A few weeks ago, Pope Francis made an historic trip to the United Arab Emirates. The arrival of Pope Francis to Arab lands was not simply the visit of one head of state to another, but was intended to establish a deeper and more effective dialogue between the Christian world and the Muslim world.
In my understanding, interreligious dialogue must be based on a fundamental principle, namely, unite but do not forget to differentiate and divide but do not separate. Those words give meaning to the Pope’s visit, especially in light of the fact that the Pope has continually sought to bring about an interreligious dialogue among the world’s three largest religious groups: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
These three religions have many things in common: they recognize and affirm their belief in one God who is creator of the world; they have a sacred book which is complemented by a search for and a relationship with God; the three religions recognize Abraham as the father of faith.
Francis took this step in order to develop and deepen those above cited similarities. He also made this trip in order to communicate a word of encouragement to the small Christian community that lives in that country and that, on many occasions, has not been able to profess their faith in a public manner. The Pope wanted to promote an effective dialogue with representatives of the Muslim world.
Dialogue between Christians and Muslims has been very complex as a result of some structural differences in both religions. The Muslim world does not have one commonly recognized leader. Rather each Sheikh is seen as the religious leader of his own proper community (a community that is generally constituted by tribal and/or territorial bonds) and therefore, is most often also the political leader of the community. The common law is Sharjah which does contain common guidelines but guidelines that are not always applied in the same manner (various schools and councils will interpret the law in a different manner and that interpretation will often depend on the individual mullah or council).
At the same time, one must take into consideration the influence that the Muslim religion has achieved in Europe and in other parts of the world. People from the African Muslim nations have constituted the majority of those who have migrated to Europe. This movement of people has created a strong Muslim presence in countries that seventy years ago was almost non-existent (for example, the Muslim presence in France, Germany and Spain).
It should be noted that Latin America has also begun to experience this influence. Up until the time of the 1940’s the majority of the Arabs who migrated to Latin America were from Palestine, Syria and Lebanon and were members of the Orthodox religion. Today, the immigrants are Muslim and come from Palestine, Tunis and Moracco.
Important mosques have been constructed in Chile and Brazil and as a result this religion has begun to spread in Latin America. Men and women, either because of the novelty of this religion or because they are engaged in a true spiritual search, have begun to embrace this religion. On the streets of the Latin American cities one can see men and women, born in other countries, dressed in the Muslim fashion.
All of this implies that Catholics need to change their attitude in order to promote a true and deep dialogue with the Muslim world. Such a change in attitude will enable Christians to know, respect and accept Muslims (able to affirm the elements that they share and the elements that make them different from one another).
That is why the Pope developed his discourse around the theme of fraternity among all human beings, a fraternity that will enable people to overcome ideological barriers, prejudices, resentments and preconceptions. The Pope exhorted people to move beyond the stereotype of viewing one another as terrorists (a reality that is communicated daily in the news and that is often related to fundamentalist groups which can exist in all religions, including Christianity) … rather we are to view one another as our brothers and sisters who journey together with us in the hope of building up the Kingdom of God. We see common areas of service in which the most vulnerable members of society are cared for by members of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.
Christians have to be bridge-builders through dialogue, approachability, and respect (doing good to one another regardless of who that “other” might be). In our literature (especially when reading our sacred scriptures) and in our holy places, we must promote religious acceptance and tolerance.
At the same time, we must learn how to live together with one another in peace and must recognize that we do not have a monopoly on the truth. We, all of us, must learn to view God as a Good Father who has gifted us with a common home (this planet earth) that we are to administers in the best possible manner, living together in harmony with nature and with one another.
The implicit message of the Pope during his visit to Muslim countries was one of nearness, hope, a search for understanding and peace. There is still much to be done and therefore, not only the Pope, but each and everyone of us, men and women of good will, are exhorted to view one another as brothers and sisters, to maintain our traditions, to respect and to accept our “neighbor” so that each one, from his/her perspective, can achieve the desired gift of eternal life.
Unite but do not forget to differentiate and divide but do not separate … Salem Aleikum!
By: Alejandro Fabres, CM
Province of Chile
Charles Plock, CM
Eastern Province, USA