I hope this letter finds you well. You have placed a high priority on the importance of dialogue with the Islamic world throughout your ministry, calling on people of all faiths to pray for peace and reconciliation. You have said you would even talk to ISIS in the cause of peace, despite that group’s stated goal of conquering Rome and raising the black flag of jihad over St Peter’s Square.
Most recently, you have expressed your desire to meet Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University Ahmed el-Tayeb and receive him at the Vatican.
Dialogue with the Islamic world is an important and laudable goal, which millions of people worldwide, including Clarion Project, support. The hatred and intolerance which is plaguing our world requires brave conversations that build bridges between cultures. Yet when engaging in outreach, it is vitally important that we engage with those who may be receptive to building a more positive future.
In January 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI condemned a terrorist attack that killed 23 Coptic Christians as being part of a “strategy of violence” against Christians, Benedict called for increased protection for minorities. El-Tayeb responded by cutting off relations with the Vatican.
“The pope has repeatedly alleged that non-Muslims are being persecuted in Muslim countries in the Middle East region, which is far from the truth and is an unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of Islamic countries,” El-Tayeb's aide told the media at the time.
Clearly, that was not the action of a man committed to safeguarding the rights of Christians in Egypt.
It is true that el-Tayeb has called on Muslim leaders to address “bad interpretations of the Koran and the Sunna.” But in the very same speech, as Muslim leaders gathered to figure out how to fight extremism and terrorism, he blamed the turmoil engulfing the region on “new global colonialism allied to world Zionism.”
We would assert that this kind of conspiratorial thinking is not conducive to positive interfaith relations.
If the grand imam accepts your kind invitation to the Vatican, I hope you and he are able to discuss ways of safeguarding the rights of Christians in Egypt and Muslim majority countries around the world in a more productive way.
I hope it will not become an opportunity for him to whitewash Islamist extremism by conjuring elegant platitudes of peace, in the mode of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Dialogue is not one way. It requires both parties to be equally committed to working out their differences. Otherwise, it’s just begging.
Yours in the hope of a better world,
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.