In another four months Pope Francis would be completing a decade as the head of the Catholic Church. Known for unorthodox ways of doing things, he has allowed a new breeze of change to waft across the Church. His visits to various countries are a case in point. Of the 60-odd nations he has visited, as many as 20 per cent are Muslim nations and two countries are in the Gulf region, the bedrock of Islam.
Even Pope John Paul II, known as Pilgrim Pope, who visited 129 countries during his papacy spanning over 27 years, had not stepped in the Arabian Peninsula. It was Pope Francis who made history when he became the first pontiff to do that honour by visiting the United Arab Emirates in 2019. Within three years, he has made yet another visit to the region, landing in Bahrain this past week.
The Pope’s visits to the Muslim world assume added significance due to the chasm between the two largest religious communities in the world. Across the globe there are many countries where Christians fall prey to the brutal attacks by Islamic extremists. Yet, in the midst of increasing gulf between the two communities, Pope Francis prefers to take a less trodden path “to understand each other and to work together, not to be against each other.” He acknowledged the success of his visits and meetings when he said “there is a closeness and we can dialogue and work together and that is important.”
The Pope firmly believes that “we have to walk together as believers, as friends, as brothers and sisters, doing good.” Hence his visits to the Islamic countries are no small steps. Despite the ties between the two religions hitting the bottom, in some parts of the world, Pope Francis is not willing to give up. He is not ready to be bogged down by the acrimony and bad blood between the two communities.
The Pope is on a different mission, probably a path unwilling to be trodden by some in the church hierarchy. He is taking forward the message of talks with the Muslims despite attacks meted out to the Christians. He has a vision, a vision of dialogue as the best instrument to promote peace and reconciliation.
The highlight of Pope’s recent visit was attending the “Bahrain Forum of Dialogue: East and West for Human Co-existence.” He expounded his idea quoting from The Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration which states that “whenever hatred, violence and discord are preached, God's name is desecrated. Hence, it is not enough to proclaim that a religion is peaceful; we need to condemn and isolate the perpetrators of violence who abuse its name. Nor is it enough to distance ourselves from intolerance and extremism; we need to counter them.”
He expanded his core philosophy when he said that he wanted to journey together in the spirit of Francis of Assisi. Coincidentally, the Pope’s concept of journeying together literally saw its fruition when he announced in an interview with the journalists on his flight back to Rome: “The Vatican Secretary of State and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar are travelling from Bahrain to Cairo in the same plane, together as brothers.” What better way to conclude an eventful visit.