Sistani’s donation to Iran has created controversy among Iraq where the ayatollah has been residing since the 1950s. (Social Media)

By Track Persia

August 12, 2020

On Wednesday (April 22, 2020), Iranian media reported that the most senior  Shiite cleric in Najaf-Iraq Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani donated one billion US dollars for Iran to tackle the Coronavirus. The head of the Health Commission of the Islamic Consultative Assembly was reported as saying: “Considering that the only way to deal with the coronavirus is to use masks, but unfortunately 40 to 50% of the population cannot afford to buy masks and should be provided free of charge.” to be given. Shahriari continued: “About one billion dollars have been allocated from Ayatollah Sistani’s office to fight against Corona in the country, from which resources have been spent to buy equipment in some cities of Sistan and Baluchestan.”

According to another source, Sistani’s office in Qom, headed by Jawad al-Shahristani, Sistani’s son in law and representative in Iran, gave priority to patients in Qom, as with this amount the health services and medical equipment needed by coronary patients were imported into Iran, and they were provided to the employees of Iran’s Ministry of Health, Treatment and Medical Education.

It is worth noting that Sistani’s office in Qom is building the largest hospital in the city and one of the largest in Iran, called “Noor Hospital” with a capacity of 350 beds, and includes a comprehensive cancer centre with a complete nuclear medicine department, to be built on an area of 75,000 square meters and 60,000 square meters of structure.

The state-run Iranian agency IRNA had previously announced, through public relations at the “Jundi Shapur University for Medical Sciences” in Ahvaz city, the capital of Khuzestan province, that the office of Ayatollah Sistani donated 120-bed hospital in the city of Bawi, north of Ahvaz.

While it was reported that during a meeting on 17 July between members of the office of Ayatollah Sistani and representatives of the Iranian Ministry of Health, as well as the President of the University, Farhad Abul-Nejad, the location of the hospital was located in the city of Bawi to begin construction operations. It added that the President of the Jundi Shapur University for Medical Sciences welcomed this humanitarian step which aimed at serving the people of the region; calling for more contributions and similar humanitarian initiatives to meet the province’s needs in the field of hospitals and health services. According to the same report, this hospital is expected to provide medical and health services to more than 200,000 people from the city of Bowie and the surrounding cities.

Sistani’s donation to Iran has created controversy among Iraq where the ayatollah has been residing since the 1950s. Iraq is suffering from catastrophic impacts of the spread of the Coronavirus that the Iraqis mainly contract from Iranian pilgrims to Shiite holy sites in the Iraqi Shiite cities such as Karbala, Najaf, Samarra and Baghdad.

Sistani’s office has denied that the ayatollah donated 1 billion dollars to buy equipment to tackle the coronavirus in Iran and buy medical equipment for some cities in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. It stressed that: “What happened is that some philanthropists donated medical equipment to combat Coronavirus in Iranian hospitals and health centres through the office of His Eminence in the holy city of Qom, and the value of the donated equipment did not exceed one and a half million dollars. As for the amount mentioned, it is an imaginary number and has no basis in truth.”

After the news of new donations from Sistani (an Iranian national)for the Iranians, many Iraqis are wondering why Sistani has not helped the poor and most affected from the coronavirus in Iraq where most Shiites follow this cleric and pay him billions of dollars in the form of Khums (religious donations).

This seems to prompt Sistani’s proponents, mostly Iranians, to claim that Sistani donation for Iranians this time was only 1.5million USD, which is much less than what Iran’s Health Ministry revealed. They claim that Sistani’s office in Iran found it necessary to give back some of the Khums money (that they previously collected in Iran) to fight COVID in Iran rather than Iraq. They have launched a campaign on Twitter accusing those who are wondering about Sistani’s new donations for Iranians as being unreasonably targeting Sistani remaindering them of “Sistani’s support to them” such as the establishment of al-Ayn, a social care foundation aimed at supporting orphans in Iraq stressing that the ayatollah’s office in Iraq supported volunteers in their fight against ISIS when the government collapsed back in June 2014.

Sistani’s proponents also listed what they call Sistani’s philanthropic projects such as the establishment of water pumping stations & filtration stations in Basra in 2018 when the water crisis hit an all-time high and building oxygen manufacturing factories and field hospitals across Iraq to fight the COVID 19.  One of the largest companies in Iraq that belong to Sistani’s office ‘Kafeel’ is described by Sistani’s proponents as being an independent non-profit organisation which is administered by the Shiite holy shrines, and the investments of the projects of this company have served the Iraqi society, economy and environment greatly. They call those who criticise Sistani’s help for the Iranians rather than Iraqis as being ungrateful especially Sistani is using money collected from Iranians.

Sistani’s proponents also allege that during the1990s Ayatollah Sistani stressed to his representatives that all money collected outside of Iraq, remains outside of Iraq and is to be reinvested in the local community. This is because the Ayatollah, according to them, did not want khums to be confiscated by Saddam’s regime at the time. They allege that Sistani’s offices around the world, have been working on making the financial aspect much more transparent by giving the believers receipts and following up by presenting how the money was used, and where it was invested.

That said, there are many facts that Sistani’s proponents have overlooked, especially with regards to the returns of the investment projects linked to Sistani’s office. After the US-led invasion, Sistani’s office has used the holy shrine in Najaf and other Shiite cities, such as Karbala, Khadhimiyya and Sammara, to consolidate Sistani’s authority. The removal of the former Iraqi regime by the US-led occupation encouraged competition between various clerical factions to control these shrines which had been directly managed by the state.

In 2005, Sistani’s office pushed the Iraqi parliament to pass a new law for the management of these shrines by the ‘Office of Shi’i Endowments’ which was established just after the invasion. The law states that administrators of this office can only be appointed by the most senior cleric, in this case, Sistani.  Having benefited from this law, Sistani’s prominent representative, Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, has used this law to become the legitimate custodian of the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, while his colleague Ahmed al-Safi, has become the legitimate custodian of the shrine of Imam Abbas.

This arrangement is seen by many as illegal, especially these Sistani’s representatives have been presiding over large lucrative investment projects, such the expansion of the courtyards of the shrines and other reconstruction projects including building new facilities for the pilgrims, hospitals and universities, in addition to farming projects. The Iraqi government grants these projects tax exemptions, in addition to other allowances as part of the Office of Shi’i Endowments. For example, Al-Kafeel Company, one of Sistani’s largest companies in Iraq that has many branches in the country, does not pay taxes and its returns go directly to Sistani’s office.

A few years ago, the administration of the Imam Hussein shrine was reported to have signed a contract with an Iraqi-British construction company to build an airport in Karbala. The project was understood to be the largest airport in Iraq. However, the company is not specialised in such projects and it is suspected to be a cover company used for money laundering.  The project was given the go-ahead, despite reservations from the then governor of Karbala because of some irregularities which are committed by some of Sistani’s representative, in particular, al-Karbalaei.  Several years have passed and the project has not been inaugurated, despite the government has paid high consultation fees according to the former governor of Karbala, Akeel al-Turaihi, who spoke about his reservations in a TV interview.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.