▶ Pope Fran­cis’s bi­og­ra­pher Paul Val­lely ex­plains how good­will to­wards the Mus­lim world has been a defin­ing fea­ture of the Ar­gen­tinian’s pa­pacy – in stark con­trast to the at­ti­tude of his pre­de­ces­sor

The National - News - - NEWS - Paul Val­lely is the au­thor of Pope Fran­cis: the Strug­gle for the Soul of Catholi­cism, pub­lished by Blooms­bury

Pope Fran­cis has made build­ing a good re­la­tion­ship be­tween Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam one of the pri­or­i­ties of his pa­pacy. More than that, he has demon­strated a clear sym­pa­thy for op­pressed mi­nori­ties in the Arab world.

This is in stark con­trast to the ap­proach of his pre­de­ces­sor, Pope Bene­dict XVI, who set back re­la­tions be­tween the faiths with an ap­proach char­ac­terised by the­o­log­i­cal chal­lenge – ac­cus­ing “rad­i­cal Is­lam” of creat­ing an “ex­plo­sive sit­u­a­tion in Europe”.

Pope Bene­dict’s speech, at Re­gens­burg in Ger­many in 2006, an­gered the Mus­lim world and sparked deadly protests in sev­eral coun­tries.

Pope Fran­cis, since his elec­tion as Supreme Pon­tiff of the Ro­man Catholic Church in 2013, has made ef­forts to build the bridges that Pope Bene­dict burnt.

Only this week, the Pope re­ceived Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas in the Vat­i­can and gave his back­ing to plans to re­ac­ti­vate the peace process be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, and to work for the two-state so­lu­tion that US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has been down­grad­ing. It was un­der Pope Fran­cis that the Vat­i­can first recog­nised the state of Pales­tine in 2016.

He has vis­ited no fewer than eight Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries in his five years as Pope. They in­clude Turkey in 2014, Bos­nia in 2015, Azer­bai­jan in 2016 and Egypt and Bangladesh in 2017.

His com­mit­ment to this is sig­nif­i­cant. He vis­ited Cairo only three weeks after 45 Chris­tian wor­ship­pers were killed in bomb at­tacks on Egyp­tian churches.

Yet de­spite that, the Pope re­fused a bul­let­proof ve­hi­cle and trav­elled through the crowds in an open-topped golf buggy. The per­sonal warmth of his in­ten­tions was sym­bol­ised in the Al Azhar Mosque by his em­brace of the Grand Imam, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb.

The very name that Fran­cis chose as pope was re­veal­ing.

His name­sake, Fran­cis of As­sisi, was not only a great ad­vo­cate of the poor and cham­pion of the en­vi­ron­ment – two of the Pope’s cor­ner­stone causes – he was also one of the first Chris­tians to con­duct a di­a­logue with Mus­lims. In the year 1219, when Euro­peans were em­bark­ing on mil­i­tary cru­sades in the Mid­dle East, the orig­i­nal Fran­cis trav­elled to Egypt to meet the great Mus­lim leader Sul­tan Al Kamil. After three weeks of di­a­logue, St Fran­cis re­turned to Italy to pro­mote re­spect for Mus­lims and en­cour­age Chris­tians to em­u­late their zeal for prayer.

The cur­rent pope’s em­brace of Is­lam is part of his wider ap­proach to in­clu­siv­ity.

He puts peo­ple be­fore doc­trine. One of his favourite say­ings is “real­i­ties are greater than ideas” – not some­thing you can imag­ine the the­olo­gian Pope Bene­dict XVI, or the philoso­pher Pope John Paul II, say­ing.

This pope is a re­li­gious leader who does not have his fin­ger out to wag but his arms open to em­brace. Fran­cis is a re­form­ing pope. He has rev­o­lu­tionised the Vat­i­can’s cor­rupt fi­nances. He has changed the way the Church makes de­ci­sions – re-em­pow­er­ing syn­ods of bish­ops, which were merely

Pope Fran­cis has vis­ited eight Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries since he was elected head of the church in 2013

rub­ber-stamp­ing bod­ies un­der pre­vi­ous popes.

He has opened the way for free dis­cus­sion, once sup­pressed as dis­sent, within the Catholic Church.

Con­ser­va­tive cler­ics who have stood in the way of all this have been re­moved from key posts.

