x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pope Francis keen on 'dialogue with Islam'

Emphasising the conciliatory role of the head of the Catholic church, Francis noted that pontiff means 'bridge-builder' and spoke of a need to embark on a new 'journey' with countries with which the Vatican does not yet have relations.

The newly enthroned Pope Francis heralded a new era of reconciliation with Muslims yesterday by calling for more dialogue.

In his first foreign policy address as pontiff, the Argentinian-born pope also indicated a desire for warmer relations with China.

His word reflected an apparent determination to build on the positive initiatives of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, but - more importantly - to avoid his more controversial interventions.

Emphasising the conciliatory role of the head of the Catholic church, Francis noted that pontiff means "bridge-builder" and spoke of a need to embark on a new "journey" with countries with which the Vatican does not yet have relations.

"In this work, the role of religion is fundamental. It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God," he said.

"But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam."

He appeared to refer to China, which has a history of prickly exchanges with the church's leadership, and may also have had in mind Saudi Arabia, which has no diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Benedict, whom Pope Francis formally succeeded in a ceremony this week, caused ructions in the Muslim world in a 2006 speech.

He also called in 2011 for greater protection for Christians in Egypt, prompting Cairo's Al Azhar institute, the leading centre of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, to suspend dialogue with the Vatican.

Pope Francis, who has promised to act in solidarity with the world's "weakest and poorest", made his remarks when addressing ambassadors from the 180 countries having diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Speaking in his father's native Italian rather than the customary French, a sign of his preference for keeping to languages he fully understands, he reaffirmed his resolve to work for the poor and to serve as a force for peace and cooperation.

Francis singled out Islam when noting the importance of intensifying dialogue among different religions. He said he also wanted to deepen the church's outreach to atheists.

Despite some provocative words and actions, Benedict had also urged Christians to "open arms and hearts" to Muslim immigrants and to discuss religious issues with Islam.

At the time of the 2006 controversy, the Vatican stressed that he intended no offence to Muslims.

CNN quoted Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, as saying: "Quite the contrary, what emerges clearly from the holy father's discourses is a warning, addressed to western culture, to avoid 'the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom'."

In the case of Francis, there is already a sign of goodwill in the other direction. The Vatican said after his election last week that Al Azhar's chief imam, Sheikh Ahmed El Tayyib, had sent a message of congratulation and expressed hope for cooperation.

China has also congratulated Francis on becoming pope while insisting that the Vatican should cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan if it wished to forge formal relations with Beijing. The appointment of bishops in China is also a thorny issue; although restrictions on Christian worship have been eased in recent times, the state exercises strict control of religious practice.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Associated Press