3 August 2017
This pagoda in Shaanxi, China, dates to the seventh century. Scholars believe it was originally part of a monastery for the Church of the East — offering evidence of Christianity's deep roots in Asia. (photo: J. Coster/Wikipedia)
While all the ancient churches traditionally trace their roots back to one of the Apostles — or one of the 72 disciples who are mentioned without names in Luke’s Gospel — it is often difficult to verify these traditions in way which would be acceptable to modern historians.
The New Testament offers little help. It has Peter traveling to Antioch, although there is no mention in the Bible that Peter went to Rome. We also know from Acts 8:4-8 that Philip, one of the Twelve Apostles, travelled and preached in Samaria, which was not far from Jerusalem. There is more evidence in the Bible about Paul desiring to go to Rome and ultimately going there as a prisoner. Paul is also known to have founded several churches. However, although he insists that he is an “apostle” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9 and elsewhere), Paul was not a member of the original Twelve Apostles.
While traditions about the apostolic origins of some churches may be hard to verify, they do have deep roots. Early on, traditions arose according to which of the Twelve evangelized a particular area — Thomas in India, Andrew in Byzantium, and so on.
Nearly 200 years later, we find — as in India and parts of Armenia — that church institutions developed. The traditions were beginning to flourish. Shrines and memorials recording the presence of one of the Twelve, even many decades later, also indicate a longer tradition. So, when churches trace their roots back to apostolic times, there is very often an historical core to those traditions.
But before long, several forces — mostly political, theological, linguistic and cultural — led to isolation between the churches of the East and those of the Latin and Greek-speaking West.
The Church of the East, sometimes inaccurately called the Nestorian Church, was a church separated from the Western churches in many ways. First, it existed politically in the Persian Empire, which was almost in a constant state of war with Byzantium, the political center of Western Christianity. Secondly, its theology found the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon unacceptable. This actually was to its advantage because “orthodox” Christianity was — sometimes correctly — seen by the Persians as the faith of the Byzantine enemies. Lastly, members of the Church of the East spoke Syriac and different dialects of Aramaic, in contrast to the Greek and Latin of the churches in the West.
But it was, in many ways, ahead of its time. It might surprise people to learn that the Church of the East developed schools of theology in Edessa and Nisibis (both in modern Turkey) some 500 years before the opening of the first great European universities. Also, for the first five centuries of the church, most Christians lived east of the Mediterranean; by the time of the Muslim conquests in the mid-seventh century, Christians formed a slight majority of the population of the Persian Empire.
One reason for its growth is that the Church of the East was renowned for its missionary activities. By the eighth century it had metropolitan sees (archdioceses) in several places in China and across Central Asia. The Church of the East brought Christianity to China before it arrived in Denmark and the Slavic countries of Europe and almost 1,000 years before St. Francis Xavier arrived in the region.
Although the Church of the East remains widely unknown in the West, for centuries it was one of the most vital forces for theology and missionary activity in the Christian world.
2,000 Years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia — Introduction
27 July 2017
Tags: Christianity Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Church of the East
In this image from last year, Christian worshippers pray at Sayydet al-Niyah Church in Damascus, Syria. Centuries before Christianity took root in Europe, it was flourishing in Syria and other countries to the East. (photo: CNS/Youssef Badawi, EPA)
Recently we have been hearing that Christianity risks extinction in the Middle East, the region often described as the “cradle of Christianity.” While Christians in the West lament the possible extinction of Christians in the East, the attitude is often “well, there never were a lot of Christians there any way.”
Each of us sees reality through a very local lens. It often seems as if the unspoken attitude among Western Christians is that, after the Ascension of Jesus, the Apostles got together, Peter decided to go to Rome and the other 11 went into assisted living. The conclusion: from the very beginning Christianity was a European phenomenon.
In fact, nothing could be further than the truth.
For at least the first 500 years of Christianity, most Christians lived east of the Mediterranean in what was then known as Syria and Mesopotamia. Many might be surprised to learn that the Church of the East, often referred to as “Nestorian,” was in China before Christianity reached Denmark and the Slavic countries. When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in the year 800, Timothy of the Church of the East was a metropolitan archbishop in Tibet. Middle Eastern Christians were in India and China 1,000 years before the arrival of St. Francis Xavier (who died in 1552).
