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What Muslims want in a new pope

seventh crusade
Seventh crusade 1248. Photo by Guillaume de Saint-Pathus, Vie et miracles de Saint Louis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(RNS) Together, Islam and Catholicism represent about 40 percent of the world’s population, so the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims in the world have more than a passing interest in the new pope who will shepherd the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

seventh crusade

Seventh crusade 1248. Photo by Guillaume de Saint-Pathus, Vie et miracles de Saint Louis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Too often, relations between the two groups have been shaped by conflict — the Christian Crusades of 1,000 years ago are still a raw wound for many Muslims, and more recently, Muslim extremist attacks on Christian communities across Africa and the Middle East have left the Vatican deeply concerned.

“What the pope says or doesn’t say can have enormous consequences on such relations,” said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative, an organization dedicated to improving Muslim-Western relations, and the founder of the controversial so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York.

The selection of the 266th pope comes at a critical juncture in Muslim-Catholic relations, which have been marred by persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, Islamophobia in Western countries, Western military action in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and rioting between Muslims and Christians across Africa.

While many Muslims said they saw an improvement in Muslim-Catholic relations under Pope John Paul II, they say Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy was more problematic.

Most worrisome, Muslims say, was in 2006 when Benedict spoke at the University of Regensburg in Germany and quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said Islam’s Prophet Muhammad had only brought “evil and inhuman” things to the world, and that Islam was “spread by the sword.” Those remarks touched off a series of deadly riots in several Muslim countries.

Muslims were also concerned by the Vatican’s opposition to Turkey joining the European Union, and in replacing Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, a British-born Islam expert who was seen as friendly with Muslims, as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 2006.

Since then, Benedict made several trips to Islamic countries, including Turkey, which repaired some of the damage, and many Muslims give Benedict high marks for his efforts to re-engage Muslims.

“Pope Benedict XVI made a significant effort to reconcile with Muslims after his Regensburg speech,” tweeted Ingrid Mattson, chair of Islamic studies at Huron University College in Ontario and a former president of the Islamic Society of North America.

Ebrahim Moosa, an Islamic studies professor at Duke University, said the Regensburg fiasco showed the need for improved ties. “The Vatican is invested in good relations with the Muslim world, and under a new pope there is no reason to believe that it would be any different,” he said.

Mosque Prayer

Muhhamad Shafiq says a prayer into the microphone during 1:30 prayer at the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City mosque on Tuesday afternoon, June 26, 2012. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

While many Muslims acknowledge the interfaith efforts Benedict made, many also hope a successor will be more like John Paul II.

“This pope had not really been a bridge-builder and there will be hope that the next one will be someone who tries to heal wounds and build bridges,” said Adil Najam, vice chancellor at Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences, and former director of Boston University’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.

Some Muslims believe that a pope from Africa or Asia, where Muslims and Christians live alongside each other in sometimes volatile conditions, would benefit Muslim-Christian relations.

“There could be a lot of opportunity. A young pope could be more in tune with the globalized world and all the interfaith activity that takes place,” said Qamar-ul Huda, an expert on religious conflict and reconciliation at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “They live in pluralistic societies, and have to have good relations with Muslims so their communities get along on a day-to-day basis.”

Chris van Gorder, an expert in Muslim-Christian relations at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, named three possible papal contenders with firsthand experience in Islam:

  • Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, 71, founded an organization called “Oasis” designed to promote Muslim-Catholic dialogue and has spoken and written extensively on the need for Muslims and Christians to mutually confront secularism and social justice issues.
  • Cardinal Francis Arinze of strife-torn Nigeria has been “a leading light in the Vatican about promoting respect for Muslims,” van Gorder said. “But he’s now 80, so it’s not likely he would become pope.”
  • Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, 64, had a paternal uncle who was Muslim. As president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he has “supported Muslims and Christians working together to promote improved moral and civic society,” van Gorder said.

