On Islam, Francis Follows in Benedict’s Footsteps

Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, sign the joint document on fraternity last week. (Edward Pentin photo)

COMMENTARY: The new Muslim-Catholic joint document takes up Benedict’s earlier assertion that religious believers — despite theological conflicts — can contend together for the place of God in our common life.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

The centerpiece of the Holy Father’s trip to the United Arab Emirates was the joint signing of a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” Pope Francis signed it with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the leading university in the Sunni world.

While Islam does not have a central authority like the pope, Al-Azhar has sufficient history and prestige and as such can be considered a leading institutional voice. It was a mark of the Vatican’s esteem for Al-Azhar that the Pope himself would sign alongside the grand imam, instead of deputizing a Curial cardinal to sign it on behalf of the Holy See. Usually the Holy Father does not sign such declarations himself.

The joint document is lengthy and addresses topics from poverty to the sanctity of life, but at its heart is a condemnation of any and all forms of religious violence. It insists upon a place for religious believers in the public life of societies and extends an “invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among all believers, indeed among believers and nonbelievers, and among all people of goodwill.”

The joint document is best situated against the background of Vatican debates on the proper role of interreligious dialogue in recent years, especially under Benedict XVI.

Since 1988, there has been a Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, successor to the “Secretariat for Non-Christians” established during the Second Vatican Council. In March 2006, Benedict XVI appointed as its president Cardinal Paul Poupard, who was also the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.




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