Pope Francis with Foreign Diplomats, Credit REUTERS/Tony Gentile

The news out of the Vatican seems to be getting more and more fascinating every day. An avid researcher of all religions – and especially interested in all things Catholic because of my educational ties with convents – I have been following the abdication of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis, and all that’s happened in between these two major events, with great interest. When Benedict resigned, I felt a moment or two of incredulity, because it’s practically unheard of. Then I followed the whole voting process, including the betting, with bated breath. And I haven’t been disappointed, for Pope Francis is proving to be an absolute gem in so many ways. As I said, fascinating news… even though I’m a Muslim.

The truth is that the last couple of months were full of anticipation not just for Catholics but many Muslims as well, especially those in the political and interfaith arenas. From Pakistan to Turkey and across the United States, Muslims in all walks of life had been talking, writing and tweeting as they waited of news about the change of leadership at the Vatican. It’s no secret that Benedict’s resignation was viewed by the Muslim world as a sign of positive change, due to his often antagonistic attitude towards the world’s second largest religion. In 2006 Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s inflammatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran and Islam, which led to the standard protests and riots across the Islamic world, but also condemnation from Christians. Later he vetoed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and replaced a key Islamic expert at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. For all intents and purposes, Benedict symbolized a lack of communication and understanding between two major religious groups – Catholics and Muslims, who together make up 40% of the world’s population. With many Muslim leaders having the same hostile approach to Christianity, moderates and liberals feared the worst.

But with the election of Francis, Muslims across the world have heaved a big sigh of relief. Hailing from Argentina, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the Americas, Francis has lived and worked with Muslims from the beginning of his career. So deep are his connection to the region’s Muslims that the Argentinian Muslim community celebrated his election “with joy and expectation of strengthening dialogue between religions”. His choice of the papal name Francis as a homage to Saint Francis of Assisi was another important step in the collective Muslim mind about his intentions for dialogue. Many may disagree, but that’s the way Muslims are choosing to look at it.

Those past and present ties to Islam notwithstanding, Francis had much to prove in my mind at least. At the very least expecting lip service to relationship building with Muslims, and at the most hoping for genuine action several years down the road (because let’s face it Francis has many other pressing church matters to deal with) I have been very pleasantly surprised in the last week. By now, probably everyone has heard the news that the new Pope has no problem with Muslims. His first speech as pope focused on an important concept in bridge-building that both Muslims and Christians have frequently ignored:

In this work (peace building), the role of religion is fundamental. It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.

As an interfaith activist, working towards better understanding amongst Muslims and those of other faiths, I too consider the role of religion to be critical. Our religious and spiritual teachings can often be the bridge that can help us to get closer to each other; whether similarity in teachings, common values, or shared historical experiences. The leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, equivalent to the pope in many aspects, wrote in his congratulatory letter to Francis:

I hope and pray that in the forthcoming era the Pope uses his influence to develop peace and harmony in the world. There is a great need to join together upon our common teachings… Rather than increase division, the world desperately needs unity and compassion.

Sometimes words can be powerful tools. On the part of Francis, the piece de resistance – which has I feel made him a true friend of the Muslims – is Good Friday’s speech calling Muslims “brothers and sisters” – terms used by Muslims everywhere to show the connection and unity we have for each other – and a very obvious break from the Benedict-style tradition of us-versus-them. My respect for the pope grew even more when I realized the context of his speech: Lebanese Christians form the largest group of Catholics in the Middle East, and Christians generally have been persecuted in Arab countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. This year’s Good Friday procession in Rome, compiled by Lebanese Christians, focused on meditations to end terrorism, violence and persecution – an aspiration that we all must fervently yearn for regardless of religion.

Francis added his hopes towards the end of the meditations, choosing to focus on “the beauty and the strong bond of communion joining Christians together in that land and the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters and so many others.” Well said, Pope Francis, well said. The way to peace is through communication, not inflammation, and both sides would do well to remember that. With Francis obviously understanding this and willing to take the first step, Muslim leaders should reciprocate by showing equal willingness to bring about peace; denouncing the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries would be a very good start. The new pope has earned the respect and affection of many Muslims, and I’m looking forward to working together with my Catholic friends for peace, harmony and a better world.

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