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Shiite Seminaries in Najaf, Qom Struggle With Dual Roles

Shiite seminaries in Najaf and Qom struggle to balance between preserving Shiite identity, while at the same time maintaining their distance from any sectarian conflict and supporting Islamic unity.
EDITORS' NOTE:  Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to film or take pictures in Tehran.

Iranian clerics talk to each other during break time at a religious conference centre in Qom, 120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, March 9, 2011. The clerics are attending  the International Conference of Religious Doctrines and the Mind-Body Problem. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY) - RTR2JNWP
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Shiite seminaries, in particular their original centers in Najaf and Qom, play a dual role within the problematic of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East. While the religious establishment is trying to preserve the group's identity — which differs from the that of the Sunni majority — it is also earnestly abstaining from classifying itself as being outside of the united Islamic entity. We can classify the role of activist groups associated with these seminaries based on their commitment to and emphasis of the unique identity of the Shiites, as well as their general shared identity with the Sunnis.

Geography and language play a significant role when it comes to differences in the Qom and Najaf seminaries’ dealings toward the sectarian conflict. While Qom lies in the heart of the Shiite community, ideologically and linguistically separated from the rest of Islamic world, Najaf practices its religious and missionary work in the vicinity of Sunni communities and under the eyes of the Arab world. Furthermore, the fact that the Qom seminary has ties to the Iranian political regime, while that of Najaf maintains its distance from politics, makes their roles within this conflict different. Najaf has refrained from supporting any Shiite parties or groups within the political domain, considering itself to be a purely religious institute, unconcerned with the current political conflicts between centers of power. This differs from the standard approach of Qom, particularly in the decades following the Iranian revolution.

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