By this author
On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque.
But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam.
Muslim immigration to Italy. Persecution of Christians in Syria. Anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands. Anti-Christian rulings in Malaysia. Mosque burnings in the United States and church burnings in Egypt. These sad events are some of the most obvious points of contact between Catholics and Muslims in the modern world. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” makes mention of Islam and Catholic-Muslim interaction. In his familiar style, Pope Francis smartly roots his commentary on Islam in the tradition of the Church and his predecessors, while at the same time forges new theological territory.
In our time
Fifty years ago, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council published Nostra Aetate (“In our time”), which spoke in new ways about the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, including Islam. This document was prompted by the important events of that era, when the world was coming to grips with the reality of the Holocaust and the increased interaction between people of different faiths. In his exhortation, Francis responds to the signs of our own time—the issues and events that are salient for Catholics and Muslims today.
Francis begins his three hundred-word discussion of Islam by highlighting the phenomenon of increased Muslim immigration to Europe. No doubt aware of the challenges and prejudices faced by Muslims in Europe, Francis writes that “we Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries.” His visit to Lampedusa, an Italian island where many African immigrants make landfall, indicated his own personal concern about the plight of refugees—including non-Christians. Yet, Francis describes the situation in Europe in overly idealistic terms—saying, “they can freely worship and become fully a part of society”(252) —seeming to understate the impact of often-racist policies that keep Muslim immigrants confined to ghettos and low-paying jobs.
Francis also addresses the recent spike in persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries: “I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!”(253) This statement is only one of many he’s made on the plight of Christians—and all those suffering—in the Middle East.
Last week, here in Amman, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the pope who bears his name. Parishes held large Masses, and the Franciscans friars at the well-known Catholic school Terra Sancta College performed their annual ritual commemorating the life and work of their patron. The Jordanian Catholic television channel Noursat/Telelumiere (Light TV) live-streamed Francis’s visit to Assisi and provided immediate Arabic translation of his remarks.
The most important event was a Mass in honor of the pope hosted by Apostalic Nuncio Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican’s ambassador to Jordan. Though the Mass was an elaborate affair with many non-Catholic guests, a large youth choir, posters of the pope, and a post-Mass reception, it has not yet been covered in English-language news outlets.
This post isn’t an attempt to cover the event from a journalist’s perspective. Instead, because I was in attendance as a worshipper, I hope to share some of my own reflections on the significance of the service. The Mass reflected ways in which the spirit of the two Francises is alive and well the Catholic Church in Jordan, and it illustrates what the global church can learn from the church in the Holy Land.
Nuns on a bus
Many of those in attendance at the Mass, which was held outside Amman at Our Lady of Peace Center, a Catholic-run complex that serves individuals with special needs, were nuns. Nuns from numerous orders and nationalities live in Jordan, including the Comboni Sisters who work in Amman’s Italian hospital. I met these sisters, who hail from Italy, Egypt, Syria, Poland, and Singapore, on the bus ride to the service, and I continue to see them at morning Masses at Amman’s Jesuit Center. Their humble ministry reflects two of the values promoted by Pope Francis and his namesake: simplicity and accompaniment. These sisters left their home countries to live and work among the sick of Jordan. These nuns are a reminder that the church is not just one in service of the poor, but of the poor.
What Christian unity looks like
The Mass was not just a celebration by Catholics, but by leaders of other faiths in this religiously diverse area. Representatives from Orthodox and Coptic Churches were easily noticeable from their distinctive garb. Other Eastern leaders entered alongside dozens of Roman Catholic priests as the Mass began, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who sat beside the Catholic leaders on the altar, beneath a large icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
In his homily, Archbishop Fouad Twal, head of the Archdiocese of Jerusalem, which includes Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Cyprus, spoke about the unifying nature of Pope Francis’s papacy: “His Holiness is a source of pride for us, because during the short time of his papacy, not more than seven months, the pope has been able to seize the hearts of many people, enthrall them with his goodness and simplicity and angelic smile, whether they be Christians or non-Christians.”
Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for "mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice"—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world.
While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks.
Most Catholics will remember the hysterical opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque back in 2010. But what any may not realize is that one of the opposition’s principal organizers is considered by some influential Catholics to be the church’s chief expert on Islam.
Since the September 11 attacks, Robert Spencer has capitalized on the curiosity—and fear—that many Americans have about Muslims. While most of his sixteen books, including two New York Times bestsellers, attempt to convince all Americans that Islam is an inherently violent religion, Spencer has also authored books aimed at Catholics.
In 2003, he co-authored Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics with a Muslim convert to Christianity, Daniel Ali, and in 2007 he wrote A Religion of Peace: Why Christianity is and Islam Isn’t. His newest book for Catholics, Not Peace But a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam, was published earlier this year. In it, Spencer explicitly discourages dialogue and cooperation between Catholics and Muslims. The book’s cover features a curved sword, with the Arabic name of Muhammad inscribed on the blade, piercing a red cross. The first line of the introduction reads, “Can’t we all just get along? Maybe not. And if not, what then?”
He argues that Catholics and Muslims have virtually nothing in common, and falsely claims that Islam teaches that Christians should be persecuted. According to Spencer, Catholics put themselves in harm’s way by engaging in dialogue. Not only does this view place him in defiance of the Catholic Church’s teachings on dialogue and on Islam, it also reinforces the toxic belief that as Muslims as a group are a violent threat and should, at best, be avoided and, at worse, be opposed.