COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — On Tuesday night in Sri Lanka, Pope Francis sat on a dais in a conference hall alongside Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim leaders, providing a snapshot of inter-faith harmony. For most of the evening, Francis was clad in a saffron robe presented by his Hindu counterpart.
Ever conscious of the power of gestures, the pontiff undoubtedly grasped that the visual would make the rounds of the world, calling attention to the event.
He listened carefully as the Muslim participant, Ash-Sheikh M.F.M. Fazil, denounced the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, insisting that “Islam has no relationship to such practices and evil deeds,” and arguing that rather than reflecting any traditional faith, terrorism and extremism are actually their own new religion.
The pope also heard Ithapane Dhammalankara Maha Nayaka Thero, a Buddhist monk, pledge his support for “religious and ethnic coexistence,” saying these are values that belong not to any specific religion, but to humanity.
It was a highly relevant message in Sri Lanka, where hardline groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which means “Buddhist Power Force,” sometimes stir sectarian violence, especially with the country’s Muslim minority.
Under other circumstances, it’s hard to imagine that the rest of the world would have taken much note of whatever a relatively obscure Muslim sheikh had to say, or a Buddhist monk, from a small Asian island nation of 20 million. The platform provided by Francis’ presence, however, meant that for one night, they were stars.
More and more, this seems to be a role to which Francis aspires: Chairman of the board for religious moderates of all stripes and all places, galvanizing them to demonstrate that religion doesn’t have to be the problem — it is every bit as much capable of being part of the solution.
“Genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred, and violence,” the pope said Wednesday morning, “but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all.”
Over the first 22 months of his papacy, Francis sometimes has appeared to pick his overseas trips to broadcast precisely that message.
For instance, it’s clearly why he chose to devote his first European journey last September to a day trip to Albania, one of the continent’s smallest and least developed states.
Yet Francis thinks it has an important lesson to teach, because out of the ashes of that nation’s brutal Soviet-era dictatorship under Enver Hoxha has arisen a remarkably harmonious relationship among the Muslim majority and the Christian minority, which is divided among Catholics and Orthodox.
Last week, four Albanian religious leaders — two Muslims, a Catholic, and an Orthodox Christian — traveled to Paris to march side-by-side during a solidarity rally after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, wanting to make the point that religious tolerance is possible.
During an address Monday to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican, Francis called Albania “an important sign that sincere faith in God makes one open to others, generates dialogue, and works for the good.”
The desire to embolden moderates was also part of the logic for the pope’s Nov. 28-30 trip to Turkey, where he called on Muslim leaders to join him in delivering a “global condemnation” of ISIS and other forms of religious extremism.
In a press conference on the way back to Rome after that outing, Francis confirmed that he raised the issue in his private meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I told the president it would be beautiful if all Islamic leaders, [including] politicians, religious leaders, and academics, clearly spoke out,” Francis said, implying that Turkey has a special responsibility in that regard.
Equally, Francis’ decision to visit Sri Lanka this week ahead of a stop in the Philippines was undoubtedly shaped in part by the desire to lift up this nation’s recovery from a 30-year civil war that pitted Buddhists against Hindus and Muslims — proving that, as Francis said recently during his New Year’s Day address, “peace is always possible.”
The pontiff’s drive to galvanize a coalition of religious moderates was clear, for instance, in his decision to invite Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, a role considered the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, to join him in convening a June 8 peace prayer last year in the Vatican gardens involving the Israeli and Palestinian presidents.
It’s also why every time that he attends an inter-religious session during one of his foreign trips, he almost always uses the setting to deliver an indictment of “extremism” and “fundamentalism.”
Francis did so again Tuesday night in Sri Lanka, telling his hosts that “religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war.”
How successful Francis will be in sustaining such a coalition, and using it to change realities on the ground, remains to be seen.
His peace initiative in the Middle East, for instance, didn’t stop Israel and Hamas from going to war in the Gaza Strip shortly afterwards — though Francis would later insist it wasn’t a failure, and that he had “opened a door … that remains open.”
The pope did help pave the way for resolving Cold War-era tensions between the United States and Cuba, and he may also have had some impact in 2013 in heading off Western military strikes in Syria to try to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
While neither was really a case of religious conflict, they both illustrate that Francis’ political capital and diplomatic savvy can make a surprising difference.
When Francis takes off for the Philippines on Thursday morning, he will likely leave Sri Lankan clerics such as Fazil and Thero in a strengthened position, both in Sri Lanka and within each man’s broader faith community, as leaders who once sat next to the pope and swapped ideas with him.
In a sense, that was undoubtedly the point: Giving religious moderates the same chance to make their case with words and gestures that extremists do, often to more immediate effect, with bombs and rifles.
Because the pope was here, those moderates in Sri Lanka stood a decent chance of getting someone’s attention. Now that they’ve got it, the real drama begins of how they choose to use it.