The region known as Mesopotamia stretched from the Mediterranean east, all the way to the
Persian Gulf. (photo: Wikipedia)
The Christian presence in the East, from the early days, was fairly extensive. For several centuries after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East (in the seventh century), Christians formed a majority of the population in the two Islamic caliphates. In the first caliphate, the Umayyad (661-750), Christians played a major role in the government. St. John Damascene (ca. 675-749) came from a family of Christian civil servants in the caliphate at Damascus.
There were and remain several different Christian churches in the Middle East, both Orthodox and Catholic, tracing their roots back to the time of the Apostles. Some of the ancient churches of the Middle East had great centers of theological learning like Edessa and Nisibis (respectively Sanliurfa and Nusaybin in modern Turkey). The university in Nisibis antedated the earliest universities in Europe by over 500 years.
One of the interesting characteristics of Middle Eastern theology is that, while Western Christians often used creeds to express their faith, the preferred medium for expressing faith in Middle Eastern Christianity was hymns and poetry. Thus, St. Ephrem the Syrian, one of the great biblical scholars and theologians of both the Western and Eastern churches, left behind not summas, like Aquinas and others, but rather huge volumes of hymns and poetry.
Over the next three weeks, we will look at 2,000 years of Christianity in Syria and Mesopotamia and how these ancient and most interesting churches were founded, flourished and ultimately began to decline; in places where they were once the majority, they are now small minorities, often well under 10 percent.
We hope to help readers not only understand just who these Christians are, but also why their survival is critical to Christians everywhere.
20 July 2017
The video above, from 11 July, shows the extent of the destruction of Mosul, the largest city in Iraq that ISIS tried to conquer. (video: Radio Free Europe/YouTube)
Editor’s note: this week, we launch a new feature on our blog, “CNEWA Connections” — weekly posts that we hope will provide background and context to some of the stories unfolding in CNEWA’s world.
The Iraq city of Mosul has been in the news quite a bit lately and has been freed from the control of ISIS. It may, however, prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, since much of the city now lays in ruins.
While the world watches in sorrow the stories and images coming out of Mosul, and witnesses the humanitarian nightmare its destruction has created, it’s worth taking a moment to put the place in context. This city, the largest that ISIS tried to conquer, has a long history.
Mosul (Arabic al-Maw?il, “the connection, confluence, depot”) originally on the west bank now lies on both sides of the Tigris River. It is not a very ancient city, although it is close to the ruins of Niniveh, the capital of the very powerful Assyrian Empire which was destroyed by the Chaldeans of Babylon at the close of the 7th century BC. The position of Mosul made it an ideal center for trade between China and India via the Silk Roads to the east, to the Greek and Roman Empires to the west and Arabia and Africa to the south.
In pre-Muslims times, Mosul was a metropolitan see (archdiocese) of the Church of the East and was second to Ctesiphon — and later Baghdad — where the Catholicos/Patriarch resided. It was conquered by Muslim armies in the 7th century AD and later became part of the Abbasid Caliphate. As would be expected for a city on the juncture of several trade routes, Mosul was very cosmopolitan. Originally a Christian city, over the centuries it became increasingly Sunni Muslim. Nevertheless, there was a considerable Christian minority consisting of Christians of the Assyrian tradition (Church of the East and later also Chaldeans) and other Christian churches, Jews, Shi’ites and others. Ethnically, the majority of the population of Mosul was and remains Arab, although there were a good number of Kurds in the city. Many Christians in the region consider themselves Assyrian and not Arab. As might be expected, instances of sectarian conflict in Mosul were recorded over the centuries.
Mosul is the main city of the Nineveh Plain which has been home to a large Christian population spread over several small cities and villages. The Christian population of the Nineveh Plain is an ancient one, tracing its roots back in some instances to the 4th century AD.
Historians recount that Mosul was famous for its textiles and the English word, muslin, a type of fabric, is derived from the name Mosul.
Mosul and its environs were home to several pilgrim sites. Perhaps the most famous of these was the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah — who, according to the Old Testament, had preached repentance to the Assyrians in nearby Nineveh and was buried at the site.
In this image from 1999, Iraqis visit the shrine of Nabi Yunas, the prophet Jonah.
(photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Originally a Christian shrine, it became a mosque as the Christian population diminished over the centuries.
