05/04/2011, 00.00
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John Paul II and the Muslims (Part III)

by Samir Khalil Samir S.J.
We publish the third and final part of the analysis on the teaching of Blessed John Paul II with regard to relations between Islam and Christianity.


VATICAN-ISLAM John Paul II and the Muslims (Part III) by Samir Khalil Samir S.J. We publish the third and final part of the analysis on the teaching of Blessed John Paul II with regard to relations between Islam and Christianity.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - What can be drawn from this rapid evolution experienced in almost 27 years of his pontificate (1978-2005)? I will try to draw some conclusions.

Giving value to the positive aspects of Islam

Following the council, Pope John Paul II tried to value the positive aspects of Islam, as we must do in every encounter with each other. The Muslim is first and foremost a believer, who placed the transcendence of God first in his life, and who from this point prays. The Muslim is a person who has the ethical principles that in more than one point are connected to those of Christians. He is placed in the line of Abraham and recognize a special place for Jesus and Mary.

This is why John Paul II agrees on some points with Muslims, for example on the fight against abortion, which has become virtually free in the West. Some accused him of having implemented a "Holy Alliance" with Islam, during the "Cairo Conference" on population (7-13 September 1994). Evidently there is no alliance, but Islam and Christianity, and probably other religions agree on some principles concerning the process of life, while Western civilization places special emphasis on the individuals right to make his or her  own choices in matters of sexuality.

Concretely, what does dialogue mean?

What does dialogue really mean? Let’s start with the address at Casablanca (August 1985). John Paul II begins by recognising one fact: "We have many things in common, as believers and as human beings." Of course, the Pope might have added: "And many things that divide us" and it would have been true and correct. But this would place an obstacle in people's hearts too early on. Moreover, the distinction that immediately follows "as believers and as human beings” is very important: not only faith unites us or divides us. And we're not there to make a common front of believers against those who do not believe. From the start he spoke of two levels: one narrower and deeper level (believers) and another, more universal and more fundamental (humans). Now too often the problem with the Muslims, particularly the most fundamental among them, is that they only consider the religious aspect, and moreover the sectarian aspect of religion, "who is not with us, is against us. " A few lines later, you will see the importance of these levels, John Paul II said: "it is of God himself that, above all, I wish to speak with you; (...)I wish also to speak with you about human values, which have their basis in God". If dialogue does not touch our human values, humanity does not care; separating the religious from the human does not make sense, and this is an essential point to remember in our dialogue. Religion is not an end in itself rather it is Man! John Paul II was "too human" to forget this not stress it.

"We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection." This little phrase caused much debate among Catholics, and perhaps also Muslims. It is, in my opinion, a little hasty, because this is disputed by many Muslims and many Christians: do we really believe in the same God? And the Muslims add: "Is there really the one God? Are you not worshipers of the triune God? "As the Qur'an says:" You shall not say, "Trinity." You shall refrain from this for your own good"(Qur'an, 4:171 La taqulu thalatun. Intahu ! Khayran la-kum !). Personally I prefer the formula of the Christian Arab philosopher, Abù Rà’itah Habīb Ibn Hu dhayfah al-Takrītī, in his treatise on the Trinity, composed around the year 815 AD: "Surely God is only One, but how great the difference is between your understanding of God and ours! "( wa-lakin shattana ma ma bayna mafhumikum lahu wa-mafhumina lahu).

"God asks every man to respect every human creature and to love him as a friend, a companion, a brother.," the Pope says at the conclusion of this first paragraph, which will set the tone throughout the speech: to respect everyone as a brother. This is 'the deep ethics of this pope, so human and yet so close to God. Seeing a brother in every person, loved by God, is this not Christianity? It would be inappropriate to thus analyze this address, and other speeches. This prelude sufficiently clarifies the perspective of the Blessed, who had to fight to save human dignity from the grasp of Communist ideology, and not to project faith as something high in the sky, as wanted by a more spiritual approach.

Strong gestures for dialogue with Islam

He expressed this with strong gestures, at times questioned, at times questionable: the meeting with Yasser Arafat (March 2000 in Palestine and October 29, 2001 in the Vatican), his kissing the Koran (May 14, 1999), the visit to Turkey ( November 1979), his speech to 80 thousand young people at Casablanca (August 19, 1985), entering the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (May 6, 2001). His support for the construction of a mosque in Rome, and suggestion that the municipality provide the land.

