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Understanding Pope Francis’ outreach to Muslims
Eight hundred years ago, in the midst of the Crusades, St. Francis of Assisi crossed battle lines in Egypt to see a Muslim ruler. In the Muslim encampment, he met the sultan, Malik al-Kamil, who, like Francis, sought peace between the Christian and Muslim armies. Little, if anything, is known definitively about their encounter, but it is thought to have been a personal one, spent in one another’s company for multiple days.
Pope Francis, who chose his pontifical name after the saint from Assisi, has in our own time made numerous trips to meet Muslims. In early February, the pope visited the United Arab Emirates, and in late March he will travel to Morocco. These are just two of several countries with a majority Muslim population that Pope Francis has visited during his six-year pontificate, not to mention his many other gatherings with Muslim individuals and communities throughout Africa, Asia and Europe.
For Francis, the purposes of his trips to countries such as the UAE and Morocco are at least as numerous as the visits themselves. Problem-solving and political concerns; offering support to those struggling and speaking out; addressing local challenges while sending a message to the world over — the list goes on. But there is another unifying thread that runs through the pope’s engagement with Muslims: the importance of personal encounter.
When Pope Francis talks about dialogue of any kind (not just interreligious dialogue), his emphasis is on personal relationships. For him, dialogue is any encounter where we can be fully ourselves, sharing who we are with others and, in turn, receiving who they are. In dialogue, we share our joys and sorrows, our concerns, hopes and everyday experiences.
|“To recognize the same rights for every human being is to glorify the name of God on earth. In the name of God the creator, therefore, every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation, because we gravely profane God’s name when we use it to justify hatred and violence against a brother or sister.”
— Pope Francis, speaking at an interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 4. The meeting ended with Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb signing “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”
Dialogue is about presence — attempting to truly see the person in front of us, even if we don’t know them or haven’t had the opportunity to develop a deep friendship. That’s what the pope has sought to do, whether in his longtime friendship with Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of an important Sunni Muslim institution in Egypt, or in brief encounters with everyday people, like a Muslim family who invited him into their Rome apartment for tea.
Pope Francis, like the popes before him, reminds Catholics that interreligious dialogue does not ask us to be less of ourselves.
As he said in the UAE, dialogue actually “presupposes having one’s own identity, not to be foregone to please the other person.” It also requires what he calls “the courage of otherness” — to be ready to receive unexpected blessings from the “God of surprises.”
God of surprises
When we are truly present to those around us, we can more readily see the image of God in them.
At a 2017 gathering in Bangladesh, Pope Francis was able to meet several Rohingya Muslims who had fled mass violence in the neighboring country of Myanmar. Greeting each of them individually and hearing about what they had suffered, Francis found himself in tears. He said later that he recognized “the presence of God in them.”
Dialogue, therefore, is not just an opportunity to get to know other people, but to deepen our own connection with God. Pope Francis asserted this link between knowing others and knowing God early in his papacy.
“It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God,” he said, “But the converse is also true: It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people.”
Encounters with Muslims also reveal to us the perhaps surprising religious similarities that we share with Muslims. Pope St. John Paul II, who paved the way for Francis by making dialogue with Muslims a main priority of his own papacy, often reminded Muslims and Catholics that despite our differences, we both believe in the one, merciful God and that we share many values, practices and beliefs.
“We Christians joyfully recognize the religious values we have in common with Islam,” Pope John Paul said.
‘The other could be you’
In the recent document Pope Francis released with Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, he wrote that “faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved.” The same is true of dialogue. When we see a person for who they are — how God’s image lives in them and how they, like us, are seeking to respond to God’s activity in their own lives — it prompts us to help in any way we can.
After meeting Muslim refugees from Syria in 2016 and being struck by the similarities he saw between them and himself, Pope Francis urged Catholics and all people to “remember that the other could be you.” Subsequently, he helped several of these families to make a new home in Rome.
This realization of our common dignity is why Pope Francis speaks out frequently against injustices targeting any group — Christian, Muslim or otherwise. And though it is not frequently covered in the news, Muslim leaders and ordinary people do the same, speaking out and taking concrete steps to protect the vulnerable.
In places such as Iraq and Egypt, Muslims have protected Christians and their churches when they have been targeted, just as Christians have protected Muslims and their mosques in the United States and United Kingdom.
This year’s 800th anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi’s journey to Egypt — as well as Pope Francis’ contemporary outreach to Muslims — offers Catholics, and all people, the opportunity to reflect on how we can incorporate dialogue into our own lives. That might involve hosting Muslims for an event or meal at our parish or working with Muslims to advocate for a cause or to tackle a problem in the local community. It also could mean being a guest of Muslims — being welcomed into someone else’s home or into a mosque.
But more important than any scheduled activity is offering human warmth in every personal encounter. If we chart out on that path — which Pope Francis, St. Francis and so many others have done — we can be sure that the God of surprises will find us along the way.
Jordan Denari Duffner is the author of “Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic” (Liturgical Press, $17.99). She writes from Washington, D.C.