As Jorge Mario Bergoglio takes on his new title Pope Francis, one of his many challenges will be to foster relations with Islam. Preceding him, Pope Benedict XVI offended Muslims in a 2006 speech quoting an emperor who called Islam an evil religion. “If we’re going to have a real friendship, brother and sister relationship, we cannot be hypocrites,” said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic relations at George Washington University. “We must base our self on the truth.” The cardinals wanted a pope who can both engage with Islam and defend the Catholic Church, said David Gibson, author of “The Rule of Benedict." Gibson, who is in Rome reporting as national correspondent for Religion News Service, previously spoke with Odyssey about how the new pope was chosen and the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.
Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Whoever the next pope will be I think externally the most important issue that he will face is the relationship of Christianity to Islam
David Gibson: Benedict’s track record on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue was not really stellar.
Nasr: In the famous Regensburg address, which Benedict gave in Germany, in his home country and in fact his home state, he quoted a Byzantine emperor of the 13-14th century, calling Islam an evil religion.
Gibson: He offended Muslims and it sparked a real controversy which it took him some time to get over.
Nasr: And although it was a quotation from that emperor, it came out from the mouth, the head of the Catholic Church. It led to riots and burning of effigies and hatred against him and the Catholic Church which had not existed before.
Gibson: You’ve also got a deadly competition with Islam. And the cardinals are really conscious of that and they want a pope who will be able to both engage Islam but also to be able to defend the Church in a very strong way.
Nasr: There is a rivalry of Catholicism and Islam in Africa, places like Nigeria and other places. And at the other end of the Eurasian land mass in Indonesia there is a very active missionary activity on behalf of both Catholics and Protestants supported by tremendous western money and wealth.
Nasr: So there are some people in the Vatican who are afraid that if they don’t oppose Islam, it will cause Islam to spread in this vacuum that has now been created in the soul of Europeans. The vacuum is certainly there.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad: You have a problem with the Muslims even in Israel. Like in one of the issues for example of a Palestinian state would be what would happen to the Christians in the territories and things of that nature?
Nasr: If we’re going to have a real friendship, brother and sister relationship, we cannot be hypocrites. We must base our self on the truth. And I think there’s so much in common between Islam and Christianity that these places and points of contention, they can be discussed in all honesty.
The natural way to go would be for all the religions of the world, especially with Christianity and Islam to work together, to collaborate together against what threatens religion as a whole. Most of the great problems that the religions face today is mutual, from the environment to social decay, to loss of morality, to wars that threaten so much, all of these things. If the religions of the world were close together and cooperated with each other, we would be a much more powerful force.