was then ushered by guards into the sumptuous shrine.

Ayatollah Sistani's entourage refers questioners to the two fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by the septuagenarian Iranian-born religious authority since the US-led ouster of Saddam's regime on April 9.

The two rulings, plastered on walls across the city, focus on issues of concern to Iraqis at this stage, banning the plunder of public properties and cautioning religious leaders to stay out of politics.

"Men of religion must not get involved in administrative affairs ... Their role must be confined to guidance," Sistani says in answer to a question on the limits of the religious leaders' role.

"Unlike Imam Khomeini and imams of the Sadr family, the current ayatollahs of Najaf never supported velayat-e-faqih," or rule by Islamic jurisprudent, said Saeed Haidar, who runs a religious library near Ali's tomb.

He was referring to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and Imams Mohammad Baqer al-Sadr and Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who were both killed by Saddam's henchmen, according to their followers.

In line with his family's tradition, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr's son Muqtada issued a statement Thursday calling for a meeting of all Shiite currents to agree on rules that would govern Friday sermons, which have long been used by religious leaders as an occasion to intervene in politics.

The statement warned that anyone who does not attend the meeting would have no right to contest its decisions.


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