Interview: Hamed Alkhafaf explains about Grand Ayatollah Sisitani’s significant role in the religious and political Arena

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SHAFAQNA- Grand Ayatollah Sistani pursues every event happening with accuracy, director of Grand Ayatollah Sisitani’s office in Lebanon said.

In an exclusive interview with Shafaqna, Hamed Alkhafaf, director of Grand Ayatollah Sisitani’s office in Lebanon explains the significant role of Marjaiya in the religious and political Arena.

Marjaiya has avoided to receive any governmental support directly or indirectly. Every projects at Iraq’s holy shrines are approved legally and all of financial control requirements are performed, he added, saying the title of Religious Custodian of Imam Husayn (A.S) and Al-Abbas (A.S) Holy Shrines is not related to the management affairs of these two holy shrines but it just because of providing religious matters.

Hamed Alkhafaf emphasized Grand Ayatollah Sistani has founded the basis of an interactive approach to political and social issues but passing through this path will be difficult in future.

What follows is the full text of Shafaqna Lebanon interview with Hamid Alkhafaf.

Shafaqna– What is the role of the supreme religious authority in the political scene of Iraq?

AlKhafaf-The supreme religious authority has had various roles since the 2003 toppling of the previous regime: once he issued the famous fatwa about the Iraqi Constitution. That fatwa paved the way for the creation of a new Iraq based on political pluralism and peaceful transition of power through ballot boxes. It encouraged Iraqi people to respect law, protect public property, avoid from seeking personal revenge and finally attend election in order to take their fate into their own hands.

The supreme religious authority on various occasions used his spiritual power to offer political solutions while refraining from interfering in politics; he prevented security catastrophes in many places including the August 2004 crisis in the holy city of Najaf. (When forces loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took shelter in the holy shrine of Imam Ali while the occupying American forces surrounded the shrine and tried to forcefully take them out.)

The supreme religious authority has thwarted many suspicious foreign projects that aimed to bypass the right demands of the Iraqi nation for independence and sovereignty. He dismantled the sectarianism sedition and countered various forms of terrorism including the savage offensive of Daesh terrorists to Iraq where a fatwa for Jihad was issued. That fatwa changed all the regional power equations and foiled a massive plot against Iraq and its citizens.

The supreme religious authority has been standing by civilian movements that demand reforms, fight against financial and bureaucratic corruption and has thrown his weight behind their demands, though tangible results have yet to be seen in this regard.

The supreme religious authority carefully monitors the political process of the country and interferes in affairs wherever he feels that Iraq and its interests are at risk or his interference would be useful to solve some crisis. The marjaiya is careful that his interference would not go beyond legal lines and his direct or indirect interference depend on conditions. He is very clear about his demands and his stances are not different from what is said in private meetings with Iraqi officials.

Shafaqna– How does the marjaiya follows the events? What is the mechanism of his decision-making process?

AlKhafaf -Grand Ayatollah Sistani follows events through broadcast media – TVs or radios news- print media, online news, social media websites and books, reports from various sources, those sent to his office by the government or his representatives nationwide. He also speaks with Iraqi visitors and gets some information through what is said to him in person.

Taking accurate stance is through very delicate consultancy with experts; let me say an example: the supreme religious authority’s suggestion for identifying voters based on their rationing cards was an idea that is still used by the Iraqi authorities at the times of elections.

Shafaqna– What are the financial sources of the supreme religious authority? How do they affect the situation? Where are they spent? Are the revenues coming from the holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf used by the marjaiya and does he take a decision on their spending?

AlKhafaf -It is a known fact that financial religious obligations (including Khums and Zakat) as well as financial gifts from the faithful Muslims make up the financial revenues of the supreme religious authority. It helped the Shia religious authorities throughout centuries to remain independent from rulers. There have been attempts by some parties to decrease these revenue sources and they think less revenue would affect the activities of the religious authority or reduce his influence.

Revenues are used to pay wages to seminary teachers, student dividends, establishing and running religious and charity projects, helping the poor, et cetera. Contrary to rumors, the religious authority does not own hefty revenues. Whatever is given to him is spent at a short time.

It is worth saying that since becoming a marja’, Ayatollah Sistani allowed his followers to pay their own financial religious obligations to the poor without seeking permission from him. This fatwa had a very positive effect on Iraqi people. He is also determined to spend all is given to him from Iraq in Iraq, also he spends a significant amount of what his followers in other countries pay to him in Iraq.

