This week, key Iraqi religious leaders are meeting in Cairo to discuss what they can do about violence shredding their country. The press was not invited, since a certain amount of cover was required to assemble this diverse group. That they're gathering is itself remarkable, and welcome.
The coming together is largely thanks to the persistent effort of an Anglican priest, Canon Andrew White, who has lived in Baghdad for nearly a decade. Not illness, death threats, nor lack of funds has deterred Canon White from his drive to involve Iraq's clerics – from Muslims to its dwindling minority faiths – in unifying the country.
Religious and political issues in Iraq are inextricably linked, and it makes sense to find a way to formally engage Iraq's spiritual leaders in reconciliation.
Not that the Cairo gathering will delve into the theological divide of whether Shiites or Sunnis are the rightful heir to the prophet Muhammad.
White's goal for this week is far more modest and sensible: to get Iraq's senior clergy to endorse a pledge to reduce violence, denounce Al Qaeda, and deny terrorism, and to support democratic principles, the Iraqi Constitution, and national unity.
Such a commitment was made in Baghdad in June by less senior religious leaders that included Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians, some of them antagonists and perpetrators of violence. The June meeting was the largest such gathering in Iraq in nearly four decades, and it took more than two years for White (with the eventual help of the Pentagon) to pull it off.
An effort such as this sometimes falls into the category of "it can't hurt," and "better to try it than not." For while Iraq's religious leaders can't be disregarded, their influence over events on the ground has its limits.
Shiite leaders, notably the powerful Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have a better chance of influencing their followers than do Sunni leaders – there is no single Sunni leader in Iraq, and many Sunnis turn to tribal chiefs for guidance.
At the same time, religious leaders on both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide have publicly denounced violence in the past, and yet it rages on. Either religious leaders say one thing publicly and another privately, or, more likely, they have less control than is assumed. Once factional fighting takes off on a wide scale, it's indeed difficult to bring under control. Self-interest, self-protection, fear, anger, and revenge become the motivators.
And yet, there's intrinsic worth in the ongoing religious dialogue envisioned by White – and agreed to in June by the religious delegates themselves. At the least it keeps clerics talking to one another. That could eventually lead to greater religious tolerance and, as White hopes, to both sides addressing loss (at the hands of Saddam Hussein and in today's sectarian war).
This effort also has the potential to influence political unity if religious leaders themselves begin to promote and endorse the kinds of compromises necessary in Iraqi politics – agreements that necessarily involve sacrifice on all sides.
Compromise appears to be elusive. In a country where a struggle for political power is being fought in the name of religion, a united plea for compromise from society's moral voice could help achieve it.