Pope Francis embraces Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, during his Egypt visit.

Christians and Muslims in the Twenty-First Century: Is it Possible to Build Bridges?

The epochal challenges of terrorism and migration, the role of religion in contemporary society. What do Pope Francis’ words and gestures in Egypt teach us? An analysis by Javier Maria Prades López. (from Jotdown.es)
Javier Maria Prades López

Pope Francis’ journey to Egypt in late April offers some original interpretations to understand the future not only of this country, but of the Middle East as a whole, and more generally, to encourage coexistence between the Western and Islamic worlds in the century we are beginning.

There are many indications of how fragile this coexistence is when not immersed in permanent conflict. To cite a few examples, Donald Trump's attempt in late January to approve a presidential decree by which he would prohibit or limit the entry of citizens of various Muslim countries into the United States; it was not an isolated fact. In her electoral campaign for the French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen labeled the Islamic influence as "unbearable" and described France as a country called to "choice of civilization." She is not the only one. Other political leaders in Europe have openly spoken up against Islam. Mistrust and skepticism are very profound, fueled by Islamist terrorists striking indiscriminately, and by general suspicion accompanying the mass immigration towards Europe and America due to the Iraq and Syrian wars.

The issue is delicate because it is not clear whether we are generally comparing cultures and civilizations, or if we are looking at a more specific interreligious problem. At first glance, it seems that the protagonists of the episodes mentioned perceive religion in its inevitable social and political implications. For this reason, to address the issue with some hope of success, we need a multi-party dialogue involving secular and religious players. Among the secular voices, Jürgen Habermas has long been a defender of the need to undertake such a dialogue and even Peter Sloterdijk and others are moving in the same direction.

Javier Maria Prades López

Until a few years ago, us Westerners had become accustomed to thinking that "perturbations" caused by religion in public life were the last gasps of a dying ancient world, leaving room for a modern and secularized world. In the words of Ulrich Beck, it was "the idea that with the advancing of modernization, the religious element would self-liquidate." Reality tells us that things did not proceed that way, exactly. Just to mention the latest report from the Pew Research Center on the evolution of religion in the world, the sum of Christianity and Islam, without contracting other religions, will represent almost 63 percent of the world population in 2060. Given this empirical data, important figures in the sociology of religion warn that the thesis supporting a process of universal and ineluctable secularization is no longer sustainable. Consequently, some of them claim a public role of religions in the modern world (José Casanova) or reveal the numerous altars of modernity (Peter Berger) or allude to a second modernity with different types of secularization (Ulrich Beck).

Religion does not disappear worldwide, but rather, it conserves much vigor and expands. In the West, few voices are heard warning against the ambivalence of this social diffusion of religion. Religion’s greater vitality can result in an effective contribution to peace or, on the contrary, in a multiplication of violence. The question itself is an extremely complex one and we cannot treat it here. We will limit ourselves to proposing some ideas that could favor this dialogue.

On the horizon we have outlined, the internal evolutions of Christianity and Islam, in their reciprocal relationship, cannot fail to provoke questions within the debate on secularized Western societies. If social sciences, public opinion and political authorities, as well as believers and religious authorities, must deal with this phenomenon - unthinkable as of 30 or 40 years ago - it may be interesting to ask this concrete question starting from the recent news: what contribution does the Pope's trip to Egypt offer for better mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims in this twenty-first century? We will offer some criteria for interpretation.

The first notable fact is the accent the Pope has placed on the historical importance of Egypt in the current socio-political conjuncture. Addressing political authorities, the Pope assigned a demanding task: "Egypt is called to condemn and defeat all violence and terrorism; it is called to give the grain of peace, of peaceful cohabitation, of decent work, of human education to all hungry hearts." And he added, "We cannot expect little from great nations!"

To grasp the scope of Francis’ expressions, it is good not to forget the great national pride that characterizes Egyptians, rooted in thousands of years of uninterrupted civilization since the time of pharaohs. It is not strange that they would complacently affirm, "Misr Umm al-Dunya, Egypt is the mother of the universe." It can be suggested, however, that in addition to stimulating the historical consciousness of the Egyptian nation, the Pope has placed into question his "geopolitical" conception of the concept,--so dear to him--of "periphery".

In setting up relations with Islam, he chose to pass through a demographically large nation (100 million inhabitants), but a poor one too. A society in which there is a broad tradition of coexistence among the people (conflictual as long as it is desired, but real) between Muslims and Christians. Something similar also happened while visiting other countries with similar characteristics in terms of poverty, and in which there are precarious forms of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, as the Central African Republic, Albania and Bosnia. In all these countries, on the other hand, the danger of the growth of fundamentalism is very real, almost always starting from preachers financed and trained in richer Arab countries, exporting fundamentalist versions of Islam.

Starting from this premise, the Pope has entered into a relationship with the political and religious authorities of the Sunni University of Azhar. He was able to speak demanding words about terrorism and forms of violence that set up a religious justification. The appeal to deprive fanatic fundamentalists of social or religious legitimacy resounded with particular solemnity: " We have the duty to unmask the sellers of illusions about the afterlife, who preach hate to steal the present life and the right to live with dignity, turning into firewood and depriving of the ability to choose freely and to believe responsibly."

Francis, however, did not limit himself to denouncing fundamentalism, although it is an obvious concern in the whole world. The third element that stands out from his journey is the proposal of an alternative way of living religious experience. Some hints of extraordinary value were dropped in the celebration of the Mass with Catholic Egyptians, attended by about 30,000 faithful, that is about one in ten Catholics in Egypt. In front of them, he pronounced some categorical phrases: "The only extremism admitted for believers is that of charity; any other extremism does not come from God and does not like him!" Again, he emphasized the rejection of fossilized forms of religion, purely conventional and ideological; for God, "it is better not to believe that being a false believer, a hypocrite."

The homily, delivered in Italian and subsequently read in Arabic, was broadcast live on Egyptian television. The image of the Pope, dressed in white and with his head covered by a white skullcap, totally contrasts the speech of fundamentalist television preachers invading Egyptian satellite networks and the Arab world. They, too, are wrapped in white robes and cover their heads, but observers cannot fail to notice obvious differences ...

Surely, these statements represent the heart of the whole journey. His other interventions, so to speak, tilled the soil to allow words of this caliber to penetrate the hearts of hearers disseminated throughout the country.
What real effect will they have? We do not know, of course. Social movements sometimes arise imperceptibly and grow little by little, affecting daily life, until they suddenly burst into the square and reach the institutions.

We can probably still add a final element in this budget of the visit: Francis's words and gestures were in complete harmony with the peaceful and unarmed testimony of the Coptic Orthodox Christians of Egypt. The mention of "blood ecumenism" that brings Coptic Christians and Catholics together was not at all rhetorical. Pope Tawadros II, the highest Coptic Orthodox religious authority, had recently declared after one of the bloody attacks against his churches: “[terrorists] will see the immense forgiveness the Copts offer whenever they are struck, tolerance before the violence of the evil. And I am sure that their hearts will move" (more information in the excellent reports of the Oasis Foundation ). It is, therefore, not strange that the meeting between Tawadros II and Francesco has been so cordial and has reached a common declaration.

If the interreligious dialogue undertaken by the Pope with the Muslim world and the ecumenical dialogue with the Copts will continue to progress, we will gain coexistence in Egypt and the Middle East, respect for the dignity of persons will be promoted and expectations for peace and social progress will grow in the world during this twenty-first century which has already accumulated much suffering and threats in its two poor decades of life.