Iraqis inspect the shrine of Nabi Yunas after ISIS destroyed it in 2014. (photo: CNS/EPA)
The al-Nuri Grand Mosque was built in the 12th century and underwent several renovations over the years. A huge structure, it was famous for its minaret, from which the Muslim call to prayer is broadcast. The minaret leaned at an angle similar to Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Under the Ottoman Empire, modern day Iraq, was (wisely) divided into three vilayets or provinces: Bosra for the Arab Shi’ites in the southern third of the country; Baghdad for the Arab Sunnis in the center of the country; and Mosul for the Kurdish Muslims in the northern third of the country. After the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917, the French and British united all three vilayets to form the new country of Iraq.
After several revolutions, Iraq evolved into one very diverse country held together by a strong man, Saddam Hussein. Kurdish revolts in the north and Shi’ite revolts in the south were common and were met with incredible brutality by the Hussein government.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq began to become unglued. Centrifugal forces surfaced and the old Ottoman vilayets provided the fault lines which continue to divide the country. In that vacuum arose first al-Qaida in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a brutal terrorist. After Zarqawi’s death al-Qaida in Iraq went underground and metastasized to what would become known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and by its Arabic acronym da’ish.
With incredible speed in 2014, ISIS attacked Mosul. The large Iraqi army fled when faced with an almost minuscule ISIS force and Mosul became part of ISIS. In June 2014 in the al-Nuri Grand Mosque in Mosul Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (whose name has changed several times, each time giving him a more noble pedigree) declared himself Caliph. ISIS was now on the world stage with a vengeance. Although Raqqa in Syria was the purported capital of the caliphate, Mosul was in some ways more important. ISIS plundered the many resources which Mosul had to offer — military equipment left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army, many banks whose funds were stolen, and a population estimated at 1.8 million, half of which fled, leaving behind properties, money, etc., which was confiscated by ISIS.
ISIS was driven from Mosul in the spring and summer of 2017 by a coalition of Iraqi troops, Kurdish militias and American advisors. The loss of Mosul was a serious loss for ISIS but perhaps a greater loss for the people of Mosul and the Christians who had fled from the Plain of Nineveh. Arial photographs show the city to be leveled. The retreating ISIS forces used explosives to destroy the Shrine of Jonah and the al-Nuri mosque. Christians who fled to Irbil in Kurdish Iraq wait and wonder if the Niniveh Plain will ever again be safe enough for them to return.
It is a sad irony that for centuries Mosul lay just across the Tigris River from the ruins of ancient Niniveh — ruins which Mosul itself now resembles.
16 June 2017
The newly renamed Mosque of Maryam, the Mother of Jesus, stands in Abu Dhabi.
The Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi has a new name. It is now the Mosque of Maryam (Mary), Mother of Jesus. This gesture of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zayed al-Nahyan, is intended to promote greater understanding and harmony between Christians and Muslims.
In fact, Our Lady plays an important role in Islam. She is the virgin mother of Jesus, although with no connotation of the Incarnation as understood by Christians. She is the one who hears God’s word and believes it. And in the Qur’an, she is the focus of Chapter 19.
When members of the early Muslim community fled to Abyssinia (ancient Ethiopia) to escape persecution, they were required by the king to explain their new faith. When he heard of the devotion they had to Mary, he immediately accepted them as protected refugees.
Two women play a major role in Islam. The first is Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali bin Abi Talib. The second is Mary, Mother of Jesus. Known among Muslims as Fatimah al-Zahra, “the Illustrious,” the daughter of the Prophet is widely revered in Sunni and especially Shi’ite Islam. While it is common among Shi’ites to have mosques bearing the name of Fatimah, to my knowledge this mosque is Abu Dhabi is the first to be named after the Virgin Mary.
This is not by any means to say that Mary plays no role in the popular piety of Muslims. Although it is seriously frowned upon by the Wahhabi/Salafi theological strain in Sunni Islam, many Muslims visit Marian shrines in Ephesus, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere.
The graciousness and breadth of spirit of Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan is to be applauded. One can only hope that it is the first of many gestures that Muslims and Christians can make to increase peace and understanding between our communities.
7 June 2017
Palestinian girls stand in front the Dome of the Rock as they attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound on 2 June 2017. (photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
As Muslims around the world observe Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, the Pew Research Center has released its report “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.N. and around the world.” Originally published on 7 December 2016, the report has been updated and released again on 26 May 2017.
As is the case with most Pew Reports, it is detailed yet easy to read and understand. It provides a great deal of information about the number of Muslims in the world as well as in Europe and North America. Not surprisingly, Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet.
The report also investigates how Muslims feel about certain issues and how different non-Muslim groups feel about Muslims. It is noted that attitudes toward Muslims in the United States, for example, differ according to one’s party affiliation and that southern Europeans generally have a more negative attitude toward Muslims than do northern Europeans. An interesting study contrasts how Muslims in Islamic-dominated countries characterize the West and how non-Muslims in the West characterize Muslims. These provide important areas for dialogue and growth in mutual understanding.
Two other important issues are treated, though not equally well, in the report. The first issue is how Muslims feel about “groups like ISIS.” The overwhelming majority of Muslims both in and outside Muslim majority countries do not approve of violent extremism. This is extremely important to note.
Less satisfactory, however, is the section on “Support for Sharia.” Questions about sharia are often used by people who fear it becoming the law in more secular countries. In an unintended way, the section on “Support for Sharia” might seem to verify these fears as large majorities in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa “favor making sharia the official law in their country.”
There are many problems with this. The report describes sharia as “a legal code based on the Quran and other Islamic scripture.” The first thing to note is that there is no “other Islamic scripture” other than the Quran; and secondly in no sense of the word is sharia a “legal code.”
“Sharia” is not a univocal term and Muslims — even those who favor making it the law of their land — have very different understandings of what that might mean. In addition, “sharia” is a religiously charged term. Few Muslims, if any, would spontaneously be against sharia even if they had little or no understanding of what it might actually mean historically and practically. As a result “sharia” with no qualifications is generally speaking not a helpful category when researching Muslim opinions.
Nevertheless, the Pew Foundation has once again provided valuable and much needed information about Islam, a religion that is misunderstood.
23 May 2017
Tags: Muslim Islam Ramadan Religious Differences
In this image from 2016, a migrant tries to open a border fence at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, Greece.
(photo: CNS/Marko Djurica, Reuters)
The United Nations is not the fastest moving body in the world. It often takes decades for new ideas to become part and parcel of the UN agenda and worldview.
But yesterday, it appears that something new is happening — and it could have significance for millions, particularly in the parts of the world CNEWA serves.
It happened at a side event hosted by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See, the International Catholic Migration Commission, Caritas Internationalis and the Center for Migration Studies. The event was for “ensuring the right of all to remain in dignity, peace and security in their countries of origin.” The concept emerging that is new and which kept surfacing at the event was the Right to Remain.
In sum: the event participants recognized that most refugees and migrants do not want to leave their homes and, when forced to, want to return as soon as possible. What results is the Right to Remain — which, the event stated, precedes the Right to Migrate. While migration is and remains a right, migration is often the less desirable solution. Thus it is recognized that for most migrants migration is not a free choice but is forced upon them by what the event called “Drivers of Forced Migration.” The major “drivers of forced migration” are: climate change, economic underdevelopment and internal conflicts.The Right to Remain stresses that people have the right to have these drivers removed, so they can remain in the native countries.
Clearly the issue of refugees and migrants has been a major concern at the UN. It is estimated that over 65 million people on the planet are in one way or another refugees or migrants (in what follows, the words migrant and migration will include refugees). The flow of these people from Africa and the Middle East has put European and other countries under tremendous economic, political and social pressures. In some areas the migration problem has bred nativist, xenophobic and often racist reactions which manifest themselves in different ways in different countries. For example, the rise of ethno-nationalist and rightist populist groups — political and otherwise — has been a concern for many.
The UN and Pope Francis have been consistent in calling for programs to help and accept people who are fleeing from their homes. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is responding to a situation of mass migration that has not been seen for at least a hundred years. While continuing to defend the right of people to migrate, however, the event recognized that migration must be: 1) sustainable, 2) manageable and 3) a choice, indicating that at present it is too often none of these. This recognizes not only the legitimate issues of the migrants but also of the receiving countries.
Recognizing the priority of the Right to Remain, the Holy See and its colleagues did not in any way question the right to migrate. However, it laid great emphasis on the fact that migration must be a free choice and that people have the right to have problems solved which are drivers of forced migration in their own countries.
Clearly at this point the Right to Remain does not enjoy the same legal standing in international humanitarian law as does the Right to Migrate. However, there is the recognition that migration must be sustainable, manageable and a free choice together with the indication and that such is not the case at present. This is leading to the the gradual emergence of a Right to Remain.