About the revenues of the holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf: the supreme religious authority has never had any say on how they should be spent. He also avoids from getting any financial support from the Iraqi government, state agencies or waqf institutions.

Claims about great wealth of the supreme religious authority are baseless and are figures that the religious authority never dealt with. Some wrongfully claim the religious authority could resolve poverty in some areas but these are unrealistic claims, because such problems should be solved by the government. The supreme religious authority’s powers are limited. He to some extent can help the poor with their needs; can directly help finance some public services. Al-Ayn Social Care Foundation is one of the main charity projects run by the supreme religious authority with tens of thousands of orphans and widows under its protection and sends the injured in need of medical care overseas.

Shafaqna– What are the specifics of Ayatollah Sistani’s strategy?

AlKhafaf -Some of them include:

  • The supreme religious authority does not interfere in political issues and generally keeps the scene open for political factions; he only comes to the field whenever political factions are not able to make decision in big political matters or to come to a conclusion.
  • The supreme religious authority believes in peaceful coexistence between Shia and Sunni as well as Muslims and followers of other religions. In this regard, he has turned to a practical strategy that practices peaceful coexistence and mutual respect.
  • The supreme religious authority respects all the institutions created through ballot boxes and reiterates that there is no alternative to them for a free, independent and sovereign country. This is true about all military, political, administrative, social sectors.
  • The supreme religious authority believes that Shia citizens should be part of the population of their countries, he never interferes in the affairs of the Shia population in other countries unless he is asked to do so and if he thinks his interference would yield result.
  • The supreme religious authority follows local, regional and international affairs. He might remain silent for some time but that does not mean he is not aware of matters. He usually expresses his views at the right time and place in order to change some plots, projects or impose a situation that is to the benefit of the country and the ummah.

Shafaqna– Does the supreme religious authority have any new ideas or reforms in religious matters?

AlKhafaf -The religious discourse of the current era and the fact that a religious group of people have been holding major political positions for a long time and failed to fulfill the nation’s demands and make a decent life for them has triggered new challenges with negative effects on the position of religion, values and even social moralities. Radicalism from the people who see themselves responsible for the Shia affairs have created other problems. So firstly, we should try to make people understand there is real difference between the principles of the Prophet Mohammed and his Ahlul Byat and the behavior that is shown by those who claim to be responsible. Secondly, we should spread the moderate discourse of marjaiya which is based on respect to other religions and peaceful coexistence. At the same time we should not ignore schools of thought that are known to be rightful. The supreme religious authority moves in these two directions and at the same time there are other ways including:

  • Creation of an appropriate situation by encouraging seminary students and teachers to improve their Islamic education, keep distance from making hasty judgement or ending their education sooner than usual. In this regard, specific schools have been established for new generation of smart seminary students, all their financial and life needs would be provided to allow them study without any concern and under the supervisory of veteran seminary teachers.
  • We try to help preachers and speakers to add up to people’s information about religion, the life of Shia sacred personalities. They should prevent superstitions and whatever that creates sedition and disunity within the society, to be spread and disrupt social calm.
  • We try to make contact with the new generation of academics, hosting them at religious institutions and seminaries, answering their questions and talk with them about matters that bring doubt to religious thought.

Shafaqna– Does the supreme religious authority oversee the projects related to the holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf or investment projects?

AlKhafaf -The holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf are administered under the Article 19 of the law ratified in 2005 by the Iraqi parliament. Based on this article, all the revenues from the holy shrines and their assets must be spent on certain matters. There is also the possibility of spending these revenues in other matters based on religious laws. The administrators of the holy shrines of Karbala have spent much on infrastructures as well as educations, health, social projects as well as services. These projects have reduced citizens’ problems dramatically. There are also investments in charity projects. None of the above-mentioned projects is related to the supreme religious authority and is totally independent with boards of trustees chosen with the Waqf institution. Based on the law, the supreme religious authority should confirm the members of the boards of trustees.

Shafaqna– The representatives of the supreme religious authority Sheikh Mehdi Karbalaei and Seyed Ahmed Safi usually deliver Friday prayers sermons every week. Do they write the text of those sermons by themselves or the text is given to them (by Ayatollah Sistani’s office)?

