Vatican Radio reported today on Pope Francis’s appeal for migrants and refugees and an end to “the culture of indifference.” Although he did not explicitly mention them in his address at Saint Peter’s Square, one can be certain that the Holy Father was speaking to Muslims. The Pope stated that migrants and refugees around the world, many of whom have a Muslim background, are friends of the Catholic Church. He encouraged them to ‘not lose hope for a better future’ and expressed his wish that they might be able to live in peace in their new countries.
This is not the first time the Pope has reached out to Muslim migrants and refugees, as Professor Akbar Ahmed and I noted in the Washington Post:
From his first foreign policy address in March 2013, Pope Francis made improving Muslim-Catholic relations one of his top priorities.
Before an audience of ambassadors from 180 countries, he explained how he wanted to work for peace and bridge-building between peoples. Muslims and Catholics, he claimed, needed to intensify their dialogue. Positive shockwaves were sent into Muslim-Catholic circles, and Muslim scholars and religious institutions around the world welcomed Pope Francis’s election.
In September 2013, Pope Francis sent a powerful message to Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the top imam of the University of Al-Azhar, the leading Islamic university of the Muslim world founded a thousand years ago. His message expressed “esteem and respect for Islam and Muslims” and hoped that his effort could improve “understanding among Christians and Muslims in the world, to build peace and justice.”
Pope Francis sent another message to Muslims on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends Ramadan, in which he called for “mutual respect through education.” In his personal note Pope Francis asked Muslims and Catholics “to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values.” Moreover, he explained his reasons for choosing Francis as his own name.“Francis,” is “a very famous saint who loved God and every human being deeply, to the point of being called ‘universal brother.’ He loved, helped and served the needy, the sick and the poor; he also cared greatly for creation.”
Moreover, in July 2013, Pope Francis used his first official papal trip to visit the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is a major transit point for Muslim refugees from Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, and other African countries. During his visit, the Pope stated: ”To the dear, Muslim immigrants who today, this evening, are beginning the fast of Ramadan, with wishes for abundant spiritual fruit. The Church is close to you in the search for a more dignified life for you and your families.” Professor Akbar Ahmed and I also wrote about this visit:
To understand the pope’s approach, method and message, take a look at his visit to the island of Lampedusa. The small island in the Mediterranean has become a battleground of the larger ideas that are in conflict in Europe. It has been visited by rightwing leaders who denounce immigrants in crudely racist and xenophobic terms. The pope’s visit therefore became symbolic of a counter-balancing approach, one that was more welcoming, all-embracing, caring and compassionate.
The pope spoke of the “immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death.” He shared his distress at the “tragedy” which has become like “a painful thorn in my heart.” He felt “shame” at the plight of those who were suffering and the indifference of the world. “The Church” he assured the immigrants, ”is at your side as you seek a more dignified life for yourselves and your families.”
The pope used the plight of the mainly African immigrants to raise larger issues that afflict all humanity in the age of globalization. He condemned what he called “the globalization of indifference.” He berated “the culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others.”
Tackling “the culture of indifference” is one of the major goals of Francis’ mission as Pope. In August 2013, the Holy Father wrote, “A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”
In essence, the Holy Father is calling on Catholics – and indeed all of humanity – to embrace “the other” and to break down walls of misunderstanding. In frequently addressing Muslims, he is also challenging Catholics to fight against stereotypes and to become more familiar with their Muslim brothers and sisters.