When he visited Assisi on Thursday, Pope Francis had a brief unscheduled encounter with the Imam of Perugia, Abdel Qader Mohammed, who thanked the pontiff for denying that Islam is a religion of violence during an in-flight press conference July 31 on the way back to Rome from his trip to Poland.
(It’s a clear sign of the times, by the way, that an Italian city in the region of Umbria, the land of St. Francis, now requires its own imam. For better or worse, followers of different faiths are increasingly fated to live together.)
“A heartfelt thanks to Pope Francis for his closeness to us Muslims,” Mohammed said, according to the official Franciscan magazine in Assisi.
One day before, I had been in Toronto, Canada, to cover the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus, where one picked up a very different reaction.
The Knights have made defending persecuted Christians in the Middle East a major point of emphasis, and a number of bishops from the region were on hand, including prelates from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan – all places, of course, where the Christian minority faces lethal threats from Muslim radicals.
Speaking with those bishops, several confided that the pope’s rhetoric on Islam had not played well with their people, and some said Christians back home felt angry and betrayed.
In a major address on Wednesday, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church said that while the Qur’an does contain verses that speak of peace, it also has others that clearly endorse violence, and that when young men are required to memorize those passages in Islamic schools, “it won’t be easy to prevent them from becoming terrorists or killers.”
In general, Younan seemed pessimistic about the prospects for an internal reform within Islam, arguing that the only way to keep Christians safe is for major world powers to apply political and economic pressure on Middle Eastern regimes to impose some semblance of order.
After his speech was finished, I jokingly said to a couple of colleagues that if one were so inclined, it could easily be spun as “Patriarch v. Pope.”
In reality, however, one probably should view the pope on the plane and the patriarch at the podium as complementary, not contradictory. In effect, each delivered a piece of a bigger picture vis-à-vis Islam in the early 21st century.
On the pope’s side of the ledger, it’s a fact that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are neither terrorists nor terrorist sympathizers, they do not regard their faith as requiring violence, and they’re as appalled by the Islamic State, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the rest, as everyone else.
When my colleague Inés San Martín and I were in Nigeria last summer, for instance, we heard stories over and over again of Muslims and Christians standing together – Muslims who would surround Christian churches on Sundays to keep worshipers safe, in effect acting as human shields, while Christians would return the favor at moderate mosques, which are every bit as much a target for Boko Haram militants.
Further, Pope Francis is also undoubtedly conscious that there’s really no alternative to believing that Islam is capable of peace and tolerance. Otherwise, the only logical conclusion is a permanent cycle of conflict and bloodshed between the world’s two largest religious traditions – together, Christians and Muslims are almost 4 billion people, more than half the total global population.
Younan, however, made an equally valid point, which is that there’s a cancer inside Islam today which has made its radical form the world’s leading manufacturer of anti-Christian hatred.
It’s not, by the way, that persecution is somehow more egregious when it happens to Christians than to anyone else. Yet in the roughly 50 nations of the world with a Muslim majority, and especially in the Middle East, Christians are especially vulnerable – in part because of history, in part because of the tendency to lash out at them for perceived grievances at the West.
(That’s true even though in most cases, Christians actually have deeper roots in the local culture than their oppressors.)
Jean-Clément Jeanbart, Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, became visibly emotional at several points during the Knights’ convention, saying, “Our people are terrorized, and we’re in big danger of disappearing.”
The last time I had seen Jeanbart was in April 2015, immediately after Islamic State forces had unleashed a ferocious round of rocket attacks on a Christian neighborhood in Aleppo that left 15 people dead, including a family of four Greek Melkites crushed to death when their apartment building collapsed. One of Jeanbart’s grim responsibilities was to find a suitable spot to bury them, since Aleppo’s Christian cemetery was ringed by snipers.
It was hardly Jeanbart’s first taste of tragedy. In October 2012, his priest secretary and protégé, Father Imad Daher, was nearly killed when a bomb exploded near the archbishop’s residence. Daher had to be helicoptered to Beirut for the first of seven surgeries, which, among other things, cost him an eye.
Under circumstances like that, it’s easy to understand why irenic references to Islam as a “religion of peace” rankle, because that simply isn’t the daily experience of figures such as Younan and Jeanbart.
(San Martín and I interviewed Jeanbart for our “Crux of the Matter” show on the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129, which airs Monday at 1 p.m. Eastern.)
The hard truth about Islam today is that it’s alternately both peaceful and violent, that it projects both tolerance and hatred towards Christians and other minorities. To ignore either end of those contrasts is to deny reality, and Christian leaders probably should do their best to hold both together when they talk to, and about, Muslims.
Both Francis and Younan, by the way, obviously know this. Francis has talked repeatedly about the astonishing numbers of new Christian martyrs today, and referred to a vast “ecumenism of blood” created by persecution, while Younan is well aware of Syria’s long history of peaceful co-existence … indeed, it’s precisely the loss of that tradition that makes the present situation so agonizing.
In other words, it’s not a matter of choosing between the pope’s line or the patriarch’s from last week. Instead, the proper formula is probably this: “Pope + Patriarch = The Full Story.”