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Pope Francis has made dialogue with the Muslim world a top priority

Pope Francis walks alongside Abbas Shuman, deputy imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque, at the prestigious Sunni institution Al-Azhar (Getty)

The Pope believes his task is to deepen relations with the Islamic world, rather than to denounce its pathologies

At 8:45am last Sunday, a bomb exploded during Mass near the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the southern Philippines. It shattered windows and ripped pews to smithereens. As soldiers rushed to help, a second bomb detonated outside the cathedral compound, hurling “human remains and debris across a town square fronting the church”, according to one report. The attack killed at least 20 people – 15 civilians and five soldiers – and injured 111 others. ISIS claimed responsibility.

The bombing is a grim reminder that, while ISIS may no longer control swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, it is apparently still capable of inspiring deadly attacks around the world. Speaking at World Youth Day in Panama hours after the bombing, Pope Francis expressed his “strongest reprobation for this episode of violence which is once again plunging the Christian community into mourning”.

The image of the charred and shattered pews will be fresh in Francis’s mind as he begins a new outreach to the Muslim world next week. On Sunday, he will become the first pope to travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). During the three-day trip he will visit Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque and meet the Muslim Council of Elders. Then in March he will spend two days in Morocco, visiting the cities of Rabat and Casablanca at the invitation of King Mohammed VI.

Earlier this year, the Pope told diplomats that his journeys to the UAE and Morocco “represent two important opportunities to advance inter-religious dialogue and mutual understanding between the followers of both religions in this year that marks the 800th anniversary of the historic meeting between St Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil.”

In 1219, St Francis took the bold – even reckless – step of crossing Crusade lines to meet the sultan of Egypt. He was not pursuing inter-religious dialogue as we understand it today. Rather, he openly sought the sultan’s conversion to Christianity. But the Kurdish ruler was struck by Francis’s holiness and simplicity and granted him safe passage for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Pope believes that he is following in St Francis’s footsteps by pursuing dialogue with the Islamic world at a time of violence and upheaval. Long before he was elected to the papacy, he sought to strengthen Catholic-Muslim relations. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he made at least three visits to the city’s Islamic Centre and was on good terms with the local Muslim leader, Omar Abboud. He felt so strongly about these ties that in 2006 he offered public criticism of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address, saying: “These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last 20 years.”

As Pope, Francis has made dialogue with the Muslim world one of his top priorities. His first foreign trip, in May 2014, was to the Holy Land. Later that year he travelled to Turkey. In 2017, he went to Egypt, where he met Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious centres of Sunni learning. Al-Azhar had broken off ties with the Holy See in 2011 after accusing Benedict XVI of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs when he condemned a terror attack on a Coptic church. Francis successfully restored relations.

One of the reasons that Pope Francis is highly regarded in the Muslim world is that he has consistently denied any connection between Islam and violence. In March 2017, for example, he said: “Muslim terrorism does not exist … there are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions.” At the height of ISIS’s reign of terror in Syria and Iraq, he said he would “never close the door” on dialogue with them if it could lead to peace.

This implacable commitment to dialogue is, of course, controversial. A group of Catholic converts from Islam recently launched an online petition criticising the Pope’s stance. “You do not like to beat around the bush and neither do we, so allow us to say frankly that we do not understand your teaching about Islam,” they wrote. “If Islam is a good religion in itself, as you continue to teach, then why did we become Catholic?”

Francis is unlikely to respond directly to this challenge. In a way, the trips to the UAE and Morocco are his answer. He believes that the Pope’s task is to deepen relations with the Islamic world, rather than to analyse and denounce its pathologies. Time will tell whether his emphasis is the right one.