But above all he launched the idea of a meeting of leaders of all the great world religions, which took place October 27, 1986 and brought together 130 religious leaders from throughout the world. It was followed by two other gatherings in Assisi, and we are waiting for another still in October 2011 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first. Many Catholics have criticized this "ambiguous gesture." And yet the Pope was careful to open this meeting with the following words:

"The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all. Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs, because every human being must sincerely follow his or her upright conscience with the intention of seeking and obeying the truth".

"Our meeting attests only - and this is its real significance for the people of our time - that in the great battle for peace, humanity, in its very diversity, must draw from its deepest and most vivifying sources where its conscience is formed and upon which is founded the moral action of all people"

Apart from the fact of kissing the Koran, the Pope's spontaneous gesture to mark his respect for this book which is the source of inspiration for many people, a gesture that was interpreted by many Muslims as significant to the recognition of "revealed" nature of the Koran (which can not be so for a Christian), the other gestures do not involve ambiguity. Entering a mosque is quite a normal thing to do in the East, just as a Muslim enters a church in some circumstances. As to whether to remove his shoes upon entering, it is the gesture of Moses, which recognizes a sacred place, and it is the habitual gesture that the Copts have on entering the sanctuary.

His political positions in favour of countries with Muslim majorities

Others accused him of having met with Yasser Arafat, during his visit to the Holy Land in March 2000, and even of welcoming him to the Vatican in October 29, 2001. This gesture was an opportunity for the Holy Father to renew the appeal to peace and nonviolence. As Joaquin Navarro-Valls, then Vatican spokesman, said at the end of this encounter: "Your Holiness, in expressing his condolences for the many victims of the endless spiral of violence, has renewed his appeal to all to abandon weapons and resume negotiations. " For his part, the president of the Palestinian Authority "condemned all forms of terrorism" and stressed "the desire for peace of the Palestinian population." The Vatican reiterated its wish to see international resolutions to resolve the crisis in the Middle East respected, "without forgetting the necessary commitment of the international community aimed at the people of the region to ensure mutual respect and security for all."

His opposition to the United States led allied invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq was abundantly clear and also affected Arab and Muslim masses. This man without an army was one of the few high profile figures to take on the pro-war in Iraq current, in a clear and irrevocable manner, while respecting the "diplomatic style". We now know that this invasion of Iraq, which began Thursday, March 20, 2003, cost the lives of more than 100 thousand Iraqi civilians and has caused the exodus of at least two million Iraqi refugees since then, and in particular a high proportion of Christians.

In general, John Paul II was no more in favour of Muslim countries than he was of "Christian" countries of (as they are seen by Muslims). He was in favour of international law and justice as a means of achieving peace. Ultimately, it was the defence of peace and harmony that mattered to him above all else. Because war, even if has “justifiable” grounds "right" only brings death and destruction. On the other hand we see that for him, as for a large part of the Catholic Church, the concept of a "just war" is being increasingly questioned. In December 2002 the Pope condemned the idea of a "preventive war" in his annual message for peace proclaimed on January 1st 2003. It was 'immediately supported by Mgr. Renato Martino, the new president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who stated: "Preventive war is a war of aggression and does not fall within the definition of a just war." And Mgr. Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican "foreign minister", who said, going against American views: "We must wait for the results of inquiries conducted by UN inspectors in Iraq before any conviction."

The position of John Paul II was unambiguous. It was opposed by that of many neo-conservative Catholic theologians, including his most famous biographer, George Weigel. At this point, the pope had a position that was linked to that of the "left", for ethical reasons.


Insistence on peace and forgiveness

John Paul II is ceaseless in his calls for peace, "convenient or inconvenient," according to the recommendation of St Paul (2 Timothy 4:2).

Speaking to young Moroccans, in August 1985, he reiterated: "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? (No. 3).

To the Christians from the Holy Land, he says (September 3, 1994): Despite the difficulties, despite the emigration which weakens some of your dioceses, continue to make a generous witness to the Gospel of peace and love, in the words of Jesus. Please continue to pursue interreligious dialogue with Judaism and with Islam.

But it is especially in Sarajevo, April 13, 1997, where he never stops repeating the word "Peace", "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 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".

In this context, John Paul II made a brief meditation on the name of God, constantly repeated in the Qur'an, and favoured by Muhammad as his official biography teaches, that of Rahman, "Merciful."

" 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".

The Holy Father, as a believer and spiritual man, turns to Muslims, since they are men of prayer, asking them to actively pray for peace. It is a man of God speaking to men of God:

"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".

Allow me to evoke a personal memory. I was greatly impressed by the Message of Peace on 1 January 2002, titled: "No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness." A few years later, I was invited by a group of Shiites in Beirut to speak of martyrdom in Islam and Christianity, marking the feast of Ashoura (the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar) . On this occasion the Shiites commemorate the "martyrdom" of al-Hussain, grandson of Muhammad, reliving his suffering. I then spoke of the martyrdom of Christ and his begging forgiveness for his persecutors, as well as the proto-martyr Stephen who behaved in the same way until his death. I then developed the theme of John Paul II on the need for forgiveness if you want to build peace. I was immediately stopped by the imam, who told me that this word could not be pronounced there. There ensued a debate between us, and I was ready to leave the place, when I was stopped by some Shiite mediators, who convinced me to return. Again, returning a few minutes later to the theme from a Christian point of view, and applying it to Israeli-Palestinian relations I was interrupted. This time I left the room, but again I was reached in the street, and brought back to the hall. We thus were able to really discuss this issue and its importance, from a Christian point of view, to build peace.

I think John Paul II perceived the crucial importance of this approach. Forgiveness is, in his view, the completion of the gift. It is a vital step on the path of peace. As long as there is no forgiveness there is only a truce, not really peace.

The pardon granted to Ali Agca, who made an attempt on his life May 13, 1981, is just one sign among many others. This also explains the requests for forgiveness, many of which John Paul II addressed to all sorts of groups, for crimes or errors committed by the Catholic Church in the past. In many cases we can say that this attitude was typical of the mentality of the time. That did not stop the Pope from asking forgiveness on behalf of the Church of today from the descendants of these people humiliated or eliminated, even if it is clear that the contemporary Church is not responsible. I think this was very typical of this Pope, and he tried to convey to Muslims the spiritual value of this message. He also established, on the occasion of the Jubilee, a "Day for Pardon" Sunday, March 13, 2000, the first Sunday of Lent, in which he solemnly asked forgiveness for sins past and present of the members of the Church". "The full restoration of broken moral and social order passes through a harmonization between justice and forgiveness, because the pillars of true peace are justice and this particular form of love which is forgiveness."

Conclusion: build a more fraternal and spiritual world

Christians and Muslims must witness to spiritual values that are lacking in the highly secularized modern world:

"In an increasingly secularized and sometimes even an atheist world, (...) Today we must witness to the spiritual values which the world needs. First, our faith in God. God is the source of all joy. We must also bear witness to our worship of God, our worship, our prayer of praise and prayer supplication, man can not live without prayer, just as he can not live without breathing. We need to witness our humble seeking of His will. It is He who must inspire our commitment to a more just and more united world".

Christians and Muslims wish that all humanity achieves the fullness of divine truth. This can only happen freely, without constraint. Hence the importance of religious freedom, the foundation of all freedoms and human rights.

A Lebanese Muslim Observer, Dr. Moahammad al-Sammak political adviser to the Sunni Grand Mufti of Lebanon, having been closely involved in the Synod for Lebanon and also the Synod for the Middle East, described in an interview with Zenit April 28, 2011, the position of John Paul II on terrorism: "According to Pope John Paul II 'terrorism is the child of a fanatic fundamentalism which springs from the conviction his conception of truth must be forced upon everyone. While on the contrary, even if the truth has been reached - and always in a limited and imperfect way -, we can never impose it on others. Respect for the conscience of others, which reflects the image of God, can only propose the truth to others, who have the responsibility to accept it. To try to impose what we consider as the truth on others by violent means is to violate human dignity, and ultimately offend God in whose image all people are made".

I will conclude with this thought of Dr. Al-Sammak, a longtime friend:

"I think John Paul II had understood, with a deep spirituality, the words of Christ in the Gospel of St. John: 'I have other sheep that are not of this fold' (10:16). He understood, thanks to his pure faith, a sense of the existence of other sheep, that is, the existence of the other, and the sense of the nuances in the belief in one God. So his openness to and respect for the other were in him the expression of his acceptance of diversity and his respect for variety. This is how he opened a new unprecedented page in the history of Christian-Muslim relations, with his special signature of love. Even today we need to read that page and enrich our lives with all that encompasses spirituality and love. "

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John Paul II and the Muslims
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John Paul II and the Muslims (Part II)
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