Pope Francis: Peace through Religious Reconciliation

Economic sanctions had barely been lifted when President Rouhani was off to France and Italy to drum up business for Iran.  His visit will forever be remembered–not for anything he said or did, but for the silly actions of Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi who had Roman statues covered up so their nudity would not offend the Muslim guest.  This incident has grabbed most of the world’s attention and, as a consequence, scant notice has been taken of the closed-door meeting in the Apostolic Palace between the pope and the Iranian president.

At the end of the 40-minute session, the Vatican issued a communique which described the talks between the two as “cordial.”  Among the topics discussed was “the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfill, along with other countries in the region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, and to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking [emphasis mine].” Iran, a designated sponsor of terrorism, has a role to play?  Iran, a country that engages in acts of terrorism worldwide through its proxy Hizbollah?  Is the pope serious??

The Vatican also reported that, during the meeting, “common spiritual values emerged.”  At the end of their discussions, the pope presented Rouhani with a medallion depicting Saint Martin giving his military cloak to a shivering beggar.  (This is the traditional gift given by the pope to visiting statesmen.)  Pope Francis called the medallion “a symbol of gratuitous fraternity.”

That the pope would have a “cordial” meeting with a world leader who, two days before his inauguration, referred to Israel as a “wound on the body of the Islamic world” that “should be removed” is disturbing to supporters of the Jewish state.  There is no evidence that Rouhani has changed his view of Israel since then.

The pope’s meeting with Rouhani may be shocking to some, but it was predictable.  Since assuming the papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis has made outreach to the Muslim world a priority.  The lengths to which he is prepared to go in pursuit of this goal are unprecedented for a pope.  Nine months after taking office, the pontiff invited the secretary-general of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), at that time Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, to the Vatican for an audience, something no previous pope had ever done.  (The OIC forms the largest voting bloc in the UN.  This is the same organization that would like to have all criticism of Islam criminalized!). The two discussed Ihsanoglu’s vision of an historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, based on their common Abrahamic roots, a reconciliation vital for global peace and security.  The pope agreed to work towards making Ihsanoglu’s vision a reality.

Anyone following the pope can see that he has been true to his word.  In another unprecedented act for a pope,  Pope Francis made a trip to the Holy Land in May 2014 accompanied by two Argentine friends, religious leaders from the two other so-called Abrahamic faiths:  Rabbi Skorka and Omar Aboud.  While there, the pope also met with the current patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I.

A month later, the pope invited Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him at a prayer summit in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica.  In his address to those gathered in the garden, the pope called the presence of the two presidents, one a Jew and one a Muslim, a “great sign of brotherhood which you offer [Peres and Abbas] as children of Abraham.”  Allah’s name was invoked for the very first time in the Vatican (albeit out back in the gardens).

This past November, during his visit to a mosque in the capital city of the war-ravaged Central African Republic, the pope told the people gathered there that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.”

Are the Catholic pope and Rouhani, a trained Shia cleric, “brothers” as the pope claims? Paragraph 841 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which deals with the Catholic Church’s relationship with Muslims, reads as follows:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day [emphasis mine].

The Catholic Catechism claims that Catholics and Muslims “adore” the one God.  The Qur’an, on the other hand, makes it very clear that Muslims do not adore the God of the Christians!  Quite the contrary.  The Qur’an denies the existence of the Trinity (sura 5:73); denies the deity of Jesus (sura 5:72); and denies the divine Sonship of Jesus (sura 19:35).  Far from adoring the Christian God, the Qur’an issues repeated warnings of the “painful doom” (sura 5:73) that awaits anyone who ascribes “a partner to Allah” (sura 3:64).  Allah is not a ‘father’ and he most certainly does not have a ‘son’!

To overcome what are insurmountable theological differences, the pope (and he is not alone) has turned back to the patriarch Abraham.   Jews, Christians and Muslims are ‘brothers and sisters’ on the basis of their common ancestor, Abraham.  The notion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are spiritual kin is gaining traction beyond the walls of the Vatican.  At the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC  on 4 February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic, invoked the name of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. “The same message stands at the center of the Torah and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad too,” she said before reading from the Gospel of John.

