Given the increasingly open hostility toward Muslims in this country, it might interest Catholics to know that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI each formally visited mosques, an act unimaginable only decades ago, and, on each occasion, they expressed respect for Islam and saw in Islam values that Christians admire.
Pope John Paul was the first Roman pontiff to enter a mosque during his May 2001 visit to Damascus, Syria. Entering the Umayyad Mosque, the pope removed his shoes, a traditional gesture to show respect. Addressing the group present, he hit the nail on the head. He urged that youths, Muslim as well as Christian, not be led “to misuse religion to promote or justify hatred and violence.”
The mosque was a Christian church until the eighth century, when Muslims seized it to make it their place of worship. This action was one of an untold number of occasions when such taking of ground holy for followers of one faith, by those of another, merely was symptomatic of the most outrageous inter-religious clashes.
Such offenses were not unique to Muslims. Christians over the centuries have also seized mosques and transferred them into churches.
Pope John Paul neither chronicled past events nor did he make excuses. Instead, he said, “For all the times that Christians and Muslims have offended each other, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and offer each other forgiveness.”
Unfortunately, this bold outreach to Muslims by the pope on this pastoral visit to Syria was obscured by the concentration by the press on statements made by several officials about the long animosity between Syrians and Israelis, and the Syrian view that Israel unjustly holds Syrian territory.
Nevertheless, the essence of the papal message for Christians, as well as Muslims, expressed in his visit to the Damascus mosque and his remarks in Syria is clear. Old antagonisms must be set aside. Instead, there must be a new day of common respect and tolerance.
Pope Benedict XVI twice has visited mosques, by these visits confirming his predecessor’s courtesy and good will for Islam and for Muslims.
In 2006, he visited the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where he prayed beside the leading Turkish Muslim cleric. The pontiff removed his shoes as a sign of respect.
Three years later, he visited an important mosque in Amman, Jordan. He powerfully made several points. He spoke of “common values” shared by Christians and Muslims. He referred to a mutual belief in the one, transcendent, almighty, just and eternal God, creator of all.
Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, is very well aware of the tragedies resulting from hostilities between Christians and Muslims. He knows that nothing good will come of fanning flames of hatred and realizes that much can be achieved by summoning Christians and Muslims alike to values held dear by both religions.
Prejudice so very often is born of fear and ignorance. This is the case today in this country with the increasing ill feeling for Muslims. (Catholics have so frequently experienced the same phenomenon in America for the same reasons.)
Pope Benedict fully realizes, as did Pope John Paul II before him, that something must ease the pressure. Too much is at stake, literally life or death, for millions of people. In their gestures and remarks, the pontiffs pointed out that it is indeed proper to call Muslims and Christians to look ahead, not backward, with respect for each other and in common commitment to justice and peace in the world.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.