How Pope Francis is transforming Catholic-Muslim relations

When did the church commit itself to better relations between Muslims and Catholics?

I suppose the church really committed to dialogue and positive engagement at the Second Vatican Council, with the famous declaration on the relationship of the church to non-Christian religions, “Nostra Aetate.”

There’s a paragraph in there dedicated to Islam and opening up possibilities for good, positive relationships.

Of course, that was prefigured by some important historical figures in the church, who found positive ways to engage with Islam. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the key figures here.

While churches and mosques have been built for centuries in close proximity to each other, the relationship between those who worship God inside these sacred houses of prayer has not always been as close.

Pope Francis taking the name of Francis of Assisi when he became pope was in many ways a statement of intent with regard to openness to the Muslim world.

I think that’s now being seen very clearly. But you could point to several other people in the Catholic tradition who have been very open to the Muslim world; who have overcome some of the prejudices of their age and who reached out.

If you were to do a kind of whistle-stop tour between Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis, how would you characterize the popes’ interactions with Muslims?

Pope St. John Paul II was a towering figure in Christian-Muslim relations.

He is known in the Muslim world as somebody who was unprecedented in his outreach to the Muslim world.

He visited many Muslim countries; said very positive things about the Muslim tradition; famously kissed the Quran.

It was an important moment, and he attracted a huge amount of criticism from the Catholic world for having done this. But he was a real pioneer of interreligious relations and especially in the worlds of Islam and Judaism. So his efforts represent a high point.

The papacy of Benedict XVI is a time of more strained relationships with the Muslim world, of course.

Coinciding with 9/11 geopolitically, it included the Regensburg lecture, which was perceived at the time as something of an attack on Islam.

It was actually much more an attack on Western secularism. But people interpreted it in an opportunistic way.

It led to a certain amount of damage.

I think there were hurt feelings in the Muslim world, Muslims wanting to understand why the pope was joining in the sort of Islamophobia so apparent in much of the Western world at that time.

That was something of a low point.

But then, of course, Pope Benedict visited the Blue Mosque in Turkey and had that extraordinary moment when he stood in a moment of prayer there.

That was thought to have saved the situation, something of a diplomatic triumph.

Francis has right from the beginning struck a very different tone.

The agenda before Pope Francis was above all focused on religious freedom; what the Vatican calls reciprocity. In other words, “We Christians allow you Muslims to come to our countries and worship freely. Why don’t you do the same for us?”

Pope Francis is convinced that suasion and warmth and encounter and mutual understanding can in the long term actually change relationships.

With Francis, there is a desire to understand religious extremism in all its forms, so you get this acknowledgement, right from the beginning of his pontificate, in “Evangelii Gaudium,” where he refers not just to religious fundamentalism as a phenomenon you find in other religions but also in Christianity.

And I think that’s been quite a helpful thing to have pointed out because it means that the enemy if you like, is not Islam.

It’s a certain kind of extreme Islam, but you don’t find that Christianity is free of extremism either.

Certainly, I think the last few years— if you have been watching what’s going on in the United States—would bear that out.

You see an extraordinary politicization of Christianity in the name of a certain political agenda, which is not exactly the same but it is reminiscent of the way that Islam was hijacked by radical Islamism.

And while Pope Benedict was keen to detect that as evidence of a fundamental problem in Islam, I think Francis would be saying, “Well, actually, this is a weakness present in all religions, including our own, and this is something we have to combat together.” Continue reading

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