Indications are that Pope Francis has a vision of religious reconciliation not limited to the three  Abrahamic faiths.   A video released by the Vatican on the Feast of Epiphany in January, for example, included not only a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim, but a Buddhist as well.  In the video, the speakers express a common belief in love.  Are we looking at a future world religion without any dogmas or doctrines,  a world religion whose adherents share only a common belief in love?  That’s what the Vatican video would seem to suggest.





Common Ground or Shaky Ground?

It’s the custom on January 1 to wish everyone from loved ones to complete strangers a “Happy New Year.”  I hate to be a pessimist but, despite all the well-wishing, I suspect 2016 is going to look an awful lot like the year that has just passed.  Tragically, a shooting at a bar in Tel Aviv supports my claim:  It’s only day one of the New Year, and already the murder of innocent victims has started.  A black-clad assailant with an assault rifle killed two people and wounded seven others at a birthday party celebration in a pub in Tel Aviv this afternoon.  (Israeli police as of yet are not calling it a terrorist attack.)

How to bring an end to the scourge of Islamic terrorism is one of the greatest challenges of our day.  Some, like Fr. Ronald Rolheiser OMI, believe that the solution lies in getting Muslims and Christians to recognize what they share in common.  In the 3 December 2015 issue of the Los Angeles diocesan online paper The Angelus, Fr. Rolheiser calls for “greater solidarity with Islam,” the reason being that “We are both part of the same family….” and for this reason “Muslims more than ever need our understanding, sympathy, support, and fellowship in faith [emphasis mine].”  In his article, Fr. Rolheiser expands on sentiments voiced by Pope Francis on his recent visit to the Central African Republic, where the pope referred to Christians and Muslims as “brothers and sisters.”  The basis for that kinship, Fr. Rolheiser and the pope would say, is their common belief in one Supreme Being and their shared Abrahamic ancestry.  Jews, thus, are their brothers and sisters as well.

The idea of shared common ground between the three monotheistic faiths has been taken to a whole new level by a Lutheran parish priest in Berlin.  In 2009, archaeological excavations on Berlin’s Museum Island unearthed the remains of the city’s earliest church, the Petrikirche (St. Peter’s Church), as well as a Latin school for educating priests, both dating from the 13th century.  Upon learning of this discovery, Lutheran pastor Gregor Hohberg came up with a novel idea:  Why not use this prominent site to build a house of worship in multicultural Berlin where adherents of all three monotheistic faiths could worship together as neighbours?  And thus was born the idea for ‘The House of One’, as it is to be called.  Pastor Hohberg has brought Rabbi Tovia ben Chorin and Imam Kadir Sanci on board.  Together, the three clerics have come to be known as the ‘Tolerance Trio’.

Work on this highly unusual house of worship is slated to begin this year.  Designed by German architect Wilfried Kuehn, the structure will house under the one roof a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, each of equal size but of different shape.  The House of One will have a common room at its centre where adherents of the three religions can meet for dialogue and social events.  Adherents must follow two ‘house rules’:  one, there must be no violence; and two, no proselytizing is allowed.  The project, which is expected to cost some 43.5 million euros, is being funded through crowdsourcing; a donation of 10 euros will purchase one brick.  You don’t have to be a member of one of the three religions in order to donate, either.  The House of One is expected to open in 2018.

Although Berlin’s House of One will be the first worship centre of its kind (if indeed it does get built), a somewhat similar project is underway in the very heart of the USA.  In what is known as the ‘Tri-Faith Initiative’, Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Omaha, Nebraska intend to build houses of worship on a common campus:  a 38-acre plot of land just outside Omaha.  A synagogue, a church and a mosque will be erected on three corners of the lot.  A building that provides social, educational, and conference facilities to be used by all three faiths will occupy the fourth corner.  Participating in the project are Temple Israel, Countryside Community United Church of Christ, and the American Muslim Institute.  A fourth partner is the Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha, a local organization whose purpose it is to “foster mutual understanding, respect, and friendship between the Abrahamic faiths.”

