By Dr. Craig Considine
How do Christians engage with Muslims? For some Christians, there is no engagement at all. Polls have actually found a correlation between a lack of engagement with Muslims and Islamophobia among Christian Americans. Other Christians in the United States and around the world engage with Islam in an energetic way. Pope Francis is one such Christian.
Pope Francis is now back at the Vatican after a brief trip to Egypt. He met there with Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb (pictured above), the grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque, one of the world’s foremost centres of Islamic education. American Magazine provides a summary of Francis’ powerful speech:
In a powerful speech to an international conference for peace in Cairo on April 28, Pope Francis pulled no punches as he called on Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Egypt and throughout the Middle East to join in building “a new civilization of peace” by declaring together “a firm and clear ‘no’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion and in the name of God” and to “affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”
Since becoming Pope, Francis has been on a mission to build bridges between Christians and Muslims. He has followed in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi, who emphasized Christian-Muslim fraternity during a mission to Sultan Al-Kamil 800 years ago.
Egypt is a particularly important country in terms of improving relations between Christians and Muslims. Of late, Coptic Christians have faced persecution and violence, and Saint Catherine’s Monastery has been under constant threat from members of ISIS.
Saint Catherine’s is also a particularly important place in terms of Christian-Muslim relations. It is in that monastery where a Covenant of Muhammad with the Christians of his time rests. In the Covenant, the prophet of Islam grants Christians freedom of religion and protection from persecution on religious grounds.
Pope Francis’ approach to engaging with Muslims differs significantly from his predecessor, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Back in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a controversial speech at a university in his Bavarian homeland of Regensburg, Germany. During the speech, he cited a 14th-century Christian emperor who claimed that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had only brought “evil and inhuman” things to the world.
My own research and personal contact with Muslims directly opposes the idea that Muhammad brought “bad things” to Christians. I have highlighted how is vision for the Ummah included religious pluralism and civic national principles. I have also been to over 150 mosques in the United States and Europe, and Muslims have consistently treated me with respect and compassion. Many of them have cited Muhammad as their example. It is my personal encounter with Islam and Muslim communities that has really contributed to my positive outlook on Christian-Muslim relations.
Pope Francis has stressed the importance of “personal encounters” with Muslims. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who talked about Islam and Muslims from a far, Francis actually engages with Muslims in the physical. The Pope even shunned a bulletproof vehicle in Egypt for an open-air Mass. This display of courage is profound. His fearless approach to interfaith dialogue is much-needed in an age riddle by fear of the Other, particularly among Christians and Muslims..
This is not the first time that Pope Francis has extended his hand to Muslims. In 2014, for the first time in history, Islamic prayers and readings from the Qur’an were heard at the Vatican. Also, in 2014, he joined the King of Jordan in opposing the “clash of civilizations” in favour of the “culture of dialogue.”
Francis’ approach to Muslims is characterized by a willingness to “cross over to the other side,” as the American Magazine reports. By this he means that Christians and Muslims need to be “peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; fire-fighters not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction,” as he noted in his speech in Cairo.
I see Pope Francis as the leader of the movement that tries to end the culture of indifference among Christians towards Muslims. We should all wish him success on his bold mission.