As I begin writing this (Thursday morning), I’m aware that, barring any unforeseen barrier, Pope Francis will be in Iraq by this time tomorrow. One of the things most western Christians fail to understand is the immense complexity of Islam, and how that influences, even determines, the conflicts that our world continues to experience. Broadly speaking speaking, the major differences within Islam are between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. John Allen, in his column in Crux today, provides a very helpful analysis of these differences and how the Holy Father is approaching interfaith relations in this murky and dangerous arena of deeply rooted religious (and social and political and, well, human) convictions.
For Muslims, [this visit will] be seen more a gesture of outreach to the Shi’a branch of Islam, especially on Saturday when the pontiff is scheduled to travel to Najaf to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, widely considered the most authoritative leader for Shi’ite Muslims. The Shi’ites represent somewhere between 10 to 15 percent of the Islamic world, roughly 200 million believers, concentrated in the Persian Gulf region of the Middle East.
Most importantly, Shi’ites dominate Iran, a country that’s absolutely decisive for global security and the future of the Middle East, and they’re a majority in Iraq, the country the pope is visiting this weekend.
Over the centuries, Sunni Muslims have charged that Shi’a is heretical for a variety of reasons . . . (Read the rest, it’ll be two minutes well spent to gain deeper understanding.)