Najaf, Asharq Al-Awsat- Not far from the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, through a number of old and narrow alleyways, one comes upon the house of the highest ranking Shiite marja in the world, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for a press conference, attended by Asharq Al-Awsat, in the city of Najaf at his residence, perhaps to deny reports surrounding the deterioration of his health, and that he had traveled to London for treatment.
Iraqi and non-Iraqi officials have visited al-Sistani, who has played an increasingly prominent role in Iraqi politics since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.
Asharq Al-Awsat attended the press conference at al-Sistani’s modest home, and Ayatollah al-Sistani himself greeted the journalists one by one.
Ayatollah al-Sistani sat on the ground, on his left was a small wooden box with a stack of books piled upon it, and to his right was a bag containing gifts which he would present to visitors. This gift being a silver coin about the size of a dirham, engraved upon one side of the coin is the title “Commander of the Faithful” in reference to [Imam Ali] the first of the 12 Imams of the Shiite sect, while on the other side of the coin is the title “Sahib al-Zaman” in reference to [Imam al-Mahdi] the last of the 12 Imams.
Ayatollah al-Sistani, who is in his late seventies, seemed to be in good health. He calmly spoke in a low voice for around ten minutes, addressing such issues as the media, political affairs, social issues, and Iraqi modern history, without showing any signs of illness or fatigue.
Al-Sistani held prayer beads made of Yemeni agate in one hand, and he was dressed in the traditional garb of a Shiite religious cleric.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani told the press “My health is good, thank God, and it is up to the media to report the facts accurately.”
He added “I am fully aware of what is happening to the Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and I am very hurt by the explosions that are taking place, and was very hurt by the most recent bombing which took place in Iraq.”
Al-Sistani also said “In my meetings with political parties, I say to them, do not make the marja [religious doctrine] a front for your actions. The people elected you in order to bear this responsibility; you are the ones that run the country.”
“In the majority of my meetings with politicians I commend them not to use my meeting [with them] as election propaganda; they have taken up this responsibility and it up to them to bear it.” Al-Sistani added.
Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani also spoke of his “love” for all Iraqis, regardless of social class or sect, and said that he does not discriminate between them.
Al-Sistani also told the gathered journalists “You are young journalists, and your responsibility, as the Fourth Estate, is to report factual news impartially…you work independently, and you are the ones who report events that occur here and there, and you must be neutral.”
Ayatollah al-Sistani also said “For more than sixty years in Iraq, I have witnessed the monarchy, the era of Abdul-Karim Qassim and Abdul Salam Arif and Abdul Rahman Arif and the era of the Baathist government which raised the slogans of unity, freedom and socialism, although these were absent from its rule.” He added “Freedom means freedom of religion and belief, but the reality was different than this.”
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, the spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Hamed Khafaf denied reports that al-Sistani had traveled abroad for medial treatment. Khafaf said that “there is no news about his health” adding “the religious marja [Ali al-Sistani] is in his office in Najaf and is carrying out his daily work as normal.”