Meeting Pope Francis after Our Visit to Najaf

I want to report to you on a very remarkable trip I made with several Caux Round Table colleagues to Najaf, Iraq, two weeks ago.  After our seminar and other meetings in Najaf, we flew to Rome to share our observations with Pope Francis.

Najaf is the historic origin of Shi’a Islam, those Muslims who follow the personal example and the spiritual insights of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.  A book containing his sermons and other documents on his life and ministry is the Nahjul Balagha, which you can find here.

For four years now, the Caux Round Table has facilitated the study of covenants made by the Prophet Muhammad to respect and protect Christians.  Our report was released in February 2021.  You may find a copy here.

Our work was much appreciated by Pope Francis, who wrote me that he “trusts that such covenants will serve as a model for the further enhancement of mutual respect, understanding and fraternal coexistence between Christians and Muslims at the present time.”

At the invitation of Kufa University in Najaf, Lord Daniel Brennan, our chairman emeritus, our fellow, John Dalla Costa, Raed Charafeddine, Antoine Frem, Ahmed El Wakil and myself, flew to Najaf to participate in a seminar at the university on the covenants of the Prophet and the covenantal arrangements he made with different communities to provide for the governance of all citizens of the city of Medina.

I include here some of my notes from the seminar and our other meetings recording contributions from our Muslim colleagues:

-Religious faith does not prevent one from becoming a citizen in the Islamic civil state – see the constitutional arrangement of Medina.

-Civil organizations are separate from obligations arising under Islamic law.

-Need today to plant seeds of civic state and society as a commons – create a humanistic social state for modern times.

-Balance unity and divergence – everything in its right place.

-Divergence – tribal and religious – under justice; protect divergence at every level.

-Citizenship protects divergence – citizenship is the outcome of unity.

-Seek peaceful social coexistence – stop dogmatic, ideological conflicts.

-The duty of the state is to foster the principle of social coexistence; the state should be safe for all people of goodwill and good behavior.

-In military conquest, there is a different dynamic – there is no commitment to community, only to conformity and obedience.

-Reproduce in new forms for today the original principles; return to pure sources of spiritual aspirations.

-In piety, there is no distinction between Arab and non-Arab – as with a comb when all teeth are the same length.

-Look for the values and virtues common to humanity; the cornerstones shared by all human societies.

-The hearts of the scholars are full of light.

-Imam Ali – the ideas of social peace and coexistence – model of living together based on principles, not for Muslims only.

-Qur’an has principles for social peace within a state.

-Christians have the Bible, Jews the Torah, Muslims the Qur’an – all make use of rules and religious faith.

-We are brothers in religion and brothers in humanity.

-Islamic rulers should apply the law without distinction – this follows the principle of social justice.

-Justice and equality encouraged by Islam in political, social and economic realms.

-Equally value human persons.

-With rights, differences in ideas do not create differences in rights enjoyed.

-To be a citizen is to have agency – a share of wealth; the poor have rights, determined by needs and abilities of individuals, not by social or political status.

-3 Qur’anic principles:

-Neither be unfair, nor be unfairly treated.

-Forgiveness, justice, charity.

-Goodness, purity of heart.

-These principles were common for all the prophets.

-Christians are respected in Qur’an, which recognizes Jesus and values his ministry highly.  This is a solid foundation for mutual cooperation.

I think these summary quotations provide you with a correct impression of the quality and nature of our conversations.

John Dalla Costa and myself each presented a paper comparing the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, of Pope Francis.  Each of us found substantial and meaningful similarities between the two texts on respect for others.

Meeting with an ayatollah


The seminar was convened by the university to reciprocate Pope Francis’s visit to Najaf and his meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in March 2021.

We were also invited to share our thoughts with three schools affiliated with the hawzah or seminary in Najaf.  We listened and learned as our hosts spoke of the Shi’a social teachings, which we found consistent with many Catholic Social Teachings and the Caux Round Table ethical principles for moral capitalism and moral government.

Meeting at the Imam Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation


Both clerical and lay intellectuals spoke of their interest in continued exchanges of scholars and joint undertakings in scholarship, both of Muslim and Christian texts.

I came to appreciate the historic importance of Najaf in our visit to Babylon.  Standing where Hammurabi proclaimed his code of laws and walking where Nebuchadnezzar might have walked through the Ishtar Gate and hearing our guide speak of Adam and Noah being buried nearby gave me an awareness of centuries and wonder at the emergence of what has shaped my civilization in so many ways.  We are but fleeting moments in the course of human history.  We are not masters whose writs count for much, but each of us, in our own time and in our own way, can make a difference, whether for better or for worse.  Depending on what?  Our individual moral sense?  God’s will?  Fate and circumstances beyond our control?

The Ishtar Gate (a reproduction, as the original bricks are now in the Berlin Museum)


We visited the tomb of Ali, assassinated by one unable to appreciate his efforts to preserve and pass on the special spirituality of the Prophet Muhammad.  We stood in the Kufa Mosque at the spot of his assassination.  We stood by respectfully, as worshippers gave of themselves intensely in prayer and devotion.

Kufa Mosque


In our meeting with Pope Francis, after flying from Najaf to Rome via Doha, we presented the Pontiff with a copy of the new book on the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, written by our colleagues, Professors Ibrahim Zein and Ahmed El-Wakil of Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar.

You can find their book here.

Pope Francis, at his desk


Our meeting with the Pope had been arranged by Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, an advisor on our initiative to learn more about the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad and one of our new fellows.

Lord Brennan conveyed in Spanish our observation that the Pope’s visit to Najaf of two years ago had been historic in opening the doors to mutual respect and common spiritual aspirations for social-coexistence, consistent with the thinking of Imam Ali himself so long ago.  Lord Brennan related that everyone we met, from senior ayatollahs to our van drivers, called the Pope “Baba Francis” – Papa Francis – with obvious respect, warmth and enthusiasm.

Pope Francis responded quickly and firmly that he had known as a certainty that he had to make that trip and not be deterred by worries or uncertainties of result; that it had been important to our common destiny for him to act with resolute friendship in reaching out to the Shi’a leadership.

We pointed out the similarities between the social teachings of Imam Ali then and Shi’a ayatollahs today and the Pope’s encyclicals.  And we submitted to the Pope suggestions for further engagements and exchanges with Kufa University and colleges associated with the seminary.

The Pope seemed pleased with our report, which to all intents and purposes, had validated his decision to make that historic visit to meet the Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

We left the meeting grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to the evolution of an historic rapprochement between two of the Abrahamic faiths.