His new cler­i­cal ap­point­ments have em­bod­ied a pas­toral rather than an ide­o­log­i­cal ap­proach. They are, to use the Pope’s words, shep­herds who “smell of their sheep” and are will­ing to ac­com­pany the or­di­nary peo­ple through the dif­fi­cul­ties of their daily lives.

Re­build­ing re­la­tion­ships with Is­lam was an early pri­or­ity. Fran­cis, who will be 82 this month, moved quickly to make in­ter­faith over­tures as soon he was elected. One of his first sym­bolic moves was to in­vite two old friends from his time as arch­bishop of Buenos Aires to join him in his visit to the Holy Land.

In Jerusalem, sa­cred to the three Abra­hamic faiths, the three men em­braced – the Pope; a Jewish rabbi, Abra­ham Sko­rka; and a Mus­lim pro­fes­sor, Omar Ab­boud, pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute for In­ter-Re­li­gious Di­a­logue in Ar­gentina.

Af­ter­wards, he in­vited the pres­i­dents of Is­rael and Pales­tine to the Vat­i­can for a prayer sum­mit. They went, and prayed along­side each other.

Pope Fran­cis’s friend­ship with Mr Ab­boud and Mr Sko­rka was more than nom­i­nal.

In his ill-judged Re­gens­burg lec­ture in 2006, Pope Bene­dict quoted a highly in­flam­ma­tory re­mark by a 14th-cen­tury Chris­tian em­peror.

Im­me­di­ately, the man who later be­came Pope Fran­cis

stepped out of line. Car­di­nal Jorge Mario Ber­goglio, as he was then, told the Ar­gen­tine me­dia: “Pope Bene­dict’s state­ment ... will serve to de­stroy in 20 sec­onds the care­ful con­struc­tion of a re­la­tion­ship with Is­lam that Pope John Paul II built over the past 20 years.”

The Vat­i­can rapped his knuck­les, but Ber­goglio merely re­sponded by call­ing an in­ter­faith meet­ing in his home­land, invit­ing, among oth­ers, Mr Ab­boud and Mr Sko­rka.

In 2013’s Evan­gelii Gaudium, the first ma­jor doc­u­ment he pro­duced as pope – which set out his per­sonal man­i­festo – Pope Fran­cis point­edly wrote: “Authen­tic Is­lam and the proper read­ing of the Qu­ran are op­posed to ev­ery form of vi­o­lence.”

He echoed the sen­ti­ment a year later in his Let­ter to the Chris­tians in the Mid­dle

East, declar­ing: “Is­lam is a re­li­gion of peace, one which is com­pat­i­ble with re­spect for hu­man rights and favours peace­ful co­ex­is­tence.”

Last year, he went fur­ther while on the plane back from Egypt, say­ing: “It is not right to iden­tity Is­lam with vi­o­lence”.

Ter­ror­ism was, rather, caused by so­cial in­jus­tice and so­ci­eties where “money is made a god”. Fran­cis has con­demned those in western na­tions who sup­port anti-im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies.

In­stead, he has urged Chris­tians to take in Mus­lim refugees, and him­self housed Mus­lim refugees in the Vat­i­can to send a mes­sage of in­clu­sive­ness. He has paid a price for liv­ing up to his name – the word pon­tiff means bridge builder.

His di­a­logue with Is­lam has brought crit­i­cism from the­o­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tives as well as Chris­tians liv­ing in be­lea­guered places like Iraq, where one Chris­tian mi­nor­ity leader de­scribed Pope Fran­cis’s ap­proach as “naive and short-sighted”.

But he has per­se­vered. He is not afraid to speak out in de­fence of Is­lam. But nor is he afraid to de­fend the in­creas­ingly mi­nor­ity sta­tus of Chris­tians in the Mid­dle East.

By the time of his visit to the birth­place of Christ, Beth­le­hem, in 2013, the lit­tle town, which had been 60 per cent Chris­tian in 1990, had a Chris­tian pop­u­la­tion of only 15 per cent. This prompted the pope to au­tho­rise the Vat­i­can web­site to con­demn the per­se­cu­tion of Pales­tinian Chris­tians.

Ryan Carter – Crown Prince Court; AFP

Sheikh Mo­hamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Com­man­der of the Armed Forces, bids farewell to Pope Fran­cis after a meet­ing in 2016 at the Vat­i­can. Be­low left, the Pope dur­ing the In­ter­na­tional Meet­ing of Choirs at the Vat­i­can last month

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