Pope Francis is visiting Egypt—the world’s largest Arab country with the Arab world’s largest Christian population. Never before have the ancient Coptic Christians faced such persecution. Three weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, two bombs killed 47 worshippers. Pope Francis desperately wants to rekindle interfaith dialogue with Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of Al-Azhar Mosque and University, the heart of Sunni Islam.
Al-Azhar froze dialogue with the Vatican after Pope Benedict linked Islam to violence in his famous Regensburg Lecture in 2006. Last year, Francis invited el-Tayeb to the Vatican and restored the relationship in a meeting sealed by symbolic hugs and kisses. ‘Our meeting is the message,’ Francis said, echoing the words of the high priest of the cybernetic revolution Marshall McLuhan, ‘The medium is the message.’
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the Pope and the imam had ‘mainly addressed the common challenges faced by the authorities and faithful of the major religions of the world.’ The Pope presented the Grand Sheikh with a copy of his encyclical, Laudato Si, on climate change and economic inequality. Pope Francis did not publicly mention jihad, or violence in the name of Islam, or freedom of religion, or human rights for Christians in Egypt.
Since then we do not know how many Christians in Egypt have died as a result of global warming or economic inequality. What we do know is that the persecution of Christians has escalated after General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power and took over as president. Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt’s Coptic Church and a Sisi supporter, said Copts were attacked about once a month. The state continues to discriminate against the right of Christians to build and maintain churches.
So how is Pope Francis going to dialogue with Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb on his visit to Egypt? He has to be gracious as a guest of the Grand Sheikh. He has to be sensitive to the precarious situation faced by the Copts and other Christian denominations. But can he remain silent and avoid the most contentious issues in the arena of dialogue with one of the most respected Sunni Islamic authorities in the world? Imagine, Pope Francis persuading the Grand Sheikh el-Tayeb to issue a fatwa (legal ruling) prohibiting violence against Christians! What a victory for interfaith dialogue that would be.
Pope Francis will need to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. But if he is going to achieve peace between Islam and Christianity in Egypt through interfaith dialogue he cannot ignore the elephant in the room. He will have to politely but pointedly ask the difficult questions that nearly all Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue ducks and dodges. How does one interpret the texts of terror in the Koran? Is apostasy punishable by death? How does a faithful Muslim understand jihad in a pluralistic society?
Pope Francis must not give into the fourth temptation to be nice and adopt the Church of England’s model of interfaith dialogue set by Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield. I’m sitting in one of Britain’s best libraries for the study of Islam. The friendly librarian has piled up all six glossy volumes on Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue edited by Ipgrave on my desk. So has he mentioned jihad? I’m dying to find out. I run my finger through the indices under “J.” Jacobites, James II, Japan, Jeremiah, Jesus, Jews… then a long jump to justice… but what joy, no jihad! Could he have mentioned the war under “H” for Holy War or “W” for war? No. He won’t. He’s not an Egyptian Copt or a Turkish Melkite or a Nigerian Anglican. He’s never lived as a dhimmi (“protected” person—an euphemism for subjugated person) under Shariah law. He’s British. He’s nice. He’s inclusive.
I begin reading one of Ipgrave’s ‘sexed-up’ interfaith dossiers. A jet of verbiage hits me in the face. Some expert on Christian-Muslim Interfaith dialogue is spraying the page with scholarly voodoo. ‘Dialogue…is not a business of finding common ground in some transcending principles or beliefs: that would be to presume a meta-logue, a universal discourse that transcends local realities. On the contrary…true dia-logue occurs when Christians and Muslims come together, each with their respective logos, and engage the common challenges of the social contexts that they share, struggling through (dia) the real issues of life.’ What is the author trying to say?
An essay by Mohammed Hashim Kamali boasts that ‘Islam is the only great religion among the Abrahamic faiths that accepts religious pluralism, extends recognition to other faiths, gives the followers of other scriptures a recognized and protected status, and refuses compulsion as a basis of its own propagation.’ None of his dialogue partners dares to challenge this outrageously overblown claim.
While Egyptian Christians are being blown up in churches, these nowhere men in their nowhere land are writing all their interfaith books for nobody. Experts in interfaith dialogue are not supposed to bonk Muslims on the head with polemical verses on jihad from the Koran. They need to discuss how Christians can collaborate with Muslims and people of other religions on issues of justice, peace and the common good. But does Christianity and Islam even share ‘similar conceptions as to what constitutes the common good?’ asks Robert Reilly, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. ‘The urge to answer in the positive is so great as to make these questions seem almost rhetorical,’ he points out. This is where Pope Francis needs to be cautious.
Christians and Muslims may use the same words, but if these terms are not defined, they can mean very different things. The word “peace” is one example. For Muslims, ultimate peace is achieved only by bringing all things into submission to Islam through the rule of Shariah. Reilly cautions against such dissimulation in his book The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue. He cites Dr Muzammil Siddiqi’s statement in the 2001 West Coast Dialogue that ‘aggression is never allowed in matters of faith.’ Siddiqi does not reveal the whole truth. In ‘classical Islamic jurisprudence, after Islam has been offered to non-Muslim states or entities three times, their refusal to accept it makes them the aggressor.’ Then they are fair game, never mind Siddiqi’s smokescreen!
Pope Benedict XVI was not taken in by this humbug. In his Regensburg Lecture, he affirmed that an idea of God without reason leads to violence. Yet, in the 30-odd Catholic-Muslim interfaith shindigs in the US, this question of reason in Islam—what Reilly calls a “re-hellenization” of Islam is never addressed seriously, never mind the question of jihad.
‘Islam needs peace within itself…the lack of that peace is at the source of the strife in the Muslim world today. Islam is at war with itself. To pretend otherwise does a disservice to Muslims and Christians alike,’ writes Reilly.
Pope Francis must walk in the footsteps of Benedict XVI, upholding his predecessor’s conviction that ‘truth makes consensus possible and keeps public debate rational, honest and accountable, and opens the gateway to peace. Fostering the will to be obedient to the truth, in fact, broadens our concept of reason and its scope of application, and makes possible the genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.’
Pope Francis must not settle for the lowest hanging fruit to appease Muslims. Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb must respond with equal candour, reason and grace.
(Image: Long Thiên)