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.

 

 

 

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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.