Following a number of under-the-radar visits with religious leaders of Iran’s Shiite Muslim community, Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir says religious leaders in the Islamic republic are open to improving relations with Christians.

The renowned scholar believes Iran is eager to engage in wider interfaith discussion. Father Samir’s optimistic assessment is based on unprecedented off-the-record visits and dialogue with Shiite leaders in the Middle-Eastern nation and bordering Iraq.

At last month’s three-day Communion and Liberation "New York Encounter" event, Father Samir confirmed that he traveled to Iran’s holiest city, Qom, just over a year ago for a weeklong conversation with some of the country’s leading clerics.

He also visited Najaf, Iraq, another holy city, to meet leaders of Iraq’s Shiite community.

Father Samir’s guide on his personal visit to Iran and Iraq was Sayed Wissam Tarhini, a former student at St. Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon, where the Jesuit priest teaches Catholic theology and Islamic studies to Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox Christian students.

Today, Tarhini is an imam living in London. He represents the Shiite community before the British government and serves as the U.K. representative to the Higher Islamic Shia Council. Several times a year, he visits Beirut to see family and usually meets with Father Samir as well. 

When the Muslim cleric proposed in 2012 that the two visit Iran and Iraq together, the priest said he knew Tarhini would be a wonderful guide.

Against protests from friends who felt the December trip would be dangerous, Father Samir said he responded, “I don’t fear anybody or anything. If I die today, ‘Amen!’ and if it is tomorrow, ‘Thanks be to God!’”


‘Openness to Understand’

Father Samir, whose book 111 Questions on Islam (Ignatius Press, 2008) is one of the best explications of Muslim belief, practice and history through a Christian lens, had never been to Najaf, Iraq.

He said it is “so beautiful.”

Najaf is a holy city because it’s the location of the tomb of Ali, the prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law and cousin, whom the Shiite — the second-largest group within Islam, following the Sunni — consider to be the prophet’s rightful successor. Shiites are the majority in Iraq and Iran, although, worldwide, they comprise between 10%-20% of all Muslims.

In Najaf, Father Samir said the group of imams, together with religious leaders from Egypt, Morocco and Turkey, spent three days conducting an open-ended discussion on a range of questions, largely theological, rarely political. In Qom, the conversation went on for five days.

“When we discussed the Trinity, for example, I explained the Quran’s version of the Trinity is wrong and that what Muslims say about Christ is not Jesus Christ for Christians,” explained Father Samir.

Rather than anger his interlocutors, “there was great openness to understand better other visions of religion,” Father Samir said. “The talks never got contentious.”

When asked what topics provoked the most discussion, Father Samir highlighted religious freedom, love and free will.

“Freedom of religion and conversion are essential. These are norms. I said, ‘When I hear a Christian has become a Muslim, I’m sad, but I don’t contest it or try to prevent it,’” recalled the priest.

“And on love, the Gospel says, ‘Love your enemy.’ I don’t find that in the Quran. It’s not really the same. I said that to make them reflect,” he continued.

“My essential point was: God created us free. Freedom is the most beautiful gift. God made us capable of sin. An animal is not capable of sin. An animal has instincts but no conscience. A human may not be reasonable but can choose right or wrong,” said Father Samir.

In Qom, Iran’s spiritual center, where some 45,000 clerics live, Father Samir said that one area of fruitful discussion was the separation of church and state: “We were discussing Iran, and I observed that maintaining a distinction between religion and politics helps both. They said they came to similar conclusions.”

The Jesuit has presented his experience to offices at the Vatican, including the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.


A Lesson for the United States

Father Samir has not discussed his experience in Iran widely, but he thinks it is especially important for U.S. citizens to understand how they are perceived by Middle-Easterners, which includes Christian Arabs like him: born in Cairo of Egyptian parents.

“America has an important role in the world, but, sometimes, we feel it acts as though it has authority to interfere. For many, America is seen as imperialist. It also has to be Christian — and less aggressive.”  

He presented a remarkably cogent explanation of Islamic radicalism, tracing the origins of the Middle-East conflict. He explained, “In 1948, something happened: the creation of a state where a state was already present. Israel was created in Palestine, where a people had been living for thousands of years. It was a great injustice for Palestinians, compensation for another injustice done to the Jews in Europe.”

On top of that, the United Nations failed to apply a plan for two nations: one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, an expectation that hasn’t happened in the last 65 years, the priest said.

“This changed the history of the world, because the other Arab countries and Muslim countries felt there was an organized aggression from the West against the Arab Muslims. It was a shock for the Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere,” he said.

As a result, a breed of radical Islam emerged that did not exist, for example, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Interreligious Tweeting

Father Samir believes there are powerful elements in the Muslim world, including people he met in Iraq and Iran who are eager to work with Christians for a more peaceful future.

It’s a revelation that helps explain some unexpected tweets from the Iranian leadership in late December.

President Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “Wishing Merry #Christmas to those celebrating, especially Iranian Christians” — and one directed to Pope Francis: “Felicitations to @Pontifex on birthday of Christ.”

Some people wondered if his account was hacked, but similar greetings were sent by Iran’s foreign minister and even from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Father Samir’s willingness to talk on the record for the first time about his experience in Iran helps clarify that the unexpected tweets were not just expressions from a cynical leadership desperate to woo the West into dropping economic sanctions against Iran.

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.