Pope Francis recently published his “Evangelli Gaudium,” “The Joy of the Gospel.” This rare and significant publication seeks to encourage the faithful to live out the teachings of the Catholic Church within the context of the day.
Of particular interest – given the Institute of Middle East Studies’ (IMES) mandate to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond – is Francis’ focus on interreligious dialogue, particularly of the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
For example, Pope Francis affirms, as does IMES, the belief that “an attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides.”
Francis suggests that such dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world and is therefore the duty of people of faith.
He further asserts that as we spend time with those from different traditions – sharing in their joys and sorrows, and learning to appreciate others’ ways of living, thinking and speaking.
Ethical approaches toward interfaith dialogue do not view such interactions as opportunities for evangelization.
Yet the attitude by which we approach interfaith dialogue is, in itself, an ethical position that demonstrates the values of the one we seek to make known.
As Francis makes clear, true openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being “open to understanding those of the other party” and “knowing that dialogue can enrich each side.”
As we come together to discuss our own faith with those of a different faith, our purpose cannot be the vilification of another’s beliefs and practices.
Our role is to speak in positive terms about what we believe, and to listen with respect to those who hold different beliefs.
With an attitude of humility, we may actually come to see something of the God who created all humanity in his image.
This is not to say we must agree with everything we hear or remain quiet about such issues.
However, the way in which we deal with disagreements perhaps says more about the God we hope to represent than the particular words we might say about that God.
Quoting the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pope Francis acknowledges that followers of Islam “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day.”
Furthermore, Francis speaks positively of Muslims, stating, “Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.”
Francis suggests that in order to sustain dialogue with Islam, it is important that those from various traditions have suitable training.
“Not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity,” he asserted, “but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs.”
I would also like to join with Pope Francis in calling on Christians to avoid “hateful generalizations” about Islam and its followers, even in the face of “violent fundamentalism.”
Maybe one of the most significant calls Francis makes in relation to Islam is to the Christian communities currently hosting Muslims.
“We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries,” the pope urged, “in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition.”
It is well known that Lebanon has both Muslim and Christian populations. It is also clear that we are now host to countless Muslim and Christian refugees from Syria.
Lebanon is almost at its breaking point, and yet the pontiff’s message to his church in Lebanon is clear – embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to your country.
This is easy to say and very hard to do given the historic relations between the various communities of Lebanon.
Finally, Francis humbly challenges the global Muslim community to reciprocate the right to religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West, urging them “to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!”
This monumental document contains much for us to consider. I urge you to see what you might be able to draw from it, regardless of your own faith and religious tradition.
It is a hopeful document, which seeks to speak the truth in love (see Ephesians 4:14-16), encouraging the church in its joyful proclamation of the gospel.
Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @arthurandlou and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Arthur Brown is the BMS World Mission Regional Leader for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and former BMS youth and theological worker based in Lebanon, working with a Christian theological seminary regularly dialoguing with Islamic scholars.