And, as I noted: this is something new and significant. It recognizes the rights of both migrants and receiving countries. And it provides a significant impulse towards making a Right to Remain one of the basic human rights.
Helping people to achieve a standard of living that is sustainable and human has been one of the major efforts of CNEWA. While CNEWA has not spoken of the Right to Remain or the Drivers of Forced Migration, in fact, almost all of our programs are geared to make it possible for people to remain in their homes in dignity, peace and security.
21 October 2016
Syrian Christians celebrate the Divine Liturgy at a Greek Orthodox church in the Syrian government-controlled area in the northern city of Aleppo on 16 November 2014. (photo: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) works with many groups in the Middle East. The men and women of the Franciscan family are among our partners. Franciscans have been in the Middle East since the time of St. Francis in the 13th century. The Custody of the Holy Land has been the organization through which Franciscans have worked as custodians of the holy places for eight centuries. However, Franciscan men and women in the Middle East are engaged in far more than maintaining shrines. They run parishes, schools, hospitals, etc., in almost every country in the region.
Recently the Syrian city of Aleppo has been in the news. Eastern Aleppo has been the target of almost constant bombardment, destroying homes, hospitals and people’s lives. The photograph of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting bloodied and in shock in an ambulance has burned itself into the conscience of the world. Franciscan men and women are working there and Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, a Franciscan, is the Latin Rite vicar apostolic of the city.
The Rev. Michael Perry, O.F.M., the minister general of the (Franciscan) Order of Friars Minor, has recently issued a “Message Concerning Syria.” Drawing on statements of Pope Francis and the deep peace tradition of Franciscans, Father Michael calls all parties to “silence your weapons; put an end to hatred and every kind of violence, so that all may find and walk the path of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.”
Father Michael also asks that Aleppo be designated a safe zone. Realizing the difficulties involved in such a move, he calls the operatives to use “lessons and solutions acquired in previous conflicts.” Importantly Father Michael does not call for denominational safe zones but zones which would “allow the whole population … to receive essential humanitarian aid without discrimination, to find safety and security, and to recover some trust and hope in a speedy solution, which would be motivated by peace alone.” One can only hope that the “Message Concerning Syria” is widely read and taken to heart by world leaders.
27 September 2016
Tags: Syria Aleppo Syrian Conflict
In this photograph from 2014, Pope Francis greets Skender Brucaj, head of Albania’s Muslim community, during a meeting with leaders of other religions in Tirana, Albania. Last Friday, CNEWA took part in a full-day program which, among other things, explored the pope’s thoughts on religious freedom and the common good. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
For 90 years, CNEWA has been engaged in regions where conflict and war have aggravated poverty and destroyed basic human rights — including and often especially religious freedom — of people living in the regions. Painfully aware of the relationship between peace, justice and development and freedom of religion, CNEWA works to bring about the integral human development which Pope Francis sees as making people the “dignified agents of their own destiny.”
Last week, CNEWA was invited to share some insights on all this at New York’s Fordham University. “Pope Francis’ Call for Escaping Poverty: Practical Examples and New Proposals” was the topic of a full-day program sponsored by CAPP-USA and Fordham University. CAPP, which stands for Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice, is a lay-led papal organization composed of Catholic business, academic and professional leaders whose purpose is to promote the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
The conference was attended by leading economists, financiers and bankers who dealt with practical ways to respond to Pope Francis’ call to help the poor. Presentations were made to the gathering by Cardinals Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State (who had to withdraw on short notice and had a priest present his paper), and Theodore McCarrick, as well as by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Apostolic Nuncio to the UN. Many CAPP members from Italy and Germany were present as participants and presenters.
As would be expected, a great deal of emphasis was placed on how one measures poverty, deals with alleviating it and then measures the effectiveness of programs. Scholars and economists spoke of the different metrics used in dealing with poverty and various ways to alleviate poverty. Both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN as well as Fordham University’s sevenfold Pope Francis Global Poverty Index were compared, contrasted and studied at length.
I was invited to speak on religious freedom as one of Pope Francis’ indicators. Pulling together two rather broad topics, I indicated that Pope Francis’ understanding of religious freedom, based as it is on Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, is not “denominationally limited.” Rather, Pope Francis sees religious freedom as “a fundamental human right” of all people and that questions intrinsic to one’s intimate essence...are questions of religions and...require religious freedom.”
Combining both realism and practicality, Pope Francis sees religious freedom as intimately related to the need for a peaceful society and for the achievement of the common good. Religious freedom, therefore, is characterized by two attitudes. The first is universal — one regards every man and woman, even those of different religious traditions “not as rivals, less still enemies, but rather as brothers and sisters.” The second attitude is practical — religious freedom also impels believers (and non-believers) to “work done in the service of the common good” with “concern for the whole of society without making distinctions....”
I noted that Pope Francis’ universal and practical understanding of religious freedom helps to bridge the sometimes differently understood concepts of “the common good,” used by the Catholic Church and “the universal destination of goods,” used by the UN. The two expressions/concepts, while not identical, are not contradictory and can, in fact, complement each other.
You can read the full text of my talk here.
24 August 2016
Morocco’s King Mohammad VI, shown in this image from 2011, last weekend condemned terrorism in the name of Islam. (photo: Azzouz Boukallouch/AFP/Getty Images)
On Saturday 20 August 2016 King Mohammad VI of Morocco joined a growing list of Muslim leaders to condemn what is often referred to as Islamic terrorism or extremism. The speech was delivered on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of the Revolution of 20 August, in which Morocco gained its independence.
The King, a descendant of Muhammad, condemns those “who call for murder and aggression, those who excommunicated people without a legitimate reason” and accuses them of “lying to Allah and His messenger,” thereby earning a place in hell. The king also makes oblique reference to the 26 July murder of the Rev. Jacques Hamel in Rouen, France, stating “Killing a priest is forbidden by religion; murdering him inside a church is unforgivable madness.” Finally the king states, “As ignorance spreads in the name of religion, Muslims, Christians and Jews have to close ranks in order to tackle all forms of extremism, hatred and reclusiveness (sic).”
As one continues to hear “why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?,” King Mohammad VI adds his voice to a long list of Muslim leaders — many unheard in the West — who have condemned extremism and religious terrorism in the strongest terms. He joins the ranks of those courageous Muslims who have condemned what is being done in the name of God and Islam. Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Mustaza Bahari, two Muslim scholars, have published a list of 86 organization and individuals who have spoken out against ISIS, containing statements made by the Grand Muftis of Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the political leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Iran together with numerous Islamic universities, societies and individual scholars.
But perhaps the strongest reaction can be found in the form of an open letter to “Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri, alias ‘Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’ and to the fighters and followers of the self-declared ‘Islamic State.’” Published on 19 September 2014, the letter uses the method of traditional Islamic jurisprudence to condemn ISIS. Meanwhile, setting a more constructive tone, the Declarations of Marrakesh (25-27 January 2016) and Erbil (2-4 June 2016) outline in detail how Muslims can and should live in a pluralistic world.
12 July 2016
Pope Francis talks with Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, during a private meeting at the Vatican on 23 May. The Vatican and Sunni Islam’s leading institution of higher learning have begun looking for ways to restart formal dialogue.
(photo: CNS/Max Rossi, Reuters)
The news today that the Vatican plans to send a high-ranking official to Cairo, in hopes of restarting talks at a leading Sunni Muslim university, is important for a number of reasons.
First, this move marks a possible thaw in relations that had grown frosty. If nothing else, it also signals a symbolic gesture of conciliation and respect toward one of the oldest universities in the world, one which has always been a powerful voice in Sunni Islam.
It also indicates that restoring this relationship is a priority to Pope Francis. Recalling the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate last year, he indicated in his message for the World Day of Peace in January that Nostra Aetate was “emblematic of the new relationship of dialogue, solidarity and accompaniment which the Church sought to awaken within the human family.”
To understand the significance of this move, it helps to understand a little background.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Secretariat for non-Christians, which later become the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, exchanged visits and was engaged in dialogue with al-Azhar University.
However, on 20 January 2011 the Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar University broke off dialogue with the Vatican. The remarks of Pope Benedict XVI in his address at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 and his call in 2011 for the protection of Coptic Christians who were under attack in Egypt were not well received at al-Azhar.
The address in Regensburg was looked upon as offensive and the call to protect Coptic Christians was seen as interference in the internal affairs of Egypt during a particularly tumultuous time. As a result, contact and dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican were broken off.
But on 23 May 2016, Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Sheikh al-Azhar, made an official visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican. The visit received broad media coverage and Pope Francis’ “dialogue of friendship” was evident.
Now, only a few weeks later, it appears that initial dialogue has born fruit, and it is quickly ripening.
It is a very happy and hopeful event.