The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.
On March 5, 2021, Pope Francis arrived in Iraq for the first-ever visit to the country by the head of the Catholic Church. The Pope's itinerary included a visit to the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, where he met Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, as well as an interfaith prayer service in the ancient city of Ur, where the patriarch Abraham is believed to have been born. The Pope also visited locations in northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul which was once held by the Islamic State (ISIS), and he is scheduled to hold a Mass for a crowd of thousands in the Kurdish city of Erbil.
Al-Sistani, one of the most senior Shi'ite clerics in Iraq, met with Pope Francis, and many Iraqis celebrated the Pope's historic visit. However, Salafi-jihadis, who despise both Shi'ite Islam and Christianity, and believe in the principle of Al-Wala' Wal-Bara', which mandates loyalty to fellow believers and enmity to non-Sunnis, have been critical of the visit, viewing it as demonstrating collusion between Shi'ites and Christians against Sunnis. Several Telegram posts by Salafi-jihadis, including supporters of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, used the visit as an opportunity to condemn Shi'ites, whom they refer to by the pejorative names "Rafidites" and "Safavids," in reference to the Shi'ite dynasty which conquered Iran in the 16th century and turned it into a Shi'ite country, often using force and violence against Sunnis. The term Safavid is used frequently today by Salafi-jihadis to refer to Iran, which they believe is spreading Shi'ism by force and attempting to impose its hegemony on the Middle East as a whole. It is likely that some of the jihadis who commented on the Pope's visit to Iraq are themselves Iraqis.
Dr. Abu 'Abdallah Al-Shami, head of the Syrian jihadi group the Ansar Al-Din Front, which is aligned with Al-Qaeda, comments on the visit by describing today's Shiites as "grandchildren of Al-'Alqami," a Shi'ite minister of the Abbasid caliphate who was accused of helping to surrender Baghdad to the Mongols in the 16th century. Al-Shami quotes anti-Shi'ite sayings by medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyah, who is an important influence on today's Salafis, claiming that Shi'ites work together with Islam's enemies against Sunnis. Two examples are: "If the Jews gain predominance in Iraq, [the Rafidites] will be their greatest helpers;" and "[the Shi'ites] ally with the enemies of the religion of whom everyone is aware of their enmity – the Jews, Christians, and polytheists – and are hostile to Allah's saints."
Syrian jihadi leader Dr. Abu 'Abdallah Al-Shami condemns Shi'ites as allies of Christians against Sunnis; the poster above, picturing Pope Francis and Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, quotes the latter's statement about Iraqi Christians: "You are part of us and we are part of you."
Another Syrian jihadi cleric, 'Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Mahdi, writes that the Pope's visit to Iraq has three goals: "to give the Church's blessing to the mistreatment of Sunnis that Iran's lackeys perpetrated under the pretext of fighting ISIS," to grant legitimacy to Iraq's "Safavid Rafidite government," and to strengthen the "old alliance between the Church and Safavism."
ISIS supporter Nahawand writes that Pope Francis' visit to Iraq and his meeting with Al-Sistani demonstrate that the Shi'ites are the true rulers of the country, writing that the celebration of the visit by the Iraqi Shi'ites proves that the real ruler of Iraq is "a mute Iranian turban-wearer (Al-Sistani)." The ISIS supporter further blames the Ottoman Empire for the Shi'ite presence in Iran and Iraq, claiming that the Ottomans signed agreements with the Safavids and allowed them a presence in Iran, and later allowed the Shi'ite Qajar Empire to spread Shi'ism in southern Iraq, transforming the Shi'ites in the region from a minority to a majority. He adds that Iranians entered Iraq "on the backs of tanks" during the U.S. occupation of the country. Nahawand asserts that the meeting between "the grandson of Ibn Al-'Alqami and greatest traitor and collaborator with Iran [Al-Sistani] and the one who has undertaken the arrogance of Christianization and the Crusader project [Pope Francis]" demonstrates that today's struggle is between Islam and unbelief, adding that those who believe in "rapprochement of religions" or do not hate Christians "practice polytheism against Allah and do not believe in His religion."
ISIS supporter Nahawand claims the Pope's visit proves Shi'ites are the real rulers of the country; the posters above show the Pope with Ayatollah Al-Sistani.
Al-Qaeda supporter Thumma Ihtadaytu (Then I Found the Truth) laments the Pope's visit to Iraq. The Al-Qaeda supporter posted photos of Pope Francis holding Mass in the Mar Yousuf Cathedral in Baghdad, adding a broken heart emoji as he describes the city as "Baghdad, the capital city of [caliph Haroun] Al-Rashid. Baghdad of Ahmad bin Hanbal." The Al-Qaeda supporter also posted a video clip showing the Pope warning France: "Tomorrow, you will find your children Muslims if you do not fight against Islam."
Al-Qaeda supporter Thumma Ihtadaytu laments the Pope's visit to Iraq; the above photos show the Pope holding Mass at a Baghdad cathedral.
ISIS supporter Muhtasib simply posts a page from the ISIS Al-Naba' weekly, which reports ISIS attacks on Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and comments sarcastically, "On the occasion of His Highness the Pope's visit to Iraq," and adds a sweat smile emoji and another emoji of a hand making the symbol for "okay."
ISIS supporter Muhtasib sarcastically describes ISIS attacks on Christians in the DRC as a celebration of the Pope's visit to Iraq.