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US Muslim leader says Pope is model of what religious figurehead should be

By on Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Mohamad Bashar Arafat, the president of the Islamic Affairs Council of Maryland, has said he believes Pope Francis acts as all truly religious leaders should: reaching out with respect for the human person and being open to dialogue.

Arafat, a Syrian who has lived in America for more than 20 years, compared the Pontiff to Islam’s Sufi mystic theologians and poets, “trying to do good for the sake of the Good One, motivated by love and compassion.”

Arafat was speaking during a recent visit to the Vatican during which he spoke to groups in Rome as a guest of the US Embassy to the Holy See, a trip organised as part of the US State Department’s international speakers programme. He said the Pope’s love and openness were clear not only in his choice of being named after St Francis of Assisi, but particularly in his decision in July to visit the Italian island of Lampedusa, praying for migrants lost at sea and calling the world’s attention to the need for immigration reform, and in calling on people around the world to fast and pray for peace in Syria in early September when a military strike seemed imminent.

“From my perspective, Pope Francis is really doing a wonderful job in terms of outreach, in terms of contributing to world peace, in terms of contributing to stopping wars and conflicts, praying for better understanding,” Arafat said. “This was the message of St Francis Assisi and this is the message of Ibn Arabi, the great Muslim scholar and theologian and poet, and this is the spirit of all the Muslim saints and Sufis around the world.”

He added, “St Francis resonates with the Muslim world,” particularly because he is credited as the first Catholic leader to dialogue with a Muslim leader; in the midst of the Crusades, St Francis met with Egyptian Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219, hoping to bring peace.

Just as in medieval times, Arafat said, the world today needs dialogue and an encounter between peoples, which Pope Francis is doing.

“I see Pope Francis saying the right things and setting the right tone, and also appearing in the right places at the right time,” he said.

Arafat, who runs religious and cultural training programmes for foreign students visiting the United States as part of the State Department’s Youth Exchange Study Programme, said seminaries and programs that train priests and Muslim clerics need to be more serious and more systematic about preparing future religious leaders for dialogue and promoting respect. He said such education is particularly lacking on the Muslim side.