My commentary about Fratelli tutti’s relevance for Catholic-Muslim relations was recently published in National Catholic Reporter. It is entitled, “Catholic encounters with Muslims frame Fratelli tutti” and you can read an excerpt below. Here is a link to the full piece.
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“In the encyclical, Francis also wants to draw our attention to a lesser-known episode from St. Francis’ life. As Christian and Muslim armies were fighting in Egypt in 1219, St. Francis went to the camp of the Muslim sultan in a bid to make peace. The pope calls it an “extraordinary” encounter, writing that St. Francis “did not seek did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God.” Though Francis may have come with the goal to convert the sultan, he did not succeed, and his later writings show him committed to a different interreligious approach: not trying to convert Muslims through argumentation and denunciation, but rather living alongside them in a spirit of loving presence, hospitality and humble service…
“It is not only significant that Francis presented the encounter between the saint and the sultan, but also how he portrayed this encounter. As contemporary Franciscan scholars have observed, the 1219 meeting between Francis and al-Kamil has often been invoked for triumphalist ends and seen as an encouragement to proselytize to Muslims. St. Francis is often depicted in artwork and later renditions of this story as a commanding preacher, rather than as the humble servant of others. Even today, there are debates among Catholics as to which version of St. Francis should be our model for relations with Muslims. With this encyclical, Francis has let us know where he stands in that debate.”
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Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice”—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world.
While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks.