When Pope Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy earlier this year, I wrote about the ways in which the new pope could bridge the gap between the Muslim and Catholic worlds. This is not to embellish that these two enormous masses of people are antithetically aligned toward one another. That is certainly not the case. But over the years the Muslim world has seen Church leadership as an antagonizing force that does not respect it. For example, the most recent episode took place in 2006. Pope Benedict XVI angered Muslims worldwide when he quoted a Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and violence in a lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany. The speech came just a year after the Danish cartoon controversy that sparked violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. And although the pontiff later apologized and even made a visit to Turkey, the damage had already been done.
So, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, Muslims around the world waited for a fresh start. And a fresh start has been initiated with a message of respect for Muslims during this holy time. Last week, the pope personally signed the Holy See message sending greetings to Muslims at the end of Ramadan in anticipation of the Eid holiday. The message called for mutual respect between Christianity and Islam through education. Though the act is not the first of its kind, it does make an impression on Muslims worldwide. Pope Francis is taking special notice of the Muslim world.
This particular gesture by Pope Francis has not been as widely publicized as his recent pronouncements about gay Catholics or women in the Church, but it nonetheless has received positive feedback. In Saudi Arabia, the King returned the welcome message including “a dispensation for Catholics to practice privately in Saudi Arabia and promised an end to their religious harassment.”
The election of Pope Francis is looking to be good for all faiths. The pontiff has not only extended his hands toward Muslim communities, but to all peoples of different faiths. His message last Friday was a message of mutual respect for all, irrespective of religion, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This marks a turning point. This is the 21st century and our world has become hyper-globalized. That means strategies to showcase faith will have to be recalibrated in order to make a real impact.
The pope’s Eid message is a much-needed stepping stone. It paves the way to a future of open dialogue and interfaith relations. As part of the American Muslim community, I am optimistic. This gesture will also reinvigorate our own interfaith work — something I think has lost traction in recent years. It is an opportunity to interact with our neighbors at a deeper level and it should lead us further down the path of fellowship and compassion.
Pope Francis may have also done something more significant through this message of welcome. By opening the doors to more possibilities for interfaith dialogue, he might inspire Islamic leaders and thinkers to do the same. Muslim scholars have had to grapple with new questions and scenarios in today’s world. This might be a chance for leaders of both faiths to broaden their horizons and perhaps become more inclusive of the faithful. As Pope Francis said about gay priests, “Who am I to judge?” I think that message will have far-reaching implications in how faith and modernity converge.