From the “it’s not easy being pope” files, a recent story in Rome illustrates how Pope Francis faces a challenge these days of doing two big things at once, which don’t always sit well with one another: Reaching out to moderate Muslims in the Middle East, while also raising consciousness about the region’s persecuted Christians.
On Monday, Francis hosted the Grand Imam of Cairo’s fabled al-Azhar Mosque, Ahmed el-Tayeb, in the Vatican. The al-Azhar mosque and university complex is considered the most authoritative institution in the Sunni Muslim world, and Monday’s tête-à-tête marked the resumption of dialogue with the Vatican after a five-year chill.
(That blockage, by the way, was prompted in 2011 when Pope Benedict XVI spoke out about attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt.)
To show respect for their guest, Vatican officials took the unusual step of not only arranging an interview for el-Tayeb with both Vatican Radio and L’Osservatore Romano, but also releasing the text of it on Tuesday in an official bulletin of the Holy See Press Office.
In the interview, El-Tayeb was laudatory about Pope Francis, calling him a “a man of peace” as well as “a man who respects other religions and shows consideration for their followers.”
On one point, however, el-Tayeb seemed indirectly to press not only the pope but broader Christian sentiment. In the course of discussing efforts among Muslims and Christians in the Middle East to reject radicalism and violence, the imam said the following:
“Here I would like to say that the issue must not be presented as persecution of Christians in the East,” el-Tayeb said, “but on the contrary there are more Muslim than Christian victims, and we all suffer this catastrophe together.”
Somewhat remarkably, none of the journalists present seemed to ask the obvious follow-up question: Does el-Tayeb truly believe there isn’t a specifically anti-Christian streak to many versions of Islamic radicalism – for instance, the more militant quarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in his own Egypt, where Copts routinely complain of harassment, violence and discrimination?
Is it plausible to maintain that “persecution of Christians” is the wrong narrative on the Middle East when multiple global bodies, including the U.S. State Department, have acknowledged that a genocide of Christians and other minorities is under way in areas controlled by ISIS?
Knowing what to make of el-Tayeb’s statement, however, depends on what he meant by it.
It’s certainly true that, statistically speaking, the most numerous victims of Islamic radicalism are other Muslims, mostly because in the zones where it tends to flare up, there are more Muslims than everyone else. When militants launch indiscriminate attacks, the odds generally are that Muslims will be disproportionately represented among the victims.
If what el-Tayeb meant is simply that Christians and moderate Muslims in such contexts are basically in the same boat, then it’s no more than a description of the lay of the land.
On the other hand, el-Tayeb’s comment could also be read to imply that there is no specific threat to Christians in the Middle East, and more, that it’s unhelpful to the cause of peace and understanding to suggest that there is.
If that’s the case, Pope Francis faces a bit of a dilemma.
On the one hand, el-Tayeb is precisely the sort of moderate, rational, traditional spiritual authority within Islam who’s ultimately the only hope of taking back the mantle of leadership from outfits such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Western-educated intellectuals at Cambridge, the Sorbonne and Harvard can hold as many conferences on the “deconstruction of religious superiority” and other such topics as they like, but in the Muslim street, where faith runs deep, only figures such as el-Tayeb can really move the ball.
At the same time, Francis has three strong incentives not to back down from denouncing anti-Christian persecution.
First, that persecution is an unmistakable reality.
The fact militants in groups such as ISIS don’t hate only Christians doesn’t change the fact that anti-Christian vitriol is very much a part of the mix. It also doesn’t change the fact that even when the Muslim majority in a given society isn’t actively lashing out at Christians, they’re often relegated to a sort of second-class citizenship that reflects a deep current of social prejudice.
Second, the pope is already on record observing that there are more martyrs today than in any previous period of the Church, that Christians are suffering for the faith all across the planet, and that the various denominations today should be united by an “ecumenism of blood.”
It would look strange now to dial down those expressions of concern for the sake of “inter-faith correctness.”
Third, if Francis were to soften his language about persecuted Christians, it could be a case of notching an inter-faith gain but an ecumenical loss, since doing so likely would be deeply disappointing to other Christian groups, perhaps especially the Orthodox, who also find themselves in the firing line.
As a result, the trick for Francis going forward may be to find a way to say some version of the following to Islamic counterparts such as el-Tayeb: “Yes, we’re in it together, but that doesn’t mean Christians don’t face special threats … and, by the way, it would be good for you to acknowledge it.”
Framed that way, Francis might just be able to lay the basis for a real partnership.