What Pope Francis’ friendship with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar means for Muslim-Christian relations

“I see the encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ as a testament of Pope Francis.

He’s bringing together all the things he wanted to say over the last seven years, and there’s an obvious connection with the Human Fraternity document that he signed with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Al Sharif on February 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi,” Cardinal Michael L. Fitzgerald M.Afr., told Americain this exclusive interview during his recent visit to Rome where he met the pope.

The English-born cardinal, 83, is a leading expert on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and a member of the society of the Missionaries of Africa—popularly known as the White Fathers.

He discussed the encyclical and the Human Fraternity document with America at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome, where he was once rector.

After that assignment, he was called by John Paul II to work at the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, first as secretary and then as prefect for four years until Benedict XVI, in an unexpected move, assigned him as nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the Arab League (2006-2012).

Pope Francis made him cardinal in 2019 and told journalists he did so “as an act of justice.”

Cardinal Fitzgerald noted that Francis took inspiration for the encyclical not only from St. Francis of Assisi but also from the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.

Indeed, “Francis reveals he was ‘stimulated’—that is the word he uses in Italian—by the Grand Imam”, the cardinal said. “And that expression caught my eye, because there is no precedent in church history for a pope drawing inspiration from a Muslim in writing an encyclical.”

He recalled Francis’s own words about his and the Imam’s meeting on the Human Fraternity document, which he mentions eight times in the encyclical: “This was no mere diplomatic gesture, but a reflection born of dialogue and common commitment.”

The cardinal remarked, “all that’s significant”, as is “the fact that a Muslim—Judge Ahmed Al-Salam—was one of the presenters of Fratelli Tutti, at its launch in the Vatican.”

“This is something that Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar agree on. This is a theological principle, so they were doing theology together.”

The cardinal, who studied in Tunisia and Egypt, and worked in South Sudan, Cairo and Jerusalem, considered it “important” that both the encyclical and the Human Fraternity document emphasize that “we are all one family, and that this fact is based on our common origin from God, because God has created all people together.”

He remarked: “This is something that Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar agree on. This is a theological principle, so they were doing theology together.”

He recalled that “the Qur’an does [say] that we all come from one single stock, and we are all in Adam and the whole of humanity, before actually being created, has accepted God as God, as their Lord. But they have to be reminded about this, and that’s the whole thrust in Islam.

We are all Muslims when we are born because we have all accepted God as our Lord” but, he remarked, “That doesn’t come in the encyclical, of course.”

He noted that “while Muslims refer to God as the Creator God, the Merciful God, they do not refer to God as Father.

They would object to that, because the word ‘father’ for them has a sort of sexual connotation, and so that would not be worthy of God.”

But, he remarked, the fact that Pope Francis and the Grand Imam “were able to produce this document on human fraternity without referring to God as father shows that this is fine.”

He drew attention to the similarities in the Human Fraternity document and ‘Fratelli Tutti’, and noted that while the pope speaks of a “desensitized” human conscience in the encyclical, Francis and Al-Tayyeb use the even stronger term “anesthetized” in the Abu Dhabi text.

The African missionary cardinal emphasized that, in the Human Fraternity document, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam issued “the condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and expressions.”

He said it’s “significant” that Francis quoted those same words in Fratelli Tutti (paragraph n.283), that make clear that “we should not support terrorism in any way, neither financially nor by attempts to justify it in the media.”

“When the pope and the imam are saying this together, this has more weight, and it is noticed.” Continue reading

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