While many Catholic leaders acknowledged Benedict’s missteps and the need for greater dialogue, many also said Muslims could do more to address the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.

In 2011, when Benedict condemned Muslim attacks against Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, officials at the renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo called off dialogue with the Vatican, citing the pope’s “insults.”

“A new pope will not just want to talk about love and peace. He will want to talk about the difficult subjects, too,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Ryan, a Jesuit priest and professor of religion and society at Fordham University in New York.

Rauf agreed that Muslims need to do more about the persecution of Christians in Muslim nations. “We can’t do enough to combat the militancy that you see in Muslim countries in various parts of the world against their fellow countrymen who are Christian,” said Rauf.

A key appointment will be who the new pope chooses to advise him on interfaith dialogue. Fitzgerald was replaced by French Cardinal Paul Poupard, who served until September 2007, when he was replaced by the current prefect, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. Last July, Benedict named another Islam expert, the Rev. Miguel Ayuso Guixot, as the No. 2 official at the interfaith office.

“He’s a man of great capability,” said Ryan. “He’s a name to be watched. He will be very influential.”

About the author

Omar Sacirbey

Omar Sacirbey is a Boston-based correspondent for Religion News Service and other publications.


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  • What the new Pope has to say about Islam will be a key to revealing as to whether to the new pope is orthodox or not. Will he say what Jesus says? “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me”?

    The other key is whether or not he agrees with St. Paul regarding justification by grace and faith alone (Romans 3-5)

  • These interviewed are liberals. They want a secular state. They want what we call religious liberty. Their opponents are those Muslims whose fundamentalism is defined by their desire for a religious state–that is, for Islamic principles to be included in their civic laws and practices. Those principles include tolerance for other faiths, but not for the many practices of secularism sneaking in to both societies, western ones and secular Muslims ones as well. These practices being introduced along with religious liberty are pornography, abortion, contraception (it’s literally wiping Iran off the map), economic exploitation of the poor, economic concentration, predatory lending practices, and a kind of abuse of minorities by exploiting their cultural identity in voting manipulation such as is found in the US, along with hundreds more shady behaviors that will in the end kill their societies as it is killing ours.

    The whole religious liberty movement is a way to erase the effect of religion of whatever brand from the public square by insisting that under the manners of freedom, we keep our religious views private matters, with people theoretically allowed to act however they wish in public, as is their ‘right.’ Traditional Catholics are fighting it in the way of the doctrinal changes at Vatican II, which wiped out the possibility of the Catholic religious state, wiped out any wing of politics that would support the introduction of Catholic morality into the public square (for example, the Vatican has only words of condemnation for Hungary in its attempt to legally, constitutionally protect life from conception to natural death, and denial of homosexual “marriage,” although no one remarks it), and wiped out the Church’s role as the protector of the poor (the Church gave that role to the secular State at Vatican II). But no Catholics that I know of are aware of the practical tactics stemming from the doctrinal, which include fighting for the restoration of Catholic religious state. We have this curious disconnect of the doctrine from the action, even though polls regularly find that a majority of Americans would wish that the ten commandments were part of our legal system. It does testify to the sheer brutal strength of our de-conditioning.

    Yes, these liberal Muslims wish for, what our liberal Catholics did, and do. That the state allow you to do whatever the hell you like, and tax you for the privilege. Unfortunately it doesn’t work well, because without public civic promotion of morality life becomes hell for women, who then stop reproducing, as they have now. Then we lose our ‘markets. Sob. We lose everything, in fact. Fertile women are the golden goose.

    That’s what’s happened. That’s the religious ‘freedom’ being pushed here, pushed everywhere. No! We need a public, not private, morality that protects new life, protects the necesssary reproductive aspect of marriage, protects and promotes marriage period, controls some economic aspects as well, including care for the poor and the regulation of some aspects of economic society, especially as in breaking up the too-big-to-fails.