Rev. Elnes, the Christian partner in the project, calls the proposed campus an attempt to “wage peace between the Abrahamic faiths in the modern era by engaging not simply in interfaith dialogue–which is important–but by learning to live with each other despite our differences as people who worship and adore the same God.”  (I’m not so sure about that).  Like the prospective occupants of The House of One, Tri-Faith Initiative members hope to start building this year.

Will the creation of houses of worship on common ground bring peace between the Abrahamic faiths?  It’s true, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do share common ground, but the differences between them are profound.  The so-designated ‘Abrahamic faiths’, for starters, don’t even agree on the identity of Abraham.  Muslims look on Abraham as the first Muslim, a view both Jews and Christians reject.

From a Christian perspective, what is more likely to happen, I believe,  is a ‘watering down’ of core doctrines and beliefs for the sake of unity and out of a desire not to offend.  Indeed, we have recent evidence of this very thing from no less than the pope himself.  From the very beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has sought to bring Jews, Christians, and particularly Muslims together.  There are many examples of the pope’s reaching out to Jews and Muslims:  the prayer meeting in the Vatican garden where Jews and Muslims for the first time were invited to pray alongside Catholics is a prime example.  In another instance of reaching out:  on December 10, the papacy issued a document stating that the “Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”  What the document says, in essence, is that the Catholic church will no longer try to convert Jews.   Does this mean that Jews no longer have to believe that Jesus the Christ is their long-awaited mashiach or messiah  (‘Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew ‘messiah’)?  I am speechless, other than to say, expect more concessions on this scale, all in the name of achieving common ground.



Islam and the Colour Green

It was St. Patrick’s Day when I started to write this blog: the day when people, whether of Irish descent or not, parade around in funny green hats, down a lot of green beer, and toss green dye into fountains and rivers–all in the name of honouring the Emerald Isle’s patron saint. Since I am well-acquainted with the story of St. Patrick and how he drove the snakes out of Ireland (and you probably are familiar with it, too), I thought I would focus on another ‘green’ in this blog. I have always wondered: Why are Muslims partial to the colour green? This is my attempt to answer that question.

Of the 57 member states which make up the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), four member countries have flags with an all-green background: Bangladesh, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. And of the rest, 35 have the colour green somewhere on their flags. The Islamic terrorist organization Hamas has a flag with an all-green background.
Saudi Flag
Flag of Saudi Arabia
Iran Flag
Flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Hamas Flag
Flag of the Terrorist Organization Hamas

Green is found on Islamic buildings as well (including the local mosque). A green-coloured dome stands above the tomb of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, located in the southeast corner of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The dome, not green when erected in 1279, was later painted green by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent(r.1520-1566).
Muhammads Tomb3
The Green Dome

History shows that the colour green was favoured by Muslims from Islam’s earliest days. The Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171), for instance, had a green flag. During the time of the Crusades, the Islamic forces wore green, and so the Crusaders avoided the colour green in their coats-of-arms in order to avoid being killed by ‘friendly fire’. The Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) favoured the colour green as well.

Why this preference for the colour green? It derives, in part–I would think–from the sartorial tastes of Islam’s Prophet himself. Green was allegedly Muhammad’s favourite colour. It is reported that he wore a green turban and a green cloak. Interestingly, in Persia (now Iran), only the descendants of Muhammad–the Sayyids–were allowed to wear green turbans. When Muhammad died, he was covered with a green square garment.

Another reason behind the preference for green: According to the Qur’an, those who attain Paradise are given green garments:
…they will be given armlets of gold and will wear green robes of finest silk and gold embroidery, reclining upon thrones therein…(Surah 18:31).

The reason behind the prevalence of the colour green in the Muslim world is no great mystery, then: it has a lot to do with the personal tastes of the Prophet himself.

