Next week Pope Francis will visit Egypt, a majority Muslim country where Christians total 10 percent of its 90 million inhabitants. America spoke to Thomas Michel, S.J, a distinguished Islamic scholar, about the significance of the pope’s trip. Pope Francis will be in Egypt for two days beginning on April 28 where he will address the World Conference on Peace, sponsored by Al-Azhar University, the principal religious institution of the Sunni world. The peace meeting will include Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Orthodox world; and Pope Tawadros II, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church.
Born in St. Louis, Father Michel joined the Indonesian province of the Jesuits in 1969. After finishing Arabic and Islamic studies in Egypt and Lebanon, he received a doctorate in Islamic theology at the University of Chicago. From 1981-94, he served as head of the Office for Islam at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (formerly the “Secretariat for Non-Christians”) during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. He also served as Secretary for Inter-religious Dialogue for the Jesuits. He has taught in universities in Turkey, the United States (including Georgetown), Qatar and is currently teaching at the Pontifical Institute for Islamic and Arabic studies, Rome. This interview has been edited.
How do you read Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt in terms of Christian-Muslim relations?
I think it’s basically meant to restore the good relations that were there particularly in the time of Pope John Paul II. You remember when he died so many Muslims came to his funeral they couldn’t find a place for them all in St. Peter’s. Relations were really good then.
But things got very testy after the talk Pope Benedict gave at Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006. