By Ben Joseph
(UCA News) — Relations between Christians and Muslims are far from cordial in Asia, as Muslims generally view Christianity as a Western religion, which opposes its religious and political ideologies.
The Western world’s perception of Muslims around the world supporting a political global Islamic caliphate, led by the Islamic State (IS), is further straining relations.
The imaginary caliphate extends beyond the Middle East to include Andalusia, Turkey, the Balkans, Iran, South Asia, Central Asia and Xinjiang in China. The absurdity of such a vast territory under one central Islamic authority, with Arabs as the natural rulers of the Muslim world, is grave for sections of the world’s population, increasing tensions and violence.
Amidst this anarchy of minds, Pope Francis is focusing on using religions, their ethos and philosophies to promote peace.
The three-day papal visit to Bahrain ended on October 3, which was his second visit to the Arab world. More than 200 religious leaders from different parts of the world participated in the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence” with Pope Francis.
The pope is moving forward with “a certain logic” to open new paths to “different realities of the Muslim world”, said Bishop Paul Hinder, vicar apostolic for North Arabia, which covers Bahrain as well as South Arabia, the Qatar and Kuwait.
“Like your patron Saint Francis of Assisi,” the Swiss Capuchin Prelate said, “you are not afraid to build bridges with the Muslim world and show your fraternal closeness to all people of good will.”
Following the Bahrain dialogue, Pope Francis met with the Muslim Council of Elders, founded in 2014 in the United Arab Emirates to promote peace and address sources of conflict within Muslim communities.
He also had a private meeting with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed Al-Tayeb. Both signed the Document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Since then, the document has been the main guiding principle of interfaith talks.
In September, Pope Francis carried the message of peace to Muslim-majority Central Asia with a three-day trip to Kazakhstan to attend the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the capital Nur-Sultan.
The pope said the visit to Kazakhstan was “an opportunity to [have a] dialogue as brothers, animated by the common desire for peace, the peace for which our world thirsts.
He was due to visit Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, at the end of 2020, but that was canceled due to the pandemic.
Pope Francis has an impressive record of engagement with the Muslim world. When he completed six years as bishop of Rome in 2019, the 85-year-old pope had already visited seven Muslim nations.
The papal interest in building bridges with Muslims is barely reflected in the Church in Asia, home to more than half of the world’s Muslims.
Nations like India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh alone account for 40% (800 million) of the world’s two billion Muslims. If papal efforts are to bear fruit in peace and cooperation between Christians and Muslims, the Church in Asia must pay much more attention to its actions.
The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences held a “dialogue with religions” vital to its mission in Asia. At the same time, dialogue with the poor and dialogue with cultures were presented as essential to a valid Christian existence in Asia.
However, decades after these statements, we see no valid engagement with Muslims in Asia, especially in South Asia, where Muslims dominate in a few countries.
Dialogue with Islam seems neglected as churches in Asia focus on dialogue with Hinduism and Buddhism in their efforts to engage with Asian religions. It is time for the Asian Church to see Islam as an Asian religion and engage with it in creative ways to help improve the lives of millions. Peace comes with progress.
The triple dialogue – with religions, cultures and the poor – will become simultaneous action when Christians begin collaborative actions with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists to lift the poor out of their miseries. Millions in Asia are poor, despite the fact that they follow a religion and its culture. To engage with the poor is in fact to engage with cultures and religions.
One of the apparent difficulties of Muslim engagement is its connection to politics. The Church, especially the hierarchy in Asia, fears that engaging with Islam will invariably tie it to political Islam, which it wants to avoid.
Pope Francis here becomes a beacon to swim in the sea of political complexities to reach the shore of friendship and collaboration.
The other issue could be the prospect of being accused of engaging in charity work to convert poor Muslims in Asia, particularly in South Asia, which has a dubious reputation for being home to the poorest Muslim communities in the world. world. It is time for the Church in Asia to follow its discourse and collaborate with Muslims to help their poor without converting any of them. It will also refute the claim of Hindu diehards that Christian charity is a front to convert the poor.
In any case, the hierarchy of the Asian Church delaying its engagement with Muslims would make papal visits to Muslim countries futile.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.