Paul Kengor gives a nod to the Pope’s remarkable, successful outreach to Muslims . . .
If you listen to the media, you’ll catch takes on Pope Francis on everything from reforming the Curia to analyses of his comments and interviews. Look deeper and you’ll also find a surprising amount of material on his outreach to Muslims.
This openness is something that few expected, but given the pontiff’s past — as well as the papal name he chose — it shouldn’t be a shock. In retrospect, we had some hints to this outreach seven years ago, back in 2006. Recall Pope Benedict XVI’s “controversial” Regensburg address. Benedict quoted a learned 14th century Byzantine emperor: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Benedict was speaking in a scholarly forum and didn’t openly endorse this particular observation. Nonetheless, there was significant worldwide backlash — and not just the Islamic world.
In Argentina, a cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio was notably displeased. “Pope Benedict’s statements don’t reflect my own opinions,” said the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires. “These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.”
Upon assuming the reins of the papacy, Bergoglio has sought a decidedly different tone. Pope Francis has consistently and repeatedly reached out to Muslims. Here are just a few examples:
• In one of his first papal speeches, given on March 22, Francis announced he wanted to “intensify dialogue among the various religions. And I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.” • Just days later, celebrating his first Holy Thursday Mass, Francis broke with tradition, washing the feet of a Serbian Muslim woman — an inmate from a prison in Rome. • In an Aug. 2 message, Francis took the rare step of extending a personal message to Muslims preparing to celebrate Ramadan. In the past, such ecumenical greetings came from the Vatican’s office of interfaith dialogue. This time, the Bishop of Rome took the personal initiative, extending his “esteem and friendship” to Muslims. • Francis again reached out at the end of Ramadan. In an Angelus message, he urged Christians and Muslims to strive together to “promote mutual respect.” • Two weeks later, the Holy Father made another eye-opening move when he bowed to a smiling Queen Rania of Jordan who was visiting the Vatican. Rania, wife of King Abdullah II, presides over the largest Palestinian population of any country. Why Francis chose to bow to her isn’t entirely clear, but it certainly was noticed.
Amid the many such gestures in such a short period, Francis has also been staunch in his calls for peace in the conflict in Syria, which is a matter of Muslims killing Muslims in a terrible civil war. He opposed President Barack Obama’s desire for a military strike against the Assad regime. Then he went further, calling for an international day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria on Sept. 7.
Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, who is the spiritual leader of Syrian Sunni Muslims, was so affected by Francis’ appeal that he publicly expressed his wish to join the pope in St. Peter’s for the vigil. The mufti asked his fellow Muslims to “welcome the appeal to pray for peace.” He invited them to pray on Sept. 7, simultaneously and in communion with Pope Francis, and to do so in mosques throughout Syria. In striking language, speaking of the Pope as a “father,” the mufti said that Syrian Muslims view the Holy Father as a “true spiritual leader … who speaks for the true good of the Syrian people.”
In all, this is quite remarkable. Should we be surprised at this outreach to Muslims by Pope Francis? I don’t think so.
When Cardinal Bergoglio looked to St. Francis for his papal name, it wasn’t to witness to birds and trees. Many forget that the 13th century saint stepped off the battlefield of the crusades to reach out to Muslims. In 1219 AD, a time of terrible religious strife, Francis headed by foot and horse to Egypt where he hoped to win over the world’s most powerful Muslim: Sultan Malik al-Kamil.
For the record, that voyage did not convert the sultan, but it impressed him greatly, giving him a much more positive view of Christians and their faith — and their representative. Pope Francis has thus far done the same. Here’s hoping he has even greater success over the months and years ahead.
PAUL KENGOR is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include “The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand” and “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.”