In general, Pope Francis gets high marks for his inter-religious outreach, which has been a core feature of his papacy from the beginning. Shortly after his election in March 2013, for instance, he went to a juvenile detention center in Rome and included two Muslims among the inmates whose feet he washed.
Since then, he’s traveled to Israel and impressed Jews with his commitment to the Jewish/Christian relationship, he’s become only the second pope to enter a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, and, while in the country, he also donned a saffron robe given to him by a Hindu holy man during an interfaith meeting.
Francis’s palpable respect for other religious traditions, coupled with his determination that the various faiths must work together to advance shared values such as peace and the care of creation, have made him a global role model for interfaith cooperation.
Of course, there have been discordant notes. In Sri Lanka, for instance, hardline Buddhist leader Galagoda Atte Gnanasara largely dismissed the pope’s gestures as meaningless until he apologized for “atrocities committed by Christian colonial governments in South Asia.”
(It was a somewhat curious demand, given that aside from a brief period of Portuguese rule, the dominant colonial powers in Sri Lanka were the Dutch and the British, neither Catholic powers, but of course strict historical logic wasn’t really the point.)
Recently, Francis has attracted two other bits of interfaith blowback.
In mid-June, an Indian politician named Gorakhpur Yogi Adityanath, who’s linked to the country’s right-wing Hindu nationalist movements, ripped the pope’s decision to proclaim Mother Teresa a saint on Sept. 4, claiming the iconic “apostle of the poor” had been engaged in a plot to “Christianize” India.
Then last Saturday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nurettin Canikli, blasted the pope’s use of the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottomans, asserting that it reflected a “crusader’s mentality.”
Canikli is a co-founder of Turkey’s “Justice and Development” Party, and although today it claims to be based on conservative democracy, the party has its roots in Islamist and nationalistic currents in Turkish society.
In truth, neither criticism of Pope Francis is really all that surprising – especially the Turkish reaction, since it’s more or less pro forma anytime a world leader or body recognizes the Armenian genocide.
Moreover, anyone who knows the lay of the land will have a hard time taking either protest seriously.
In terms of Adityanath’s objection, the idea that the pontiff is using the Mother Teresa canonization as a pretext to gin up some sort of campaign to “Christianize” India will strike most people as fairly silly, given that for Francis “proselytism” is a dirty word more or less on a par with “clericalism” and “rigidity” in his lexicon.
Yes, Francis is a missionary pontiff, but his notion of mission is rooted in service and growth by attraction rather than a narrowly focused push to increase the Church’s confessional “market share.”
As for Canikli, the idea of Francis as a “crusader” is, if anything, even more self-parodying.
For one thing, he’s named for a saint who reached out across the battle lines during the actual Crusades and forged a bond with Sultan al-Kamil, which eventually led to the Franciscan order becoming the custodians of the Holy Land.
For another, Francis is about as distant from a “crusader’s mentality” as it’s possible to imagine, routinely denouncing violence in the name of religion and insisting on peaceful coexistence among faiths, peoples and cultures.
It’s possible, of course, that people in either India or Turkey unaware of the pope’s record may be briefly swayed by such rhetoric, but the moment such charges are subjected to critical examination they’ll collapse under their own weight.
While the substance of such complaints may not have much merit, there’s nevertheless a sense in which they’re meaningful. In effect, they may be an index that Francis’s ambition to be the “chairman of the board” for religious moderates around the world is working.
Obviously without using that language, that’s a role to which every recent pope has aspired – trying to galvanize a coalition of authoritative moderates within the world’s religious traditions to demonstrate that, as much as religion can be part of the problem, it is also uniquely positioned to be part of the solution.
As someone who doesn’t hail from a traditional Western power, Francis brings a special capacity to plpull that off, since he doesn’t carry the same baggage in terms of being associated with either the West’s colonial history or its contemporary military and political choices. His global popularity also means he carries the largest religious megaphone in the world, allowing him to lift the standing of moderate voices in other traditions.
If hardliners from within those traditions never went after him, it might suggest they feel his impact is negligible; when they do, it could be a sign they’re worried he’s turning the tide.
I recall once hearing the late Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto quote a saying from his native Slovenia in a time of controversy – frankly, I can’t remember the context now – the gist of which was, “If they’re not throwing bricks at you, then you’re not getting through.”
On the interfaith front, the recent bricks hurled at Francis from within both Hinduism and Islam could actually be seen not as a problem, but as proof that the “chairman of the board” has their attention.