Pope Francis is to meet the secretary general of the influential Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) tomorrow morning, the Vatican has confirmed.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turkish diplomat and academic, heads the Jeddah-based organization, whose membership comprises 57 Muslim-majority states, spread over four continents.
Founded in 1969, the organization claims to be the largest global intergovernmental organization after the United Nations and the “collective voice of the Muslim world.” Its stated aim is to ensure and protect the interests of Muslims “in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world.”
In 2005, it enacted a “Ten-Year Program of Action” to promote tolerance, moderation and extensive reforms in all spheres of activities within its member states. These include good governance and promotion of human rights in the Muslim world, “especially with regard to rights of children, women and elderly and the family values enshrined by Islam,” according to its website.
Each year it releases an “Islamophobia” report that aims to offer “a comprehensive picture of Islamophobia as it exists mainly in Western societies.”
Tomorrow’s meeting comes at a time when the conflict in Syria and rising persecution against Christians in the Middle East is of significant concern to the Holy Father.
It also takes place at a time when Church relations with Islam on the international level have been positive under Francis’ leadership. They suffered a setback after Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture in 2006, which was perceived by many Muslims as anti-Islamic, although many observers saw a major fruit of the controversy being a more meaningful dialogue than before.
Evangelii Gaudium and Islam
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis underlined the importance of Catholic-Muslim relations, especially as, today, many Muslims are living in traditionally Christian countries, “where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society.”
“We must never forget that they profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day,” the Pope said. “The sacred writings of Islam have retained some Christian teachings; Jesus and Mary receive profound veneration, and it is admirable to see how Muslims, both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services.”
Added the Pope, “Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.”
But Pope Francis also stated that in order to sustain dialogue with Islam, education is essential, so they can be “solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity,” while also being able to acknowledge “the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs.”
The Pope also advocates reciprocity, encouraging Muslims to offer the same freedoms in Islamic societies that they enjoy themselves in Western countries.
“We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition,” the Holy Father said. “I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!”
Faced with “disconcerting episodes” of violent fundamentalism, Pope Francis commented, “our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence.”
Tomorrow’s meeting will be low-key. The Vatican did not preannounce it, and the OIC was unable to comment on it.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.