Muslims who oppose fundamentalism should recognise the Pope as an ally

It is encouraging to see that the Pope’s visit to Africa has elicited some balanced and appreciative comment in the Guardian from Andrew Brown, who highlights what the Pope has to say about Muslims in his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Africae Munus.

The full text of the Pope’s words about Islam in Africa are to be found at paragraph 94, and they are worth quoting in full.

The Synod Fathers highlighted the complexity of the Muslim presence on the African continent. In some countries, good relations exist between Christians and Muslims; in others, the local Christians are merely second-class citizens, and Catholics from abroad, religious and lay, have difficulty obtaining visas and residence permits; in some, there is insufficient distinction between the religious and political spheres, while in others, finally, there is a climate of hostility. I call upon the Church, in every situation, to persist in esteem for Muslims, who “worship God who is one, living and subsistent; merciful and almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to humanity.” If all of us who believe in God desire to promote reconciliation, justice and peace, we must work together to banish every form of discrimination, intolerance and religious fundamentalism. In her social apostolate, the Church does not make religious distinctions. She comes to the help of those in need, be they Christian, Muslim or animist. In this way she bears witness to the love of God, creator of all, and she invites the followers of other religions to demonstrate respect and to practise reciprocity in a spirit of esteem. I ask the whole Church, through patient dialogue with Muslims, to seek juridical and practical recognition of religious freedom, so that every citizen in Africa may enjoy not only the right to choose his religion freely and to engage in worship, but also the right to freedom of conscience. Religious freedom is the road to peace.

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It is only a short paragraph but it is full of good things. To me, it seems to be making several points, quite a few of them pretty robustly too.

Firstly, the situation is complex, that is, a mixed bag. There is no denying that Christians are persecuted by Muslims in several places and the institutional Church is subjected to legal harassment. Hence the insistence in the penultimate sentence on the reversal of institutional discrimination, through legislation and the courts, and the insistence on freedom of conscience, not just freedom of religious practice. This is of course to be done through “patient dialogue”; the adjective suggests that it will not be easy. But it is encouraging that the Church is not ignoring the situation in countries that treat Christians badly. The Pope knows what is going on, and he clearly wants the Church to respond to the situation in such a way that the situation can be righted. So, he is calling a spade a spade, and I for one am very pleased about this.

The second point to notice is that the Pope adopts an evangelical mindset based on Our Lord’s teaching about turning the other cheek. He clearly wants reciprocity between Muslims and Christians; but even where this does not exist, he urges us all “to persist in esteem for Muslims”. This is clearly going to be challenging for many of us. Our goal is that Christians in Muslim-majority countries may enjoy the same rights as Muslims do in Christian-majority countries. (As far as I am aware, there is no Christian-majority country that places Muslims under any form of legal disadvantage.) But the Pope clearly states that where this is not happening, we must continue to esteem Muslims. In other words we must love our persecutors. But this is no less than what our Lord himself said when he told us to love our enemies. The hope must be that by esteeming Muslims we will win them round to reciprocity. Is this naive – or is it a bold proclamation of the essence of the Christian gospel?

Third, the Pope quotes Nostra Aetate, the document of the Second Vatican Council on non-Christian religions, which is still our ultimate reference point and authority in inter-religious dialogue. But he goes on to say that in promoting “reconciliation, justice and peace” – three good things – we need to banish three bad things – “discrimination, intolerance and religious fundamentalism”. The first two have few friends in the world, but the last represents a bit of a bombshell. The Pope is against religious fundamentalism and wants it banished. This may come as news to some, but it ought not to. The Pope has constantly advocated the path laid out by the Blessed John Paul II in Fides et Ratio (a letter that the Pope himself may well have had a hand in writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, or so it is said). Faith and reason must go together; each one without the other is impoverished: religious fundamentalism is as deformed in its own way as the rationalism that so irrationally denies the supernatural. Indeed the Church has been condemning fundamentalism for a long time now; the first Vatican Council in 1870 condemned it in the document Dei Filius. Thus it is always offensive and simply inaccurate to label the Pope himself as a fundamentalist. He is in fact the apostle of anti-fundamentalism.

Clearly, in a paragraph about Islam, the mention of fundamentalism calls to mind one particular brand of fundamentalism. On this matter the Pope is not giving an inch, and that is good. In standing up against Islamic fundamentalism, he is in fact offering himself as an ally to all those Muslims (who must constitute the vast majority) who do not take the fundamentalist path. They can take heart from this, and so can we. Note too that the Pope talks of “insufficient distinction between the religious and political spheres”. He is also standing up for a proper secularity.

Finally, with his gift for putting things succinctly, the Pope says “Religious freedom is the road to peace”. Quite so. Please God, may people hear this not just in Africa, but all over the world.

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