Much more mysterious is an obscure figure I encountered while reading up on this topic: al-Khidr, ‘the Green One’, as he is known and a revered figure in Islam. A dome dedicated to the Green One stands on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Dome of al-Khidr wikipedia.org

The story of al-Khidr is found in the Qur’an in Surah 18 “The Cave”: 60-82. The tale begins with the prophet Moses and a servant heading to a “point where the two rivers meet.” On the way there, they lose a fish they had taken with them. While searching for the fish, they encounter a man who possesses special knowledge granted to him by Allah. Moses asks to follow the man so that he can acquire the same wisdom the stranger possesses. The stranger is reluctant to let Moses follow him, but acquiesces when Moses promises that he will be patient, and not challenge anything the stranger does. And so they set out. Along the way, the stranger commits three seemingly senseless acts: he drill a hole in a boat and sinks it; he kills an innocent young man; and he rebuilds a city wall in a community hostile to the two visitors. Moses cannot restrain himself on all three occasions, and questions why the stranger has done these things. Because Moses has not kept his end of the bargain, the stranger terminates the relationship–and then proceeds to explain the reasons behind his actions. (It’s probably unnecessary to say this, but an event such as this appears nowhere in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament account of the life of Moses.)

The man who possess special knowledge is never named in the Qur’an. It was Arab commentators who later elaborated the story, giving the man the name al-Khidr, the ‘Green One’, claiming that the wise man turned green when he dived into the spring of life. He is one of the four prophets whom Islam regards as immortal, the other three being Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus.

Up to this point in time, the only ‘green man’ I was familiar with was the leafy character who takes part in May Day celebrations in certain parts of Britain. On May Day, a man assumes the role of ‘Jack-in-the-Green’, donning a conical or pyramid-shaped eight-foot-tall costume of leaves, a face mask, and crown of flowers. He travels though the city streets accompanied by men and women dressed and painted all in green. He’s a trickster kind of figure who chases attractive young women and just generally plays the fool. ‘Jack’ constitutes a fertility symbol–a very ancient one–and dates from the pre-Christian, Celtic era. Green Men like Jack are not unique to pre-Christian Britain, however, as Green Men have been found elsewhere: in ancient Rome, India, and the Middle East.

Attribution: Photographer Simon Garbutt Wikipedia.org

When I set out to discover the association between Islam and the colour green, I never expected to encounter ‘the Green One’. What to make of this story? If anything, it certainly lends credence to the notion that the Qur’an draws on material from multiple sources and challenges the idea that the Qur’an is made up of God’s very words. Some scholars believe the mysterious stranger in Surah 18 is one more manifestation of the ancient symbol of the ‘green man’. He well could be.

Flogged for Blogging in Saudi Arabia

When I heard about the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud on 22 January at age 90, I wondered how the leaders of Western liberal democracies would respond. What sort of tributes would they pay to the late Saudi king? How does one praise the deceased monarch of a country where people are still publicly beheaded and flogged; where all religions except for the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam are officially banned; where Jews are denied entry; where women are not allowed to get behind the wheel of a car? Here are a few of the things that were said. In his tribute to the late Saudi king, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that “[h]e will be remembered for his long years of service to the Kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.” Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called him “a staunch advocate of interfaith relations.” Queen Elizabeth cited the late king’s work for “peace and understanding between nations and faiths.”

He worked for “understanding between faiths”? Tell that to the two million Christian foreign workers in Saudi Arabia where all churches are banned, where Christians have to meet in private homes, secretly. But even there they are not out of the reach of the Saudi religious police. A home church was raided a while ago. Bibles were seized, musical instruments were confiscated, and 27 people, including women and children, were arrested. Their offence: holding a Christian prayer meeting in a private home.

