As an Anglican priest, I am not under the authority of Rome and have no direct connection to the Pope. Even so, every time I see Francis in action, a large part of me wishes that I were a part of his team. His recent meeting with Syed Al-Sistani in Iraq is a case in point. It was a powerful and historic initiative.
Apparently, this was the first time that a Pope has met with a senior Islamic cleric like this. Why it taken so long is hard to fathom, but Francis arrived under the banner of “we are all brothers”, and so seemed intent on making up for lost time!
The barriers to the building of genuine, fraternal relationships between the Islamic East and the Christian West are many. In exiting the airport, the Pontiff passed by the very site where General Qassim Suleimani had been assassinated only a year earlier under the orders of then US President Trump! Can we really expect any rapprochement in the context of the history of imperial violence that has been devastating Iraq and the Islamic world for the last generation?
The challenges are indeed daunting, but our religious leaders are surely the best hope we have for the rebuilding of broken relationships. Friendships are built on honest dialogue, and as one very wise Iranian politician once pointed out to me, “politicians don’t dialogue. They negotiate”. We need to move beyond self-interested negotiations towards genuine dialogue as members of the same human family if we are to have any real hope of progress.
“I come as a penitent,” the Pope said to the Iraqi people, “asking forgiveness of heaven and my brothers and sisters for so much destruction and cruelty.” These the words of a true brother in humanity and not of someone who is seeking power or position, and this is the sort of language the Christian West should be using all the time as we approach our Islamic sisters and brothers of the East. Only genuine men and women of God can speak this way, and only genuine women and men of God can respond with grace and forgiveness after such a history of pain.
I give thanks to God for Pope Francis, as I do for Syed Al-Sistani. May their example of brotherhood inspire people of faith across the Eastern and Western worlds to reach out to one another in brotherly and sisterly love. It is time for the church and the mosque to come together in the embrace of Divine love, and we need to do this urgently, for the sake of all humanity.