On the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11, Pope Francis met with Muslim leaders and Vatican officials. These people form a committee to further the goals of the agreement Francis entered into with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in February this year, when he visited Abu Dhabi. They chose the anniversary of 9/11 ‘as a sign of the will to build life and fraternity, where others sowed death and destruction’ (Vatican Communique). In Pope Francis’ words to the committee, he encouraged them and asked for ‘not only outstretched hands, but of open hearts’.
The events of 9/11 still stand as a critical moment in recent Christian Muslim relations even though hundreds of Muslims were also killed there. Not only did many Christians vilify Muslims but the desire for revenge led to the horrific invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destabilisation of the region. In Iraq alone, a recent report names that there have been more than 461,000 war-related deaths (BBC.com) since 2003. This is without considering those deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and the many other places that the so-called War on Terror has touched.
Closer to home, Muslim communities and their mosques have been attacked. Graffiti in Ponsonby, arson in Toowoomba and deliberate mass murder in Christchurch are but a few examples.
So in order to understand these last two decades better, I feel it is good to look at a few key aspects of the longer history of Christian Muslim relationships.
I want to start by naming the care and protection the Prophet Muhammad gave to the Christian monks of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. The Prophet had a warm relationship with the monks and frequently visited them, discussing science, philosophy and spirituality. In 626 the Prophet made a covenant with the monks to protect the rights of Christians and other non-Muslims living in predominately Muslim areas. This covenant guaranteed Christians the right to freedom of religion and movement, and the freedom to appoint their own judges and handle their own property. It also exempted them from taxes.
More than 500 years later, Pope Urban II called the first of nine crusades. At that time, Christians had been pushing back some of the Muslim gains and Urban saw a crusade as an opportunity. He struggled with the infighting of the knights and nobles of western Europe and their exploitation of the weak. So in calling for a crusade, he combined the hoped-for recovery of the Holy Land with a way for the knights to save themselves. It was to be a spiritual campaign that also enhanced Urban’s standing and authority.
As we know, the Crusaders did indeed capture the Holy Land and coastal areas to the north. What I think needs to be highlighted is that the new Crusader rulers converted the Dome of the Rock to a Christian church and the Al-Asqa Mosque to the royal palace. This was very different from the respect of holy places and the co-existence that had marked the centuries since the Prophet’s covenant.
During the crusades, we have a story of St Francis of Assisi meeting with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in Egypt in 1219. It was during the fifth crusade that Francis and one companion risked their lives amidst the carnage of the battle field hoping to meet the Sultan to preach to him about salvation through Jesus. While it was punishable by death to attempt to convert believers away from Islam, the Sultan spared Francis’ life, listened to him, and even invited him to stay for a week as his guest. The dialogue that ensued seems to have impacted upon St Francis and challenged his assumptions of those named as ‘other’.
Another historical dynamic that needs to be named was the growing surety by Catholics that outside the Catholic Church there was no salvation and that all those outside would burn in hell. For almost 1400 years popes have explicitly made this claim as a way of defending existing doctrine, of asserting their authority over believers or of justifying the invasion of peoples who were not Catholic. As recently as 1928, Pope Pius XI taught that anyone outside the church or leaves the church ‘is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation’ (Mortalium Animos).
But this was not the last word. Since Vatican II there has been a deepening awareness that God is experienced outside of the church and that we have much to learn from those of other faiths. In the release of Nostra Aetate, in 1965, we see the Council’s basic assertions on this matter. It states that God is the creator of all, that all people are made in the image of God and that all are included in God’s salvation plan. Building on this, the Council then named that there is truth and holiness in other religions. Followers of Islam are children of Abraham and are to be regarded with ‘esteem’. We, Catholics, are called to ‘work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as promote together for the benefit of all mankind (sic) social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.’
Pope Francis, particularly, has built upon these insights. He has travelled to Egypt, UAE and Morocco to meet with Muslim leaders respectfully greeting them with ‘As-salamu alaykum’ (Peace be upon you). He has named each of these leaders as his ‘brother’, and sought genuine dialogue based on respect for each other’s identity, on the courage to accept differences and on the sincere intentions to work to build peace. Key here is that those who are different are to be ‘welcomed as fellow-travellers’ (Pope’s Address, Al-Azhar, Cairo, 2017).
In the few months I have been in Toowoomba, I have be grateful to see the level of interaction and mutual support between the Catholic community and the Garden City Mosque. I am told that this local Muslim Catholic journey began about 25 years ago when Mrs Amahl Bruce met Fr Brian Sparkman. She later introduced him to Professor Shahjahan Khan. Out of simple friendships and invitations to mosque and diocesan events trust and understanding slowly grew. Ramadan and Lent have been foci for coming together and sharing prayer as has been Mosque open days, environmental clean-up days and soccer games. The members of the two communities stood together at the time of the Iraq war, when the Garden City Mosque was set alight and guttered, and more recently to support each other after the Christchurch Mosque massacre and the Sri Lankan bombings. Both Bishop Bill Morris and Bishop Robert McGuckin have quickly responded when there has been a need as have St Anthony’s and St Thomas More Parishes and many Catholics in Toowoomba.
Pope Francis calls us to a deeper journey with our Muslim brothers and sisters. To be truthful, we do not have a good historical record but it is important to build on the warm encounters witnessed to by the Prophet Muhammad, St Francis of Assisi, and now Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. The Prophet’s respect for the monks, St Francis’ openness to grow in respect of those who are ‘other’, and the Pope’s and the Grand Imam’s willingness to build a new respectful dialogue all acknowledge God at work outside the particular faith we might belong. Each of these witnesses go beyond the narrow, tribal ‘us’ and ‘them’ and points to something of the very nature of God. This God is the one who creates us all in God’s image so that we can be sisters and brothers, friends and allies, fellow pilgrims seeking to live God’s love, compassion and justice in our world.
I am blessed to be welcomed at the Garden City Mosque and to begin the journey of getting to know its members. I am blessed to be included. I pray that we all have the courage to let go of our narrow sense of God and be open to discovering God’s goodness at work beyond our horizons.
David Tutty, September 2019