When David Cameron, Tony Blair, and Queen Elizabeth praised the late Saudi king’s commitment to interfaith relations, they weren’ t talking about interfaith relations in Saudi Arabia. No, they were no doubt referring to the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural dialogue (KAICIID), brainchild of the late Saudi king (I discuss KAICIID in my June 2013 blog.) The centre was founded jointly in 2011 by Saudi Arabia, Austria, and Spain, with oil-rich Saudi Arabia “picking up the bill” and agreeing to finance the centre for the first three years. The Holy See joined at that time as a founding observer. KAICIID is headquartered in Vienna, not Saudi Arabia. The late Saudi king was an advocate for interfaith relations, true, just not on his ‘home turf’.

I can understand why Western leaders paid tribute to the late Saudi monarch: It was a political necessity. The West needs Saudi oil and continued Saudi participation in the military coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL). What I can’t accept, however, was the response by Westminster Abbey which flew its flag at half-mast as a “mark of respect” for the late Saudi king. Even more reprehensible, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, gave his approval to the flag flying at half-mast, citing King Abdullah’s role in helping to bring faiths together. He said this, knowing that Christian churches are not allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia, and that leaving Islam and converting to Christianity is a capital offence. Building an expensive interfaith centre in some distant European country, even while denying religious rights to those in one’s own country, makes his advocacy for interfaith relations a sham.

World leaders may find it harder to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the lack of fundamental human rights in the Kingdom, however, now that the appalling treatment of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has come to the world’s attention. Badawi’s offence: He maintained a blog, “Free Saudi Liberals,” that encouraged debate about religion and politics. He was arrested in 2012 for posting articles on his blog critical of senior religious figures in Saudi Arabia. Badawi was charged with setting up a website that “undermined general security, of ridiculing Islamic religious figures, and of going beyond the realm of obedience.” And for this, the blogger was sentenced to ten years in jail, a fine of $260,000, and 1000 lashes, with 50 lashes to be given at one-week intervals. It is the idea of 1000 lashes for simply maintaining a blog site that has so incensed people worldwide.

The barbaric practice of flogging as punishment–long given up by civilized countries–continues in many parts of the Islamic world. In Saudi Arabia, flogging is almost always a component of any sentencing. Moreover, no part of the court-ordered flogging is left to chance. At the sentencing, the judge specifies the number of lashes to be meted out; the location of the flogging, whether in the prison or in some public place; and what portions of the lashes are to be administered at one time. Women are usually given 10 – 30 lashes a week; men, 50 – 60. Usually, floggings take place at intervals of 1 – 2 weeks. A doctor examines the prisoner beforehand to determine whether or not he or she is able to withstand the scourging. A police officer administers the lashes with a bamboo whip about seven feet long. The one administering the flogging will often hold a copy of the Qur’an under one arm to regulate the power with which he wields the whip. (I wonder: Does anything happen to him personally if the Qur’an happens to slip from underneath his arm?) The victim is often allowed to wear one layer of light clothing. Anyone caught taking pictures of the flogging is himself punished.

On 9 January Badawi received the first 50 lashes before hundreds of spectators in front of a mosque after Friday prayers in the port city of Jeddah. The lashings he was to receive on the 16th and 23rd have not taken place, however, because his wounds from the first lashing haven’t healed adequately yet, doctors claim. (Badawi is a diabetic, which may explain the slowness to heal.) Or could the delay be that–stung by world criticism–the Saudis are reconsidering the blogger’s punishment? Badawi’s lawyer Waleed Abu al-Kair has also been charged and sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up a human rights organization.

One wonders what King Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, will do–if anything–about Badawi, now that the eyes of the world are on the Kingdom. The new king, like his predecessor, is unfortunately constrained from making substantive changes by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s legal code is shariah -based. Punishment by lashing, moreover, is commanded in the Qur’an (Surah 24)–for adultery, however, not blogging. I suspect that, whenever and however Badawi’s case is resolved, or when the blogger’s case is no longer ‘centre-stage’, things will go on in the Wahhabi Kingdom much as they have for centuries. After all, why change things, when you can be regarded as a staunch advocate for interfaith relations simply by financing the creation of an interreligious centre somewhere, preferably nowhere near Saudi Arabia.

Could You Be an Extremist?

