Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
August 23, 2018
In 1219, St. Francis of Assisi joined the Fifth Crusade, not to go to war with the Muslims, but rather to evangelize with the aim of bringing a senseless conflict to an end. A dialogue ensued between St. Francis and Sultan Malek al-Kamil – the Kurdish ruler and the fourth Ayyubid sultan of Egypt – that lasted nearly a month, and which can be described as the start of a religious dialogue among these two Abrahamic religions. The recent announcement that Pope Francis I will visit Morocco is a continuation of this great tradition.
It is said that in the encounter of 1219, both men professed their faith in God, showed respect for each other, and came to see they had much in common, as they both seemed to see beauty, truth, wisdom, and goodness in one another. The outcome of this first encounter would greatly influence the practices of the Catholic Church nearly 750 years later during the Second Vatican Council, 1963-1965:
“The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims…(It) therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture”.
Pope Francis is the first pope in the history of the Catholic Church to choose the name Francis. In an interview with Franciscan Friar, Father Michael Calabria, Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University, and a leading Catholic scholar on Islamic Studies, he said, “The Pope is from the Jesuit order, however, the choice of his name is significant. (The Pope) said he chose the name because Francis was a man of the poor, he cared for the environment, and was a man of peace, clearly making reference to the encounter between St. Francis and the Sultan.”
Father Calabria further describes Pope Francis as a person who recognizes his stature and the peaceful side of St. Francis, “He has a role to play between faith communities. When he speaks on any subject you will notice he speaks to the whole world. He’s a man who believes he has something to say to the worldwide community, discussing common values and concerns”.
Morocco has a number of churches throughout the country, including a Franciscan church in Marrakech, but its dialogue with the Catholic Church in the recent past has been limited. A visit by the Pope would be a significant step in the continuing dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, as well as in Morocco’s history.
The adviser to Pope Francis for Middle East relations led the way in January of 2016 when he attended the Conference on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Morocco, under the high patronage of King Mohammed VI. He then briefed Pope Francis on the importance of this encounter in Morocco and recommended a head of state visit there.
Fr. Calabria states, “St. Francis and Sultan Malek al-Kamil saw beyond their religion, nationality, and culture and saw each other sharing in faith and common values. What made this incident so significant was they saw each other as God’s creatures and as persons of faith.” He believes that the visit of Pope Francis I with King Mohammed VI would be a historical encounter, one continuing an important tradition, concluding, “I hope this meeting will continue to demonstrate to the Muslim communities that their Catholic brothers and sisters will be their partners as they face the many difficulties of the world.”