Pope Francis’ efforts to promote inter-religious unity: A lesson for current day India

By Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood

[In his closing remarks the author requested Prof Michael Calabria to use his good offices and extend a heartfelt invitation from Interfaith Coalition for Peace to Pope Francis to visit India and bless its people]

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In mid July 2017, the Interfaith Coalition for Peace organized a talk at India Islamic Cultural Centre (IICC), New Delhi by Prof. Father Michael Calabria, Director of the Centre for Arabic and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University of USA. The topic was ‘Pope Francis and Muslims’.

Father Michael informed the audience that the original name of the present Pope is Jorge Mario Bergoglio and that he had adopted ‘Francis’ as his papal name on becoming Pope evoking the memory of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1219, during the fifth Crusade, St. Francis had insisted and travelled to Damietta in Egypt. He tried to prevent the European Crusaders from attacking Muslims but had failed in the attempt; the Crusaders had to face defeat.

After this, St. Francis crossed the line of war, following which he was arrested and brought before Sultan Malek Al-Kamil. Thereafter, for twenty days he and the Sultan had a lengthy exchange of views on issues relating to worship and the mystical way of life, which led St. Francis to discover that both Muslims and Christians are fellow devotees of God. When St. Francis was leaving, the Sultan gifted him an ivory trumpet, which is still preserved in the crypt of basilica at Assisi.

By adopting ‘Francis’ as his papal name, the present Pope has thus sent a clear message to the world that Christians should extend a warm hand of friendship to Muslims and that all issues should be settled through dialogue. The Pope has clearly stated that Christians should respect the customs of Muslims and should win their trust. They must look upon them as fellow human beings and seriously listen to their views.

In his presentation at the IICC, Fr Calabria said that during the Holy Week, during 2013 (and later again in 2016), when Pope Francis washed the feet of the poor and needy people at the Vatican—which is an annual ritual—it was for the first time that women and Muslims were also included among those whose feet the Pope decided to wash. In an encyclical statement issued from the Vatican in 2014, viz  Proclamation of the Gospel, the Pope included some supplications (dua) that Muslims usually make and stressed the need for practical efforts across the world to promote love and brotherhood between Muslims and Christians. On that occasion Pope Francis advised the Christian-majority countries to embrace Syrians fleeing their homeland and to give them refuge.

In 2014, Pope Francis accompanied a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi to the Dome of the Rock and the Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, where he addressed Muslims, referring to them as brothers. The same year in Turkey, the Pope joined the Islamic congregational worship known as Salah or Namaz led by the Imam. In 2015 in Sri Lanka, Pope Francis called for mutual respect, cooperation and friendship among people of different faiths, declaring this as the only route for the welfare of humanity. Appealing for observing 2015 as the Year of Peace, the Pope mentioned that, according to the Quran, the mercy and the compassion of God are among the most exalted attributes of God.

Continuing with his narration of some of the major steps that Pope Francis has taken, Father Calabria mentioned the Pope’s critique of the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which he said was one-sided violence based simply on account of the victims’ religion being Islam. In the same year during September 2015 the Pope visited ‘Ground Zero’ in New York along with a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi.

In 2016, Pope Francis went to Egypt and met with the Imam of Al-Azhar, one of the leading centers of Islamic learning in the world. When asked by media persons what message he wanted to give on this occasion, the Pope replied that this meeting itself was his message to the world. Building and maintaining good relations with Muslims was the most important priority. Later, when journalists asked him what he might like to say about ‘Islamic terrorism’, Pope Francis replied that in Italy, there is violence every day, which is done by people who call themselves Christians, but no one calls it as ‘Christian terrorism’. Hence, to talk of ‘Islamic terrorism’ is wrong. Prof Calabria reminded the audience that in his eight years of presidency, US President Barak Obama never used the term ‘Islamic terrorism’. He reiterated that we don’t say Christian violence and Jewish violence though both do exist.

Prof Calabria emphasized that vast numbers of people have been excluded from the benefits of the present global economic system and hence this economic system is itself a root cause for violence. In 2016, while in Azerbaijan, the Pope mentioned that one’s self-enrichment lies in opening one’s doors to others with the goal of human good. In the same year, in Rome, the Pope mentioned that in both Arabic and Hebrew, the word rahm or compassion or mercy is derived from the 3-letter root R-H-M that means the mother’s womb where the infant develops and from there it enters the world. So, peace in the world begins from Rahm, meaning both womb and kindness. Thus, mercy & compassion are among the foremost attributes of God and He expects the same from human beings, too.

Dr Calabria remarked that US President Donald Trump has talked about building a wall between the USA and Mexico, while Pope Francis talks of demolishing walls and building bridges. The Pope has sent a message to the world to convert conflicts into mutual cooperation through interfaith dialogue. The whole world needs to emulate the Pope’s exemplary work.

Prof Michael Calabria stressed that it was very important to spread the Pope’s message in India today and to draw lessons from it. Religious diversity should be the basis of India’s unity, for which hatred and so-called feelings of revenge in the name of religion need to be uprooted. Political conflicts must not be given a religious color.