Another battle has been raging alongside the vicious terrorist attacks: a war of words over what to call those who carry out these heinous acts. Watching TV news this morning I heard the killers variously described as “Islamist militants,” “radical Islamists,” “jihadists,” “Islamic terrorists,” “terrorists,” and “violent extremists.” The Obama administration refers to them exclusively now as “violent extremists.” And the Global War on Terror launched under the previous administration has been relabelled Countering Violent Extremism.

In refusing to say the I-word in any discussion of terrorism, President Obama is joined by Pope Francis. In his annual foreign policy address to diplomats at the Holy See this past Monday, the pope avoided any word that might connect the Paris attacks with Islam. He chose generic language that could apply to any religion or any religious group (in his mind, anyway). “Religious fundamentalism” was behind the atrocities, he claimed. The murderers were enslaved by “deviant forms of religion.” He called for a unanimous response from the international community to put an end to “fundamentalist terrorism” and urged Muslim leaders, in particular, to condemn “extremist interpretations of their faith that seek to justify such violence.”

Why are the American president and the pope avoiding the I-word? I’m not sure about President Obama. Maybe it has something to do with his having a Muslim father and stepfather; or maybe it has to do with his school days in Muslim-majority Indonesia. Or maybe there’s something else going on. As for the pope: When Pope Francis assumed the papacy in March 2013, he made it clear that one of the priorities of his pontificate would be outreach to the Muslim world. This explains, I believe, the would-be Bridgbuilder’s refusal to do or say anything that might upset Muslims.

On his way home from Turkey last year, the Pontifex is reported to have said, “We have our share of them [fundamentalists]. All religions have these little groups.” Unbelievably, the one whom Catholics regard as Christ’s Vice-Regent on earth equated Christian fundamentalists with Islamic terrorists! And, as for “little groups”? Intelligence and security analysts believe there are up to 5,000 jihadis in Europe.

En route to the Philippines on Friday, the pope condemned killing in the name of religion, calling it an “aberration” (that’s putting it mildly). He then went on to suggest that there should be limits on free speech, saying things like “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Furthermore, he claimed that “each person not only has the freedom, but also the obligation to say what he thinks in the name of the common good.”

Ahh, and who determines what constitutes ‘the common good’? Who gets to define ‘extremism’? Extremism is a very subjective concept. One definition is, ‘belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable’. How far is ‘very far’? In the last while I have noted a disturbing trend in some of the articles I read, where terms like ‘extremist’ and ‘religious fundamentalist’ were used interchangeably. If you hold to the fundamentals of the Christian faith–the true definition of a Christian fundamentalist–are you then an extremist?

The recent case of a Christian Colorado baker is an unsettling one. In 2012, two gay men approached Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop to bake the wedding cake for their same-sex marriage. Because of his Christian beliefs, the baker turned them down. They filed a complaint against him, and won. A Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner called the baker’s decision to invoke religious freedom rights to refuse to bake a pro-gay marriage cake comparable to slavery and the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In the commissioner’s view, the baker was an extremist of the worst kind.

Can the West defeat an enemy it refuses to name? When the Kouachi brothers had finished their killing spree in Paris, they loudly proclaimed that they had “avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” The American president and the Catholic pope may refuse to acknowledge the Islamic connection to terrorism but, thankfully, there are men like General El-Sisi of Egypt, a Muslim, who recently called on Muslim clerics to revolutionize Islam. The root cause of the scourge of worldwide terrorism is the ideology of violent jihad , period. Obscuring this reality by blaming something called ‘violent extremism’ will not put an end to the vile phenomenon. Linking jihad with ‘extremism’, moreover, poses a threat to those who don’t go along with Western society’s rapidly changing notions of what’s correct or reasonable.

