European Muslims see dialogue hope in pope name

Fri Mar 15, 2013 1:26pm EDT
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Muslims in Europe see hope for better relations with Roman Catholicism after the new pope took the name Francis, recalling the 13th-century saint known for his efforts to launch Christian dialogue with Islam.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose the name after his election on Wednesday in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who is revered for his radical poverty and humility. Francis met the sultan of Egypt in 1219 on a peace mission during the Fifth Crusade.

St. Francis crossed enemy lines unarmed to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil and discuss war, peace and faith. He spent several days with the Muslim ruler, unsuccessfully trying to convert him, and was then returned safely to the Crusader side.

Muslim leaders in Italy, France and Germany, where St. Francis and his Franciscan order of brown-robed friars are well known, struck an upbeat tone.

"As Muslims of the West, we take as a particularly hopeful sign the reminder, in the name of the new pontiff, of the great example of sanctity and opening to the East and to Islam that St. Francis of Assisi gave," the Italian Islamic Religious Community (COREIS) said in a statement.

Vatican relations with the Muslim world were badly strained in 2006 when now retired Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying Islam was a violent and irrational religion.

That sparked violent protests in the Muslim world. Benedict apologized but many Muslims remained wary of the German-born pontiff. Such reserve was echoed in congratulations the Saudi Arabian-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) sent the new pope, saying it hoped "the relationship between Islam and Christianity will regain its cordiality and sincere friendship".

Muslim scholars of the Common Word group who met Benedict to seek better understanding said his remarks had been hurtful but they later came to appreciate his willingness for dialogue.   Continued...

Newly elected Pope Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, meets cardinals in the Clementine Hall in a picture released by Osservatore Romano at the Vatican March 15, 2013. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano