Compared to his recent pronouncements about gay Catholics, little fanfare accompanied Pope Francis’s personal message to Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan this weekend. Francis communicated his “esteem and friendship” and issued a call to “avoid ridicule or denigration,” showing that in addition to his reluctance to pass judgment on homosexual believers, he is also more relaxed than his predecessor about the threat that the Muslim faithful represent to Roman Catholicism.
Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the Vatican’s Commission for Relations with Islam. At the time, Vatican City was one of many European states reaching out to the Muslim world to mitigate the oil embargo by OAPEC countries on Western customers. Now, in a context of brewing civil wars that threaten the Middle East’s remaining Christian minorities, Francis is attempting to stave off religious war.
Pope Francis’s cumulative gestures towards Muslims contrast sharply with Benedict XVI’s approach to Christian-Muslim affairs. Francis has engaged Islamic communities since his earliest words as pope, and one of his first public acts was to ritually wash the feet of two young Muslims in a juvenile detention center. The German pope never fully recovered from an early faux pas in Regensburg, where he evoked a Byzantine emperor’s words on the “evil and inhuman” Prophet Mohammed bent on violent proselytism. These were not his own sentiments, he later said, but it was a view that he nonetheless publicized widely and never overcame.
Pope Francis, whose saintly Italian namesake from Assisi once met with an Egyptian sultan, is restoring a pragmatic approach to the Islamic world. His overture marks the Church’s third push for interreligious dialogue in fifty years. In the early 1960s, John XXIII repudiated texts relating to errant Jews, made a state visit to Israel, and issued a major declaration on non-Christians (Nostra Aetate, whose first draft was called the Decree About Jews or Decretum de Judaeis); he also established the Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In 1974, Paul VI gave his personal approval to the Italian government to allow Europe’s largest mosque to be built on Rome’s outskirts. He also initiated a diplomatic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and created the Vatican Commission for Relations with Islam within the Council for Interreligious Dialogue. John Paul II continued making amends with Jewish communities, although he changed the Council’s aim of “interreligious dialogue” to “relations with non-Christians.”
In the context of the oil embargo and deepening recession of the 1970s, the Vatican was not just opening an historic dialogue. It was angling for lower energy costs like any other European state. The new French president Giscard d’Estaing founded the Institut du Monde Arabe on Paris’s Left Bank; members of the European Community ceremoniously inaugurated the Euro-Arab Dialogue, a diplomatic and parliamentary assembly promoting trade and cultural ties. A US diplomat cabled home that during the Saudi visit, Vatican officials “did not heat the rooms in which the Pope received the delegation to show that even the Vatican was suffering from oil price increases.”
Since the oil-producing Arab countries first made use of the “oil weapon” during the embargo, the fear of religious extremism and high energy prices have continued to drive European foreign policy. But today the issue of Christian minorities’ safety threatens to reemerge. In Turkey, the descendants of the Ottoman Empire continue to convert historic Byzantine churches into mosques. Conflicts endangering Christian minorities in the Muslim world could yet flare up in Egypt, where Copts have lined up behind the recent military coup against Islamist rule. European division on taking sides in the Syrian civil war is based in part on assessments of how Assad’s departure would endanger the country’s large Christian minorities.
There has been some early positive feedback to Francis’s gestures. Islamic affairs officials in former Egyptian President Morsi’s government welcomed the new pope’s words, and when the Saudi King sent his envoy with a welcome message he included a dispensation for Catholics to practice privately in Saudi Arabia and promised an end to their religious harassment. But Francis has also annoyed some traditional Catholics with his overtures. One famous convert who arrived in Italy as a Muslim migrant from Egypt and was personally baptized by Pope Benedict XVI renounced his faith in disgust at the Argentine pope’s openness towards Islam.
In May, when Francis beatified John XXIII and John Paul II, he also canonized the 800 martyrs of Otranto, in Southern Italy, who were executed by Ottoman invaders in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. While Francis lauded the martyrs’ strength and faith, however, the decision to honor them had been made earlier by Benedict – his last act before announcing his resignation.
This weekend’s Ramadan message was the first such communiqué signed personally by a Pope in over twenty years, when John Paul II reached out to Muslims after the first Gulf War. That conflict marked the opening of two decades of open military conflict between Muslim-majority countries and Western allies. Since the Arab Awakening, that conflict has shifted inwards and inched towards civil war.
John Paul II’s political legacy was fighting communism, and Benedict XVI bequeathed a struggle against secularist relativism. As religious conflict roils the Middle East, Francis is eager to end his immediate predecessor’s blunt conflict with Islam in favor of engagement to preempt the potentially catastrophic religious wars brewing in the Mediterranean.