ROME – Once Pope Francis embarks on his trip to Panama to celebrate the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day on Jan. 23, it’s essentially off to the races. For the rest of the spring, he’ll have a jam-packed papal itinerary that will focus heavily on dialogue with the Islamic world.
In a recent interview with the Italian broadcast network TV2000, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Christian/Muslim relations has been a priority for Francis since the beginning of his papacy and it will continue to be a priority in 2019, seen mostly through trips the pope is taking to Islamic countries.
“The pope’s attention toward the Arab world is due to the difficulties which today are found in relations between Christianity and Islam, with the tragic drifts of terrorism and religious fundamentalism,” Parolin said in the interview.
“Faced with this situation the pope from the beginning of his pontificate has sought to promote encounter,” he said, adding that Francis is in many ways “characterized by this desire to promote encounter against every indifference. This is the meaning of the attention he will be giving this year through his trips to the Arab world.”
Francis’s keen attention to Catholic-Muslim relations was showcased by the fact that his first international trip after being elected to the papacy in 2013 was a May 2014 visit to the Holy Land. Since then, dialogue with Islam has continued to be a strong emphasis for the pope in his travels, including a visit to Turkey in November 2014, to the Central African Republic in 2015 and to Egypt in the spring of 2017, all of which have a Muslim majority.
It was during his stop in the Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui that Francis decided to inaugurate his Jubilee of Mercy early, opening the holy door of the city’s cathedral a full week before the jubilee was officially set to begin in Rome.
Francis’s looming Feb. 3-5 trip to the United Arab Emirates and subsequent outing to Morocco March 30-31 are further signs that dialogue with the Islamic world will continue to be a strong priority.
In a statement announcing the pope’s visit to the UAE, former Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the trip “shows the fundamental importance the Holy Father gives to inter-religious dialogue. Pope Francis visiting the Arab world is a perfect example of the culture of encounter.”
Yet this interest in dialogue with Islam is not something that began with his election, but it goes back to his time in Argentina. Even as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future pope fostered strong ties with both the Jewish and Islamic communities.
The then-Archbishop Bergoglio made at least three visits to the Centro Islamico – the Islamic Center – of Buenos Aires and met frequently with Omar Abboud, the leader of Buenos Aires’ Islamic community, leaving a clear impression that he wanted the Catholic and Muslim communities to be partners.
In 2010 he co-authored a book with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires. Both Skorka and Abboud were invited by the now-Pope Francis to be part of his formal delegation during his visit to the Holy Land in 2014, and they were also both present for his 2015 trip to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.
They were also both present at a June prayer event in the Vatican gardens with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, former Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pray for peace between the two nations.
At the time, the decision to have both a Jew and a Muslim as part of his Holy Land delegation was hugely symbolic given not only the tensions between the communities in the area, but also because Francis inherited the papacy at a time when the Vatican’s relationship with Islam was suffering from the fallout of an unfortunate comment made by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, during a speech that offended the Islamic community.
During a 2006 visit to Regensburg, Germany, Benedict gave a 40-minute academic lecture at the University of Regensburg on the relationship between reason and faith, at one point quoting a Byzantine emperor who had been critical of Islam. In the backlash, Christian churches were attacked throughout the Muslim world and small bouts of violence sprang up amid protests.
Though Benedict apologized for the comment, relations between Islam and the Catholic Church continued to be strained – a strain that has been eased with remarkable speed and depth during the Francis papacy.
A visible sign of this thawing in relations can be seen in the Vatican’s restoration of dialogue with the prestigious al-Azhar mosque and university in Egypt. The Imam of al-Azhar, currently Ahmed al-Tayyeb, is considered by some Muslims to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam.
Francis first met al-Tayeeb at the Vatican in May 2016, marking a reconciliation between the al-Azhar institution and the Holy See whose relationship had been strained in 2011 with claims that Benedict XVI had “interfered” in Egypt’s internal affairs by condemning a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria during the time of Coptic Christmas.
Since then, al-Tayeeb has made further visits to the Vatican, and Francis himself visited al-Azhar during his visit to Egypt last spring.
These improved relations between Islam and Catholicism are undeniably due at least in part to Francis’s frequent amicable remarks about Islam and his insistence that not all Muslims are terrorists. In a March 2017 speech to popular movements, for example, Francis famously said: “Muslim terrorism does not exist…there are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions.”
His comments sparked debate among both faithful and scholars, who argue that passages of the Quran inciting violence against those considered “infidels” are indefensible.
Most recently a group of Algerian and French converts to Christianity launched an online petition asking Francis to reconsider his conciliatory attitude toward Muslims and the Islamic faith.
In the petition, which so far has garnered some 2,740 signatures from around the world, the authors spoke to Francis directly, saying “you do not like to beat around the bush and neither do we, so allow us to say frankly that we do not understand your teaching about Islam.”
“If Islam is a good religion in itself, as you continue to teach, then why did we become Catholic?” they said and asked the pope to convene a synod on the dangers of Islam.
However, the pope’s travel itinerary this spring, particularly his visits to the UAE and Morocco, sends the message that whatever the concerns about his attitude toward Islam may be, it likely won’t change.
In a speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on Monday, Francis said his visits to the UAE and Morocco “represent two important opportunities to advance interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding between the followers of both religions in this year that marks the 800th anniversary of the historic meeting between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil,” the fourth sultan of Egypt.