05/05/2011, 00.00
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John Paul II and the Muslims

by Samir Khalil Samir S.J.
Pope John Paul II was greatly appreciated in the Islamic world, to whom he reached out on numerous occasions, "applying" the precepts of Nostra Aetate, the search for a fruitful dialogue. Part I of a study by Fr. Samir Khalil.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The impression John Paul II made on Muslims is certainly quite positive, so much so that at the time of his death, it was rumoured Egypt that he had converted to Islam and had asked to be buried according to the Muslim costume.

Some Western media have also sought to compare John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the latter depicted as 'fundamentalist', that is anti-Muslim.

The starting point for all Catholic leaders is certainly the Vatican II document, 'Nostra Aetate", dated October 28, 1965, and where it specifically refers to Islam in point 3:

"The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom”

John Paul II through his acts, and in his addresses, definitely applied this conciliar text, rendering it concrete according to the circumstances at hand. This cannot be denied. Let us then see, through examples, what exactly happened, in chronological order of events. In conclusion I will give a brief summary of his contribution to dialogue with Islam and Muslims.


1. John Paul II to the Muslims of Morocco (Casablanca, August 19, 1985)

2. For the Latin bishops of the Arab countries (September 3, 1994)

3. In Tunisia: conditions necessary for fruitful dialogue (14 April 1996, the presidential palace in Carthage)

4. Meeting with representatives of Muslim communities (Sarajevo, April 13, 1997)

5. Apostolic Exhortation on Lebanon

6. Address to the Muslim community (Damascus, Umayyad Mosque, May 6, 2001) – Excerpt from the prayer for peace, Greek-orthodox church of Kuneitra, Syria

7. Homily XXXV World Day of Peace (January 1, 2002)

8. Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa

1. John Paul II to the young Muslims of Morocco (Casablanca, August 19, 1985)

The first significant event is undoubtedly the meeting in Casablanca on 19 August 1985, at the Olympic stadium, in front of 80 thousand young Moroccan Muslims. The king of Morocco, who had invited him, was strongly criticized at the time by some Muslim countries (among others, Saudi Arabia and Iran) for having received the Pope with full honours and giving him an opportunity for his "propaganda”. The Moroccan response was very positive. The text was carefully prepared by heads of dialogue from the group "La Source".  Here are some excerpts: 1 (...)Christians and Muslims, we have many things in common, as believers and as human beings. We live in the same world, marked by many signs of hope, but also by multiple signs of anguish. For us, Abraham is a very model of faith in God, of submission to his will and of confidence in his goodness. We believe in the sane God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection. It is therefore towards this God that my thought goes and that my heart rises: it is of God himself that, above all, I wish to speak with you; of him, because it is in him that we believe, you Muslims and we Catholics. I wish also to speak with you about human values, which have their basis in God, these values which concern the blossoming of our person, as also that of our families and our societies, as well as that of the international community. The mystery of God, is it not the highest reality from which depends the very meaning which man gives to his life? And is it not the first problem that presents itself to a young person, when he reflects upon the mystery of his own existence and on the values which he intends to choose in order to build his growing personality? (...)

2. (...)It is the light of God which orientates our destiny and enlightens our conscience. He renders us capable of loving and of transmitting life. He asks every man to respect every human creature and to love him as a friend, a companion, a brother. He invites us to help him when he is wounded, when he is abandoned, when he is hungry and thirsty, in short, when he no longer knows where to find his direction on the pathways of life. Yes, God asks that we should listen to his voice. He expects from us obedience to his holy will in a free consent of mind and of heart. . (...)When man returns to him, repentant and contrite, after having strayed away into the disorder of sin and the works of death, God then reveals himself as the One who pardons and shows mercy. To him, therefore, our love and our adoration! For his blessing and for his mercy, we thank him, at all times and in all places (...)

3. In a world which desires unity and peace, and which however experiences a thousand tensions and conflicts, should not believers favour friendship between the men and the peoples who form one single community on earth? (...)

4. Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is today more necessary than ever (…) in a world ever more secularized and at times even atheistic (...)We should also witness to our worship of God, by our adoration, our prayer of praise and supplication. Man cannot live without prayer, any more than he can live without breathing. We should witness to our humble search for his will; it is he who should inspire our pledge for a more just and more united world. (...)We desire that all may reach the fullness of the divine truth, but no one can do that except through the free adherence of conscience, protected from exterior compulsions which would be unworthy of the free homage of reason and of heart which is characteristic of human dignity. There, is the true meaning of religious liberty, which at the same time respects God and man. It is the sincere veneration of such worshippers that God awaits, of worshippers in spirit and in truth..

5. (...) This obedience to God and this love for man should lead us to respect man's rights, these rights which are the expression of God's will and the demands of human nature such as it was created by God. Therefore, respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom. They favour peace and agreement between the peoples. They help to resolve together the problems of today's men and women, especially those of the young.

6. Normally the young look towards the future, they long for a more just and more human world. God made young people such, precisely that they might help to transform the world in accordance with his plan of life. (...)Wisdom teaches us that self-discipline and love are then the only means to the desired renewal. God does not will that people should remain passive. He entrusted the earth to them that together they should subdue it, cultivate it, and cause it to bear fruit.You are charged with the world of tomorrow. It is by fully and courageously undertaking your responsibilities that you will be able to overcome the existing difficulties (...).It is in these conditions that a more human, more just, and more fraternal world will be able to be born, a world where each one can find his place in dignity and freedom. It is this world of the twenty-first century that is in your hands; it will be what you make it.

7. This world, which is about to come, depends on the young people of all the countries of the world. Our world is divided, and even shattered; it experiences multiple conflicts and grave injustices.. (...)Why is all this? It is because people do not accept their differences: they do not know each other sufficiently. (...).Mankind is a whole where each one has his part to play; the worth of the various peoples and of the diverse cultures must be recognized. (...)I am sure that all of you, young people, are capable of this dialogue. You do not wish to be conditioned by prejudices. You are ready to build a civilization based on love. (...)

8. God has given the earth to mankind as a whole in order that people might jointly draw their subsistence from it, and that every people might have the means to nourish itself, to take care of itself; and to live in peace.

9. But important as the economic problems may be, man does not live on bread alone (...).Man has need to develop his spirit and his conscience. This is often lacking to the man of today. Forgetfulness of values and the crisis of identity which frustrate our world oblige us to excel ourselves in a renewed effort of research and investigation.(...) The Arabs of the Mashriq and the Maghrib, and Muslims in general, have a long tradition of study and of erudition: literary, scientific, philosophic. You are the heirs to this tradition (...)Still more, the search for truth will lead you, beyond intellectual values, to the spiritual dimension of the interior life.

10. Man is a spiritual being. We, believers, know that we do not live in a closed world. We believe in God. We are worshippers of God. We are seekers of God. The Catholic Church regards with respect and recognizes the quality of your religious progress, the richness of your spiritual tradition. We Christians, also, are proud of our own religious tradition. I believe that we, Christians and Muslims, must recognize with joy the religious values that we have in common, and give thanks to God for them. Both of us believe in one God the only God, who is all Justice and all Mercy; we believe in the importance of prayer, of fasting, of almsgiving, of repentance and of pardon; we believe that God will be a merciful judge to us at the end of time, and we hope that after the resurrection he will be satisfied with us and we know that we will be satisfied with him.

Loyalty demands also that we should recognize and respect our differences. Obviously the most fundamental is the view that we hold on the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. You know that, for the Christians, this Jesus causes them to enter into an intimate knowledge of the mystery of God and into a filial communion by his gifts, so that they recognize him and proclaim him Lord and Saviour.

Those are important differences, which we can accept with humility and respect, in mutual tolerance; there is a mystery there on which, I am certain, God will one day enlighten us. Christians and Muslims, in general we have badly understood each other, and sometimes, in the past, we have opposed and even exhausted each other in polemics and in wars. I believe that, today, God invites us to change our old practices. We must respect each other, and also we must stimulate each other in good works on the path of God.

With me, you know what is the reward of spiritual values. Ideologies and slogans cannot satisfy you nor can they solve the problems of your life. Only the spiritual and moral values can do it, and they have God as their fundament. (...)