Pope Francis Faces Mecca

When Jorge Bergoglio became pope in March 2013, he took the name ‘Francis’. Asked why he chose the name–the first pope to do so–the Argentine bishop replied that he adopted the name out of his great admiration for Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). A lover of nature; a simple, humble monk who lived a life of poverty–is how Francis of Assisi is remembered today. Since assuming office, Pope Francis–like his medieval namesake–has demonstrated a humility and simple lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to that of previous popes. A lesser known fact about Francis of Assisi is his outreach to the Muslim world. In 1219, at the time of the Fifth Crusade, Francis of Assisi travelled to Egypt, crossed over into the Muslim enemy camp, and spent the next three weeks in the company of the sultan. No one knows what transpired between the sultan and Francis during this time. In my 1 April 2013 blog, I suggested that Pope Francis might emulate Francis of Assisi by reaching out to the Muslim world as well. And he has.

Pope Francis has just returned from a three-day visit to Turkey, a country with a Muslim majority of 98% and about 35,000 Roman Catholic Christians out of a population of 75 million. The pontiff’s trip began in controversy when the ‘humble’ pope became the first foreign dignitary to be a guest of Turkish President Erdogan at his new $615 million, 1000-room palace in Ankara–the largest presidential palace in the world and 30 times larger in size than the American White House. (A reprise of the ‘saint meets the sultan’, perhaps?) Environmental concerns and a court injunction to stop the work were ignored by the increasingly autocratic Erdogan. Those who felt uncomfortable with the pope’s visit to Erdogan’s illicit palace were told it was a matter of good etiquette. “Like any polite person, the pope will go to the place where the president wishes to receive him,” was the response from the Vatican.

Controversy arose again the following day in Istanbul when Pope Francis toured the Blue Mosque and stopped to pray alongside Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran. It was the pope’s idea for the two of them to stop and pray, reportedly. (I had the good fortune of being able to tour the magnificent Blue Mosque when I was in Turkey nine years ago. The picture of the Blue Mosque below is taken from a postcard I bought in Istanbul at the time.)

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603-17) who wanted to erect a mosque to rival the beauty and majesty of the nearby Hagia Sophia, Christendom’s largest and finest cathedral for over a thousand years. The mosque takes its name from the tens of thousands of blue tiles used to construct its interior.

At one point during their tour of the Blue Mosque, the grand mufti and the pope, turning towards Mecca, stopped to pray. Hands extended in the Muslim way, the grand mufti said a Muslim prayer. Hands clasped in front of him, Pope Francis stood beside him, silent, head bowed. (The pope looked very much the junior partner of the two, I thought.) Lest the Catholic pope’s actions be construed as praying to the Muslim Allah, the Vatican hastily labelled the pope’s gesture “a moment of silent adoration of God.”

Many view the pope’s “gesture” as nothing more than a demonstration of inter-religious harmony and wonder who could possibly take issue with it. Other see it–and I include myself–as yet another instance of inter-religious outreach going in the same direction. I don’t recall hearing that the grand mufti later accompanied the pope to Istanbul’s Catholic Cathedral where the two of them prayed together.

Is inter-religious outreach accomplishing what it is intended to do, that is, create religious harmony between people? Anyone watching the daily news knows that’s not happening. The place where inter-religious dialogue is having a visible impact is, ironically, in the Church. Churches are inviting Muslims to address their synods, to preach from their pulpits, to pray on prayer rugs in their church hallways. This past June, Allah was invoked for the very first time at the Vatican in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica, well away from any Christian iconography such as crosses. Inter-religious outreach is changing the Church, not the Muslim world. And the changes underway have only just begun, I suspect.

Prayer Rugs in the Cathedral

National Cathedral

It is 2:30 p.m., 14 November in Washington DC as I begin to write this blog and “America’s church,” the Washington National Cathedral, has just witnessed its first ever Muslim Friday prayer service. Muslim Friday prayers or jumu’ah prayers were held today in the north transept of the cathedral, chosen as an appropriate space for Muslim prayer because of its absence of Christian iconography, its mosque-like architecture, and for providing the necessary orientation in the direction of Mecca. One hundred invited Muslim guests came to pray (along with a lone, uninvited female Christian protester who was quickly hustled out).

