“Pope Francis resonates with the Muslim World much like the Saint of Assisi from whom he takes his name,”—this was how Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, president of the Islamic Affairs Council of Maryland, described his visit to the Vatican in October 2013. Saint Francis of Assisi is widely credited as being the first Catholic leader to engage a prominent Muslim Sultan in dialogue in 1219—a point well documented by Paul Moses in The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. Imam Arafat’s sanguine portrayal of Pope Francis’s growing stature in the Muslim World is corroborated by a number of experts on Catholic-Muslim relations, including Fr. Thomas Michel S.J., Senior Fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.
Notwithstanding this new optimism in Catholic-Muslim relations, it is my considered view that Muslim leaders, in particular, need to do much more to reach out, engage, and embrace Pope Francis’ invitation to interfaith dialogue and solidarity. For this indeed is the demand of our times.
A Constructive Platform for Renewed Dialogue
An invaluable opportunity for such dialogical engagement and solidarity presents itself in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), issued on 24 November 2013. Evangelii Gaudium is one of the most significant Vatican proclamations to appear since the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, and articulates the theological vision and pastoral mission sustaining the Papacy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Granted, it has only been three months since the issuing of this significant Vatican proclamation, yet it is my hope that some Muslim scholars and leaders will engage with its theological foundations and perspectives in a substantive and thoughtful manner. I believe Evangelii Gaudium could serve as a vital platform for Pope Francis’ resonance among Muslims to be transformed from popular admiration to a deeper encounter and embrace in the theological, social, and spiritual realms.
Evangelii Gaudium exhorts the Christian faithful to embark on a renewed journey of sharing the joy of the gospel (No. 9). It reaffirms a Second Vatican Council decree that establishes an essential bond between evangelization and dialogue; “Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another” (No. 258). Furthermore, social dialogue is viewed as a necessary condition for peace with justice (No. 239). It is within this context that the invitation to dialogue with states, society, and with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church is framed (No. 238). Interreligious dialogue “with the followers of Islam takes on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society” (No. 252).
It is also here that the most significant part of Evangelii Gaudium’s proclamation to Islam and Muslims surfaces. Pope Francis speaks to Muslims in the first person, and exhorts them with the following words: “I ask and humbly entreat those [Muslim majority—my insertion] countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries” (No. 253).
This entreaty is not new and was essentially the foundational prop on which Pope Benedict XVI established his troubled relationship with Islam and Muslims. What is new, however, is the judicious and sensitive manner in which Pope Francis makes his plea.
I do not need to dwell here on the perilous nature of the situation of Christian minorities living in Muslim majority countries since experts on the subject have aptly made the case and all fair minded Muslim leaders will readily agree. The religious freedoms of Christian minorities in many Muslim majority countries are appalling and a matter of grave concern which urgently needs to be taken up more honestly and robustly by Muslims engaged in interreligious dialogue.
Elsewhere I have noted the incompatibility of restrictive laws regarding apostasy and religious freedom in many Muslim majority settings, and have called on Muslim scholars and leaders to question the prevailing interpretation of the Islamic law of apostasy and Christian leaders to abandon aid evangelism. An increasing number of Muslim leaders are speaking out against this injustice. For example, at his December 13 2013 Vatican meeting with Pope Francis, Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, head of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), stressed the need for “greater efforts from OIC member states to foster respect for religious pluralism and cultural diversity and to counter the spread of bigotry and prejudice.”
The Ethical and Qur’anic Case for Religious Freedom
While it is my considered view that the demand for full religious freedom and greater protection for Christian minorities living in Muslim majority countries is legitimate and requisite, I respectfully disagree with Pope Francis that ‘reciprocity’ should be the driving force for religious freedoms on at least two grounds.
First, it is ethically expedient to argue that Muslim majority countries need to grant Christians freedom to worship and practice their faith in reciprocation of Muslims being granted those freedoms in Western countries. I believe that it should be the responsibility of faith leaders— Christians, Muslims and those of other faiths—to offer deeper and far more ethically and scripturally grounded visions of a truly humanistic and compassionate world and to make strategic interventions in order to shift the balance in favor of such genuine morality. Granting freedom of worship and protecting places of worship is an injunction to all believing Muslims in Chapter 22 verse 40 in the Qur’an, where God clearly proclaims:
If God had not restrained some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, and synagogues and mosques – all in which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed. Indeed God comes to the aid of those who come to His aid; verily He is powerful and all-mighty. (Q22:40 – Translation from Arabic by the author.)
It is interesting to note that the explicit wording of the above verses gives precedence to the protection of monasteries, churches and synagogues over that of mosques in order to underline their inviolability and the duty of the Muslim to safeguard them against any desecration or abuse, and protect freedom of belief. (For an depth analysis of the interpretations of this verse by classical Muslim commentators of the Qur’an see: Asma Afsaruddin, “In Defense of All Houses of Worship”, in ed., Sohail H. Hashmi, Just Wars, Holy Wars & Jihads: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Encounters and Exchanges). It is the proper reading of these and other verses in the Qur’an (2:256; 10:99, & 11:118) that should be invoked in the plea to Muslim majority countries to grant non-Muslim minorities freedom of workshop in their countries. Upholding the teachings of the Qur’an and sacred scriptures, should set the moral standard of tolerance, dialogue and compassion to which we must aspire in striving towards a more just and peaceful world.
Second, should the religious freedoms and opportunities for integration accorded to Muslims by Western countries be the most sublime height of pluralism that we should aspire to? The answer to this question, is of course an unequivocal no! The Runnymede Trust (1997), the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (2002), and the United Nations (2004) have all concluded on the basis of extensive research that there is an alarming rise in religious bigotry and prejudice, which includes the virtual explosion of Islamophobia in Europe and the United States.
To his credit, Pope Francis does explicitly raise the question of the indignities suffered by Muslims in the West in Evangelii Gaudium when he says: “We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries” (No. 253). Pope Francis has not only been vocal about the need to embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants in Europe—he has practically displayed such compassion with a number of symbolic expressions of this concern. In December 2013, for example, Pope Francis gave Christmas gift packages to 2,000 immigrants, many of whom are Muslims, who live at the Dono di Maria, a shelter within close proximity to the Vatican. In an accompanying message he urged Western countries to welcome and respect immigrants rather than treat them as “pawns on the chessboard of humanity.”
To thwart and mitigate against such political exploitation of the plight of Muslim immigrants in the West, Pope Francis specifically exhorts the faithful in Evangelii Gaudium, to avoid hateful generalizations even in the face of “disconcerting episodes of violence” and “in spite of fundamentalisms on both sides,” because “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (No. 253).
An Invaluable Opportunity
It is my considered view that through Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis has inaugurated a constructive platform for credible Muslim leaders to enter into a renewed dialogue with Catholics on the critical question of interpretations of sacred scripture and the roots of violence in our contemporary world. Moreover, by locating such a conversation within the broader framework of Pope Francis’ theology of compassion for the poor which offers a powerful social critique of our global culture of consumerism, covetousness, and opulence, interreligious dialogue will find even greater resonance among Muslims. It is my sincere hope that more Muslim scholars will take up the dialogical challenge presented in Evangelii Gaudium in a comparable spirit of reverence and hospitality with which the twelfth century Muslim leader, Sultan al-Kamil, welcomed the Saint of Assisi from whom the current Pope takes his name.