    Down with ‘plurality.’ Enough already! Give us a pope who promotes full bore Catholicism. It will bring more tolerance, not less. It will bring economic sanity. It will bring a systematic moral sorting. ‘Religious liberty’ brings war, war, war, in the vacuum. When you hear the words ‘religious liberty,’ think of ‘romantic liberty’ and then you’ll see, it’s the system for whores.

  • I am redeemed and like the apostle Paul I am working out my salvation in fear and trembling, with hopeful confidence – but not with a false assurance – and I do all this as the Church has taught, unchanged, from the time of Christ

  • The statment “Muslim extremist attacks on Christian communities across Africa and the Middle East” while being “most recent” is also historical through the centuries so we need to accept that as part of Islam. The new pope need not state Islam was “spread by the sword” as he can let Islamic leaders make such statements. Ayatollah Komeneini put it well when he stated “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war . . . Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword. People cannot be made obedient except with the sword.” (See Mat 26:42 on that). The next pope should take the stand that St Francis of Assisi took which was to let Islam dominate the world and by our Christian example of love in the face of persecution all will come to the love of Christ. The human race longs for the peace of Christ, whether they realize it or not. Let us pray our next pope is holy, wise, and influential in bringing this peace to reality.

  • I fail to understand why the Crusades are still a painful memory for Muslims. They won after all and didn’t give the whole thing much thought until the 19th century or later when European secularists started using the Crusades as a cudgel against Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. The word Crusade wasn’t even used at the time but was a later invention. Further, those military campaigns were a belated reaction to the centuries long Muslim invasions of the Christian homeland stretching from Iraq to Spain and the blocking of Christian pilgrimages to the holy places. It is not generally known but many thousands of pi9lgrims on their way to those holy sites were slaughtered in the decades prior to the first Crusade. Before the onslaught of the Muslim armies the Middle East, Egypt, Asia Minor, the North African shoreline and the Iberian Peninsula were predominantly Christian. My question is, who should be apologizing to whom?

  • Pope Benedict, a renown scholar, spoke at the University of Regensburg in Germany to fellow scholars. His thesis, unreported throughout the world is that Catholicism and Islam are one in the moral posit that Divine Logic never permits violence in spreading religion, because the Divine holds to peace and love. He quoted a 14th-century Byzantine Islam emperor and scholar to bolster this point.
    It is an historical fact that both religions have grievously violated this tenet, spread their belief, “by the sword”. This error is extant today in Islam, The people of peace must address this reality, a tiny fraction of their fellow believers are slaughtering Christians all over Arabia. There are more Christian martyrs today than at any time in history. This fact, nuclear weapons, and their response options, sit in the conclave of cardinals. How do we respond to evil? Respond to aggressive violence?
    One vital response is love. An equally vital response is truth. We, Catholics and Muslims, must confront our sins personally, forgive our brothers and strive for peace and mutual understanding.

  • The name of the new Pope has just been announced; congratulations to our Catholic neighbors, and to all of us! As a non-Christian, I don’t know much about Bergoglio, but I am sure that he will follow the message of love and contribute to our peaceful coexistence. We, people from all religions, should stop looking at the defects and problems in other communities, and unify and co-operate with progressive others to make the world a better place where mutual respect and love flourishes. Great article by Sacirbey!

  • Islamic Mob Destroys Christian Area of Lahore; Outrage as Pakistan Officials Arrest Christians – This is the daily news from Islamic countries.
    New new Pope should vigorously defend Christian’s right to live in peace as equal citizens in ALL Islamic countries.

  • Most Muslims (like most Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, etc) are with you against any kind of violence to Christians, LGBTQIA, women and others, Ramesh. Distinguish ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’, the latter being a recent reactionary and mainly political movement that seeks justification on religious grounds. Also don’t forget that the primary target of these violent acts are, again, Muslims, who don’t support or obey them. Human rights and democracy is a general problem, and we all condemn their violation whether in Pakistan, Israel, or the US.

  • ……and whether he agrees with St James about the efficacy of human actions….