Holding Muslim Friday prayers within the very walls of America’s national cathedral was the brainchild of the cathedral’s liturgical director Rev. Canon Gina Campbell and South Africa’s ambassador to the US Ebrahim Rasool. The two became friends when they worked together on a memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela. Muslims had participated in interfaith services at the cathedral prior to this time, but holding a Muslim-conducted, Muslim prayer service would be a first. In the minds of the two planners, allowing Muslims to hold Friday prayers in the US national cathedral would, hopefully, “foster more understanding and acceptance between Christians and Muslims around the world.” Ambassador Rasool describes today’s prayer service as ” a dramatic moment in the world and in Muslim-Christian relations.”

It is a “dramatic moment in the world,” I agree, but my reasons for thinking so are probably not the same as Rasool’s. Holding Muslim Friday prayers in America’s national cathedral is so misguided in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, many people–Americans included–do not know that the Washington National Cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral, namely, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington. (I encountered one such uninformed American only this evening.) The cathedral is the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington DC, Mariann Edgar Budde. The cathedral has functioned as the nation’s premier church since 1893 when Congress granted a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia to build the “great church for national purposes” envisioned in 1792 by the country’s founders. The worship services at the cathedral follow Episcopal belief and practice, and are based on The Book of Common Prayer (many no doubt would dispute this claim, especially after today).

The Muslim guests were welcomed to today’s prayer service by Rev. Canon Campbell who challenged the participants with the exhortation, “Let us stretch our hearts and let us seek to deepen mercy for we worship the same God.” According to Campbell, they were to “stretch [their] hearts” (whatever that means) because they worship the same God as the Rev. Canon Campbell. Allah and the Christian God are not the same God, however. The differences between them are profound (and a topic for a whole other blog.) The major differences, in short, are: Allah is one; the Christian God is triune, Father-Son-Holy Spirit. The apostle John says that God is love. Allah is never described thus. The Muslim Jesus is one in a line of 28 prophets of Allah and has been superseded by Muhammad, the last and greatest prophet. The Christian Jesus is not a mere prophet but the Son of God, God Incarnate. The Muslim Jesus did not die on the cross; he only appeared to. The Christian Jesus predicted his coming death on many occasions. To believe that Allah and the Christian God are the same God, you have to ignore everything said about Allah in the Qur’an.

The webpage of the Washington National Cathedral states that the cathedral is called to “serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” To invite Muslims into America’s “spiritual home” to pray is ecumenical outreach at the highest level. You would think that such a gesture would be reciprocated. Not surprisingly, there has been no announcement of an upcoming Christian prayer service in some grand mosque somewhere in the Muslim world, like the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As usual, ecumenical outreach seems to move in only one direction.

Another troubling aspect of this ecumenical outreach is the list of sponsors. When you look at the backers of today’s prayer service, you see the names CAIR and ISNA, two groups accused of providing assistance to terrorist groups. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) were declared by a federal court to be unindicted co-conspirators of the terrorist organization HAMAS. What do such groups hope to gain by promoting Muslim prayer in a cathedral, you have to ask.

Rasool describes today’s Muslim prayer service as “a dramatic moment for the world and for Muslim-Christian relations.” He’s forgotten about an earlier event–and an equally dramatic event, I would say–staged this past June in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica. Like the north transept of the cathedral, the papal gardens were chosen for their lack of Christian iconography. At the invitation of Pope Francis, Muslims joined Jews and Christians in the papal gardens for a papal prayer summit, each praying “in their own tradition.”

We know what Rev. Canon Campbell and Ambassador Rasool hope to accomplish by such magnanimous gestures. But what do those Muslims who participate hope to gain? Devout Muslims who yearn to see the “true religion” established worldwide cannot help but be encouraged when they hear Allah’s name invoked in the national cathedral of the world’s foremost Christian nation, the USA. A troubling scenario: According to jihadist doctrine, if a place of worship is used by Muslims for their prayers, that territory subsequently becomes sacred Muslim land. That’s an outcome that Rev. Gina Campbell has not likely considered.