Muslims Have a Friend in Francis

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When the cardinals of the Roman Catholic church considered the qualifications of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to serve as Pope, they found much to admire: his leadership experience, his intellect, his passionate but nuanced views on social justice issues. I doubt if they paid much attention to what might actually prove to be one of his most valuable attributes. Unlike many other candidates, the new Pope Francis actually has lived in a multi-religious society, and one that has long faced many of the issues that are becoming so pressing, in Europe especially.

The choice of Cardinal Bergoglio has generally been discussed in terms of the church's shift to the Global South, an acknowledgment of surging Catholic numbers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even better, his Argentine homeland is well placed as a Global South society that is in many respects thoroughly European and First World. But it is also thoroughly diverse, ethnically and religiously. In the century following 1850, Argentina was an immigrant nation par excellence, closely resembling the contemporary United States. New York and Buenos Aires were both hugely significant hemispheric gateways. And while Argentina chiefly received Southern Europeans (Italians and Spaniards) it also hosted many smaller communities.

Jews eagerly sought out the opportunities of this flourishing land. By the 1940s, Argentina had some 400,000 Jews, giving the country one of the two largest Jewish communities in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa was the other). Those numbers have declined in recent years, partly due to emigration to Israel, but also from the general secularization that so marks the country. Still, though, Argentina has some 300,000 Jews.

Another great source of migrants was Syria, a term that then encompassed what we would now call Lebanon. Many of these Syrians were Christians and Jews, but Muslims were well represented. Although estimates of the present population vary, Argentina is probably home to just under a million Muslims, two percent of the population. This is by far the largest Muslim minority on the continent. As with Jews, Muslims have long tended to drift to the country's religious mainstream, through conversion, intermarriage and secularization. Former President Carlos Menem (1989-99) was born Muslim, but converted to Catholicism. (The fact that he was such a dreadful incumbent should reflect on neither of those heritages).

In more recent years, Argentine Islam has also developed a harder edge, as Saudi Arabia and other nations have sponsored mosques and schools. Although Islamic extremism is not much in evidence, overseas groups have used the country's multi-religious setting as cover for their activities. In 1992 and 1994, Iranian-backed Hezbollah groups carried out horrendous attacks, respectively at the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center. (Astonishingly, the thoroughly bungled official investigation into both atrocities still drags on). But such activities remain far removed from the normally placid story of the country's deeply rooted Islamic life.

Cardinal Bergoglio, then, grew up in a Buenos Aires in which Catholics coexisted, normally very peacefully, alongside both Jews and Muslims. After the 1994 terror attack, he immediately offered sympathy and support to the Jewish community, with whom he has excellent relations, running joint charitable projects. He was no less popular with the country's Islamic groups, which enthusiastically greeted his election. Muslims and Jews alike praise him as totally committed to dialogue and peace.

That background, particularly his relationship with Muslims, is deeply relevant to his present role as pope. There was a time when the Catholic church could afford have no particular policy towards Islam, beyond protesting against the occasional persecution of Christian minorities, or demanding that missionaries be allowed access to closed countries. That was before the terrific growth of Christian numbers in Africa and Asia, where Christians and Muslims often coexist in a delicate religious eco-system. In Europe itself, Muslims now represent some 4.5 percent of the population, 25 million souls, and that proportion could rise to 10 or 15 percent within forty years. France presently has perhaps four million Muslims, Italy and Spain a million each. Mosques commonly rise near older Catholic churches.

The presence of those new neighbors poses many challenges for the church in Europe, quite apart from the familiar stories of terrorism and extremism. One is theological. If Christians never deal with members of other faiths on a day-to-day basis, most see little need to fit them into their theological framework. But now, the question arises of exactly what Islam is, particularly given the overlap between the two faiths -- the common veneration of Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mary. Is Islam a rival of Christianity, based on the worship of an alien God? Or is it a sister faith, even a Christian heresy? In coming decades, European Christians will have to think through these questions very carefully.

Other issues are much more materially based. Through centuries of warfare, places of worship in Europe and the Mediterranean world have often changed hands: many mosques stand on the sites of former churches, and vice versa. Such great European cathedrals as Granada, Córdoba, Toledo, Palermo and even Budapest have either served as mosques, or else replace former places of Islamic worship. Just in the past decade, with Muslims so strong a presence on European soil, that history has moved from the realm of antiquarianism to current politics. Muslim groups, and by no means extremist or violent factions, have requested the right to pray at such places, and even raised the question of restitution. Catholic authorities firmly resist such suggestions, but the question will continue to be raised.

We live in an age when the papacy has to be deeply concerned about the church's relations with Islam. It's valuable, then, to have a Pope from a society in which Muslims have long been part of the familiar religious landscape, and who has already worked hard to build bridges.

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