In February 2019, Pope Francis went bridge-building. His aim, desire, hope – call it what you will – was to build a bridge that would span the great divide that separated the Christian world from the Arab Muslim world. I talked about it at the time because it was the eight hundredth anniversary of Saint Francis of Assisi’s visit to Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. Pope Francis went to the United Arab Emirates walking in the footsteps of his Saint namesake to lead the largest ever Christian act of public-worship on the Arabian peninsula, and also to offer a way out of the polarisation trap gripping the west, in which murderous acts of terror by Islamic extremists encouraged, stirred-up, created even greater animosity and hatred against Muslims and migrants. (Wounded Shepherd, Epilogue, Austen Ivereigh p.338)
As a result of a years’ preparation for the visit, The Abu Dhabi “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace” was a milestone in inter-religious dialogue, but in truth it was much bigger than that. It was a bid by the primary leaders of the world’s two biggest religions to harness the forces of faith to rescue humanity from fatal conflict. The co-signatories were the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Cairo, Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb, the ”Pope of the Sunni world”, and our own Pope Francis.
Friendship, trust, acknowledgement of the One God, a desire for healing, for unity, peace, justice …. all are enshrined in two great precepts of the Church ……. love of God and love of neighbour. All these human virtues were demonstrated by those who took part in framing and producing the Abu Dhabi document both Muslim and Christian.
The last sixteen months also have been a time of preparation, a time to prepare for coming to terms with the presence of the Covid virus throughout the world. The ability of mankind to control its spread and effect on humanity. The obligation for richer countries to ensure that all the peoples of the world are not denied access to vaccines, and just as critical, the ability to administer them. It should be world bridge-building at its best. To deny the poorer and already suffering world assistance when it is available, is to deny God! “Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or needing clothes, sick or in prison and did not come to your aid?” Then he will answer, “Amen I say to you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.” Mt. 25:44-45. The world has the facilities to reduce the effect of this virus and its consequences now. There is no need to postpone the antidote for eight hundred years.
Was it worth an eight hundred years wait between the visit of Saint Francis to Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, and Pope Francis’s visit to the Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed el-Tayeb in 2019?
There is the common belief that Muslims, Christians and Jews have spent 1300 hrs years fighting each other. That is not true. For example from the 7th. Century at the beginning of Islam, in less than a hundred years, Islam had spread into Spain in the West and Pakistan in the North. It was a staggering military conquest, but it did not have forced conversions from Christianity and Judaism to Islam. Even the crusades were not wars for the conversion of Muslims to Christianity and Judaism, and when the Crusaders sacked Jerusalem and massacred the inhabitants so the blood ran ankle deep in the streets, the blood was mostly Christian and Jewish.
Violence was by no means the only interaction between the three faiths as one may have been led to believe. A lot of Arabs became Christian and in one town called Shivta, an ancient city in Israel’s Negev desert, now a UNESCO Heritage site, 43 kilometres South West of Beersheba, there is a mosque attached to a church which was used by both faiths at the same time. Christianity and Islam I learnt yesterday are joined at the hip. Historically they are drawn out of the same land. Christians, Jews and Muslims spoke the same language, Arabic! … as well as a common religious language. You will know that the three faiths use the same names, Jacob, Miriam and many more which are easily recognisable! Read any book from the Old Testament and discover how many biblical names are used today even in the paganised west! The interaction between the three faiths is well established and has been for hundreds of years.
In no small way, the three faiths form an ecumenical group: they have common cultural and religious roots; Christians and Moslems use the same stories, study the same philosophers, for example Plato and Aristotle among others, so why has there been such violence between Muslims and non-Muslims during recent years by extremist groups such as ISIS? To a faithful Muslim such people who set out to kill Christians and Jews are heretics, just as much as are so-called Christians who set out to kill Muslims. The three faiths have a common spiritual heritage which has been clouded over by violent extremists and erased from the communal memory of belief in the one God. The seed of faith mentioned in today’s gospel is already planted for us to water, just as saint Francis did with the Sultan eight centuries ago and as Pope Francis did with The Grand Imam in Cairo two years ago. The truth of the relationship between the three faiths is documented and well researched, but sadly it doesn’t make the headlines. It can be studied by anyone who wishes, and there are scores of courses on Medieval history to instruct and enlighten anyone who is interested. Do not rely on hearsay; the facts are there to be read and understood, and scholars from every corner of the globe have written volumes to enthral the student. Pope Francis instructs all the faithful by his actions, and highlights the good side of humanity which the media brushes over and so readily ignores. We pray for understanding, unity, wisdom and disclosure of the truth for the benefit of all humanity.