Francis and Benedict: Two popes, two divergent approaches to Islam

Epigraph:

And thou shalt assuredly find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ to be the nearest of them in love to the believers. That is because amongst them are savants and monks and because they are not proud. (Al Quran 5:83)

Pope Francis greets Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb during a meeting at Cairo

Pope Francis greets Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb during a meeting in Cairo, Egypt, on April 28, 2017.  The Muslim Times has the best collection of articles on the theme of Interfaith Tolerance

Source: Religion News Service

By Christopher Lamb, who is the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet of London

ROME (RNS) The global growth of Islam and in particular the rise of Islamic extremism have forced recent popes to set out, with increasing urgency, a strategy for engaging the religion.

As Pope Francis’ brief trip to Egypt over the weekend demonstrated, the most recent pontiffs have come up with starkly different approaches — though it’s not yet clear if one is better than the other, or if either will be effective.

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI addressed the question of Islamic extremism he did so during a speech at a university in his Bavarian homeland where, as a priest and professor, Joseph Ratzinger had worked decades earlier.

That 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany, was a theological master class on the relationship between faith and reason. But it also angered Muslims who object to Benedict citing a 14th-century Christian emperor who claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had only brought the world things that were “evil and inhuman.”

Moreover, Benedict also delivered his message to Islam from afar.

Francis, on the other hand, has made it his business to try to build bridges with the Muslim world with the energy of a missionary.

That approach was on display during his 27-hour trip to Egypt, viewed as the leader in the majority Sunni Islamic world, and a nation that is making a serious — though controversial — effort to crack down on extremist-inspired violence.

So important to Francis, in fact, is the “personal encounter” with Muslims that the pontiff put his own safety at risk by going to Cairo, a trip that took place less than three weeks after 45 worshippers were killed in bomb attacks on two Egyptian churches.

The pope even shunned a bulletproof vehicle and when he arrived at a sports stadium for an open-air Mass he greeted the crowds from an open-topped golf buggy.

“Whereas previous popes — even in more secure places — have ridden in bulletproof vehicles, Francis showed his courage in Egypt, and his will to be close to the people, by this simple gesture,” explained Gabriel Said Reynolds, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Reynolds took part in a recent Vatican-Muslim forum at Cairo’s Al-Azhar university, a major center of Sunni-Islamic learning with global influence and expertise in interpreting the Quran. The dialogue that Reynolds is part of only restarted under Francis — who was elected in 2013 — after relations had soured under Benedict.

Yet even as the current pope pushes for a personal encounter with Islam, his predecessor’s legacy of engaging Islam via a theological challenge to extremist elements among Muslims continues to hold some sway.

Indeed, just as Francis was heading to Egypt a letter appeared from the retired pope to the president of Poland in which Benedict accused “radical Islam” of creating an “explosive situation in Europe.”

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