In his earliest days as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis declared that he would make outreach to Muslims a priority. “It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people,” he said, “Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.”
Pope Francis has lived up to the goal he set for himself five years ago, making outreach to Muslims an important aspect of his ministry. Within a few months of those remarks, Pope Francis had met and welcomed Muslim refugees on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa and he washed the feet of Muslim individuals in a Holy Week ritual that is often reserved for Catholics. Since those early days, he has visited mosques, expanded and encouraged opportunities for interfaith dialogue, and traveled to numerous countries with a mainly Muslim population. He has surprised Muslims by unexpectedly showing up at their homes for tea or inviting Muslim refugee families from Syria to be resettled in Rome. And he has surprised Catholics by pointing to truth of God conveyed in Muslims’ rich religious tradition and by speaking about Islamophobia.
From these gestures and statements, important lessons emerge — about how Christians should (and shouldn’t) treat our Muslim brothers and sisters. In Pope Francis’ five years of outreach to Muslims, there is much to emulate but there is also room for improvement.
“Pray for me”: Lift up what we share
Pope Francis has often affirmed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, in which the Catholic Church stated its esteem and high regard for Muslims and highlighted the many religious aspects Catholics and Muslims share, including reverence for Jesus and Mary, commitment to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and belief in the one, merciful God.
Pope Francis has called on Catholics and Muslims to work together to solve tangible problems and has also demonstrated that both communities can and should come together to praise and petition God. Though there are some differences in what Catholics and Muslims profess about God, Pope Francis recognizes that this should not be a barrier for invoking God together. Francis has not only prayed silently alongside with Muslims (as he did in the Blue Mosque in Turkey) but has also bowed his head in prayer as Muslims called on God, as he did at an interreligious gathering in Bangladesh. Francis is not the first pope to take actions like these — Benedict XVI and John Paul II also prayed with Muslims in different capacities during their own pontificates.
Francis has also asked Muslim leaders, like the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, to pray for him. This gesture, as well as Pope Francis’ other statements that imply Muslims’ belief in the same God, are significant on a theological level. They signal that Muslims’ prayers to God are valid and that they are directed to the One, Living, Merciful God who Catholics also strive to serve.
“God of surprises”: See God in the other
Countless times during this papacy, Francis has reminded his audiences that God resides in places where Christians often don’t expect to find God, especially in people who are feared or seen as ‘others.’ “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said in 2017 of the Muslim community who had fled killing and persecution in Myanmar.
In the vein of John Paul II, Pope Francis also reminds us that we can see God’s activity at work and God’s truth expressed through other religious traditions. “There is an aspect of God’s mercy that goes beyond the confines of the church,” Pope Francis wrote in a document announcing the 2016 Year of Mercy. In his encyclical Laudato Si, when making a theological point about the “sacramentality” of creation, Pope Francis footnoted the writings of a Muslim mystic, Ali al-Khawas. This was likely the first time that a non-Christian source was cited as theological justification in a Catholic teaching document. In 2017, when meeting the Rohingya refugees, Francis also recounted an Islamic saying he’d heard to remind his audience that God lives in all people. In these examples, Pope Francis echos what the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate states: that other religious traditions can convey truth of God.
“The other could be you”: Reject the ‘clash of civilizations’
In a time when many speak of an inevitable conflict between Christians and Muslims, particularly in Europe, Pope Francis rejects a discourse of fear and scapegoating and urges Christians to welcome their Muslim brothers and sisters.
Acknowledging the reality of anti-Muslim hostility in Europe and elsewhere, Pope Francis has inaugurated campaigns to welcome migrants and refugees, many of whom are Muslim. He has also set an example of hospitality by helping to resettle Muslim refugee families from Syria at the Vatican. The pope rejects the attitude that Christianity must be defended from other religions, including Islam, and argues that encountering differences through dialogue can be enriching for all.
Pope Francis’ approach stands in contrast to another perspective—voiced by some prominent Catholics and others—that Christianity and Islam are in a “clash of civilizations.” Pope Francis warns against succumbing to fear of change and turning against one another in hate, saying that we must overcome fear and welcome all people.
“I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence”: Speak out consistently and with integrity
Some of Pope Francis’ comments on religion, violence, and persecution have been a helpful corrective to the dominant discourse, but others have repeated some common fallacies and stereotypical tropes.
In the positive side, Pope Francis has spoken out forcefully against religious persecution of all forms, including that which targets Muslims in places like Myanmar. This is an important message for many corners of the Church, where Christian persecution is prioritized as an issue over that which targets other people of faith.
Pope Francis also challenges the tendency among some Christians to reduce the causes of violence committed by Muslims to religion. In July 2016, in response to a question posed by a journalist, Pope Francis said, “It’s not fair to identify Islam with violence. It’s not fair and it’s not true.” He pointed out that violence committed by those of other religious groups is not reduced to their religious identity, and he pointed to what he sees as deeper root causes of violence committed by Muslims. These include a loss of identity among young people and, as he said in a Holy Thursday homily, the arms trade and those who benefit financially from conflict. The “global economy” that has money at the center is “the first terrorism,” he says. Many Catholics who are ordinarily fans of Pope Francis have resisted his message on Islam and pushed back against it.
Still, Pope Francis has sometimes fallen into problematic patterns in discussing Islam, ones that often contradict his better intentions. At numerous points in his papacy, he has publicly called on Muslim leaders to condemn violence committed by their fellow Muslims. These calls for condemnation imply to the pope’s audience that Muslims aren’t condemning terrorism — when, in fact, they are — and thus contributes to unjust perceptions of Muslims. Demanding that Muslims condemn acts of terrorism is also problematic, in that implies that Muslims everywhere are responsible for what some Muslims do, and that deep down Islam as a faith tradition is responsible for it (something Francis actually rejects). Pope Francis’ frequent discussion of violence in his conversations with Muslims or in his messages to them can be seen as part of a broader Western discourse on Islam that often reduces complex issues down to stereotypical dichotomies of violence and peace.
In addition to offering Muslims a warm message of hospitality and friendship, Pope Francis’ outreach offers Catholics and other Christians important lessons about how we should reach out. Many of his gestures and statements challenge us positively to live out our Christianity in new and more radical ways. And even in his missteps, Pope Francis offers lessons about how all of us can improve.
Looking back on the last five years, we can thank Pope Francis for his dedication to dialogue and for reminding us that we are all “children of the same God.”
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