AlKhafaf- Part of the text is written in the Ayatollah’s office in Najaf under the guide of Seyed Safi, parts are written by the two clerics. Parts of the sermons are expressed by the clerics without any preparation and based on Ayatollah Sistani’s guidance. In 2016, it was decided that the supreme religious authority’s views about Iraqi politics expressed not on weekly basis but on certain occasions. So Friday prayers sermons only allocated to moral and religious matters and it is still the same. So sheikh Karbalaei and Seyed Safi write the text of their Friday prayers sermons. Though there are special cases such as the sermons about the 2017 Liberation of Mosul (from Daesh), the 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum, the 2017 victory over Daesh and the 2018 elections that their texts were written in the Ayatollah’s office in Najaf and the clerics just read them out to the crowds.

Shafaqna- Was current Prime Minister Adil Abdel-Mahdi the supreme religious authority’s choice for the premiership?

AlKhafaf- No he was not. Mr. Abdel-Mahdi was the candidate of the two main political groups at the Iraqi parliament and a renowned local, regional and international face. Ayatollah Sistani had no opposition against him. The political factions were told that the ayatollah would support the new prime minister only if he notices that despite all problems left from the previous governments, the new administration is becoming successful.

From the beginning of the political process in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani has been trying to keep away from politics or refrain from nominating any person for the top administrative jobs. Except two positions of the heads of Shia Waqf Institutions and board of trustees of the holy shrines, which according to the Iraqi Constitution should be picked with the green light of the supreme religious authority. Ayatollah Sistani tries not to interfere in the affairs of official agencies, unless he feels it is needed.

Shafaqna- When does Ayatollah Sistani usually host Iraqi politicians?

AlKhafaf- Grand Ayatollah Sistani has not accepting to meet with Iraqi politicians since 2011 for the reasons that the political parties know, as long as those obstacles not removed he will not accept their request for a meeting. The supreme religious authority is waiting to see clear change in the officials’ performance, advancement in fight against corruption, improvement of civil services, less public problems for citizens, etc. He is still waiting to see these problems are resolved to make his next decision.

Shafaqna- There are many talks about Popular Mobilization Forces known as Hashd al-Shaabi. Paramilitary groups that were formed in the wake of the Ayatollah’s fatwa against Daesh. What does supreme religious authority think about the future of this force?

AlKhafaf- PMF law was ratified by the Iraqi parliament. The Article 1 of this law stipulates that PMF members should not be part of political or social parties and they are not allowed to engage political activities (while they are officially part of the paramilitary force). The Iraqi Prime Minister issued a decree in relation to the structure of this force and Ayatollah Sistani is waiting for this decree to be implemented. He believes that weapons should be first and foremost in the hands of the army and no party, group or clan other than government forces should hold arms. Ayatollah Sistani believes implementing regulations, public fight against corruption, preserving social freedoms are not possible out of official regulations with arms in the hands of non-governmental forces.

Shafaqna- Many Iraqi and foreign personalities who meet with Ayatollah Sistani usually quote some remarks from the ayatollah. How can we verify that they are the ayatollah’s words?

AlKhafaf- The only remarks that are accepted are the ones published at the Ayatollah’s official website. Sometimes people express their own understanding or they may make a mistake while speaking with the ayatollah and quote things that he never said.

Shafaqna- Considering the fact that Ayatollah Sistani is an aged cleric, what do you think about the future of the supreme religious authority? Does his office have a say in his political stance? Do you expect the next religious authority continue with the Ayatollah’s policy (of non-interference in politics)?

AlKhafaf- Throughout the Shia history, supreme religious authorities have been chosen with the blanket support of high-ranking clerics at seminaries and the support of the Shia population worldwide and there will be no change in future in that method. I do not have crystal ball but I know that the office of Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf is not involved in family politics and the continuation of the institution of marjaiya is to some extent related to this fact that it should be away from inheritance. That is despite the fact that there are very well educated people in Sistani family.

We expect the next supreme religious authority in Iraq continue with the method Ayatollah Sistani established in dealing with the political and social matters which by the way has been welcomed by Iraqi people as well as the Iraqi cultural, social and political elites.

This text originally published by Shafaqna Farsi and Shafaqna Arabic, translated by Shafaqna English.