Francis has challenged Islamic countries to grant religious freedom to Christians – will Western politicians follow his lead?

U.S. President Barack Obama wears a gift from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (CNS)

The Pope’s apostolic exhortation on evangelisation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, will, I hope be closely studied in the next few weeks and months. A quick scan of some key quotes seems to indicate that any such study will be worthwhile.

The first thing to catch my eye was the section on Islam. First and foremost the Pope tells the governments of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan (he doesn’t name them, but it is obvious whom he means) that they ought to extend the same religious freedoms to Christians as Christian majority countries do to Muslims. The Pope’s words are very polite: “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!” I would love to know how the Saudis are planning to respond. My guess is that they will say and do nothing, sadly. But I am pretty certain that this Pope will continue asking until they do something positive. Even if the Saudis ignore this plea, surely the countries of the freedom-loving West will note it, and add their voices to it? Over to you, Cameron and Obama!

Not unnaturally the Pope’s words on Islam make reference to Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council that dealt with inter-religious dialogue. Back in the 1960s inter-religious dialogue presented quite a sunny landscape; now, ever since 9/11, there has to be more caution. Hence the Pope makes reference to “true followers of Islam”, as opposed to those wedded to violence, who by implication are Islamic in name only.

Why should the Pope make this point? After all, can’t Muslims make this point for themselves? Consider the words that the Pope uses of pious Muslims: “Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.” It is almost as if he is pointing out a contrast – if such a thing needs to be pointed out – namely, that the people who bombed the World Trade Centre clearly had no ethical commitment, let alone a sense of mercy towards the vulnerable.

The Pope is making an old Jesuit point that your religious progress can only really be verified by your ethical progress. In other words, if you are not a good person, or a right-acting person, then it follows that you are not a religious person, whatever your assertions to the contrary. Applied to the 9/11 bombers, this means that their religious talk was just that – talk, representing the instrumentalisation of religious language in the service of a terrorist ideology. A Catholic like the Pope makes this point to undermine the assumption that the 9/11 atrocity was caused by religion. It wasn’t. It was caused by an ideology, and it was carried out by men who were not in the least bit religious. Their hatred of the West and their nihilism, coupled with a very obvious desire to kill themselves and take a lot of people with them, these are hardly the fruits of piety.

A counter-argument that I have heard is that the 9/11 bombers were in fact deeply religious because they killed themselves thinking that they were bound for Paradise. If they had not had a blind faith in Paradise then they would never have undertaken their suicide missions. But the trouble with this analysis is that it confuses martyrdom with suicide. Martyrs die for a cause, believing in a heavenly reward. Suicides kill themselves, and in this case many others too. Such a violent act can only merit eternal punishment. Moreover the violence of the act springs from a very different source and looks very different from the calm faith-filled assurance of the martyr, who bears no ill will to anyone. Mohamed Atta and his companions were so full of hatred towards themselves and their victims, that I doubt they had room in their minds for anything else, let alone the concept of Paradise.

The 9/11 atrocity has been used to defame Islam, while at the same time it has, correctly to my mind, been seen as revelatory of a deep psychosis in the Arab world. The 9/11 atrocity, and others like it, should not, the Pope makes clear, be used to demonise all religions.

There is another point about Islam in the text as well, that could easily be missed. The Pope says: “The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings.” The use of the verb “have retained” implies (at least I can read it no other way) that Islam has its origins in Christianity, and specifically that the Koran is in its origins a Christian book. I do not think any Pope has ever said this before. Indeed, this theory about the Christian origins of Islam, which has been around for centuries, has recently received some academic investigation, as you can read here as well in many other places. Interesting that the Pope should seem to be endorsing these views, which are, as far as I can see, the correct views. But usually Popes are more cautious.