2. Address to the Latin bishops of the Arab countries (September 3, 1994)

For the Latin bishops of the Arab countries, who were on a visit "ad Limina Apostolorum" in Rome, Saturday, September 3, 1994, John Paul II gave a speech in French making 8 points. I cite only the number 3:

The faithful of Islam are the majority among the peoples of your region. The Christian presence almost everywhere a minority, is no less ancient, and all your fellow Christians are hoping that it remains alive. Despite the difficulties, despite the emigration which weakens some of your dioceses, continue to give generous witness to the Gospel of peace and love, in the words of Jesus. Persevere in interreligious dialogue with Judaism and with Islam. It is always best to try to understand each other, to collaborate effectively in various fields to promote the development of people and harmony of society, in an attitude of tolerance and mutual respect for religious beliefs and activities of each community . I hope in particular that in your countries, Catholics can enjoy freedom of worship that we would like to see recognized around the world to all believers.

3. Carthage presidential palace April 14, 1996

In Tunisia, Pope John Paul II, during his meeting with the representatives of the political, cultural and religious world, highlighted the necessary conditions for a fruitful dialogue:

(...) It is essential that first of all we are motivated by a genuine desire to know each other. This is not a question of simple human curiosity. Openness to towards the other is in some way a response to God who accepts our differences and wants us to know each other more deeply. For this, standing in truth one in front of the other is a basic requirement.

The protagonists of the dialogue will be sure and serene to the extent that they are truly rooted in their respective religions. This being rooted will allow acceptance of differences and also help avoid two opposing obstacles: syncretism and indifference. It will also allow the benefit that can be gained from the critical gaze of the other on how to formulate and live one’s own faith.

Faith is also the basis of that form of dialogue which is the cooperation in the service of man of which I have already spoken. Believing in God the Creator, we recognize the dignity of every human person created by Him. In God have our origin and in Him our common destiny. Between these two poles there is a long march of history in which we must proceed in a brotherly spirit of mutual help, to reach the transcendent goal which God has established for us.

I want to repeat the appeal I made during my trip to Senegal: "Let us together make a sincere effort to achieve a deeper mutual understanding. That our cooperation in favour of humanity, which started in the name of our faith in God, be both a blessing and encouragement to all the people "(John Paul II, to Muslim religious leaders, February 22, 1992: Teachings of Pope John Paul II, XV, 1 (1992) 395).

4. Sarajevo, April 13, 1997

During his meeting with representatives of the Islamic community, John Paul II gave this speech:

As you know, the Church regards with esteem the followers of Islam who, as the Second Vatican Council recalls, adore the one God, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to man (cf. Nostra Aetate, 3).

To this faith in God, which draws Muslims close to the believers of the other monotheistic religions, is added the consideration that the Islamic tradition preserves great respect for the memory of Jesus, esteemed as a great prophet, and for Mary, his Virgin Mother.

May this closeness make possible ever more mutual understanding at the human and spiritual level. May it help bring about greater fraternal and constructive understanding also between communities of different beliefs living in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

2. God is one, and in his justice he asks us to live in conformity with his holy will, to regard ourselves as brothers and sisters of one another, to commit ourselves to working to ensure that peace is safeguarded in human relationships, at every level. All human beings are put on earth by God to make a pilgrimage of peace, starting from the situation in which they find themselves and from the culture in which they live.

The Islamic community of Bosnia-Hercegovina is also aware of this "destiny" willed by God, but it knows, at the same time, the efforts involved in the journey necessary for carrying it out, and today it is experiencing the consequences of a war which spared no one suffering and sorrow.

The time has come to resume a sincere dialogue of brotherhood, accepting and offering forgiveness: the time has come to overcome the hatred and vengeance which still hinder the re-establishment of genuine peace in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

God is merciful - this is the affirmation that all believers in Islam love and share. Precisely because God is merciful and wills mercy, each individual must situate himself within the logic of love, so as to reach the goal of true mutual forgiveness.

Peace, then, which is a gift offered by God in his goodness, is required by him and demanded of our consciences. He wills peace between one person and another, between one nation and another. This is what God commands, for he himself manifests his love to every man and woman, together with his saving forgiveness.

3. It is my hope that the communities of Islam, a religion of prayer, can join in the prayer which all people of good will raise to Almighty God, to implore, with unity of purpose, an active peace which enables people to live and work together effectively for the common good.

May the Most High God protect all those who, with sincerity and mutual understanding, join forces with generous commitment and openness in order to restore the moral values common to all people who believe in God and love his will.

Upon these good people, as also upon all of you here present, I invoke the blessing of Almighty God.

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