When Pope Francis travels to Egypt this Friday and Saturday, what will he say about Islam? Will it be Benedict XVI at Regensburg, or Barack Obama at Cairo?
The Holy Father arrives just weeks after ISIS attempted to assassinate Pope Tawadros II, the most senior Christian pastor in Egypt, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. ISIS did not get Tawadros, but killed dozens in their two Palm Sunday bombings.
The beleaguered Coptic Christians – both the Oriental Orthodox majority and the small Catholic minority – will appreciate the solidarity shown by the visit of Pope Francis, who will be joined by Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople.
The three of them standing together – Francis, Bartholomew and Tawadros – will be a powerful sign not only of Christian unity, but also of Christian solidarity in the face of Islamist aggression.
The trip to Egypt is not about powerful gestures alone. Francis is the visiting the Al-Azhar mosque and university, the premier centre of Sunni Islamic scholarship, for an international peace conference. It is sometimes likened to the “Vatican” of the Sunni world. One doesn’t visit such a place only to be photographed; one comes to say something substantial.
Since the rise of jihadist terrorism as a global phenomenon, the Western response has been twofold. The majority position is to insist that Islam is a “religion of peace,” corrupted by a small few, and that there is nothing particularly Islamic about the violence committed by those who claim to be acting in the name of the Islam.
When a newly-elected Barack Obama decided to address the “Muslim world” from Cairo in 2009, this was the general line he adopted. It reflected then – and still does – the conventional wisdom of the political, diplomatic and religious establishment.
Francis speaks about jihadist terror in this line too, saying that “Islamic violence” does not exist. Last summer, after jihadists slit the throat of Father Jacques Hamel at the altar during Mass, the Holy Father said that if that is “Islamic violence” then an Italian man assaulting his girlfriend in a domestic dispute is “Catholic violence.”
Better then not to speak of either as having a religious component. Perhaps the Holy Father will continue in the same line in Egypt.
However, he is visiting a centre of Islamic theology, and simple advocacy of fraternal dialogue and condemnation of killing in the name of God would seem inadequate for the moment. To offer slogans in the face of the jihadist threat might be diplomatically prudent, but it would be lacking in pastoral courage.
The alternative approach – the minority approach – was taken by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2006 Regensburg address. Benedict advanced the argument that how we understand God Himself determines how we understand what He might command.
A God who is beyond reason, entirely conceived as a sovereign will, could be understood to command even violent coercion in the name of faith. Benedict spent most his time at Regensburg reviewing how the Christian tradition – both Catholic and Protestant – had struggled to clarify how God’s sovereignty did not contradict His reason.
Those reflections were offered as possible paths for Islamic theologians, who need to furnish authentic Muslim arguments against the violence. Benedict’s Regensburg address set off a diplomatic crisis, with rampaging mobs taking to the “Muslim street.”
Yet Regensburg proved a theological success, for it elicited a thoughtful response from more than a hundred leading Islamic scholars. In turn, that opening of substantial theological exchange eventually prompted the king of Saudi Arabia to visit Benedict in Rome and host an interreligious conference in Madrid (held there because such an event would be illegal in Saudi Arabia).
The Al-Azhar peace conference that both Francis and Bartholomew will address has not convened scholars the world over simply to assert that Islam is a “religion of peace.” What is needed to consider how that “peace” is to be theological understood and developed.
It would be equally facile to simply assert that “Christianity is a religion of peace.”
What does this peace consist of? What does it mean when Jesus says that He has “not come to bring peace to the earth”? How is that to be understood? What is the peace that Jesus speaks of that the “world cannot give”? What does “love your enemies” mean for peace? How is peace conceived in the light of the Cross?
Christian pastors and scholars have been wrestling with such questions since before St. Augustine. That long tradition is the best that can be offered to fellow believers.
The phenomenon of jihadist violence requires an Islamic response, but if Al-Azhar has invited the pope and patriarch, presumably it is because the Christian tradition has something substantial to offer.
Pope Francis is uniquely situated to deliver a message that goes beyond mere good wishes and addresses significant issues. He is arguably the greatest defender of Muslims in Europe as Islamic immigration has become a matter of political conflict.
On his visit to the refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos a year ago – where he was also accompanied by Bartholomew – the Holy Father dramatically brought refugees back with him on the papal plane. He did not take any Christians with him, only Muslims. He has washed the feet of Muslims who have been included in his Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
In 2009, President Obama – with his Muslim name, Muslim father and childhood in Muslim Indonesia – was considered the world’s great friend of Islam. He was received rapturously in Cairo. Yet the Cairo speech is memorable now only as the standard against which the utter failure of his Islamic outreach can be measured. It is Benedict’s Regensburg address that holds up better.
The hope for more Benedict and less Obama from Pope Francis is rooted in something deeper, which is that Francis and Bartholomew go to Egypt as Christian disciples and shepherds, not diplomats or NGO officials.
Muslims will receive them as friends. Real friends speak to each other of deeper truths, and say what needs to be said to each other, in fraternity and peace.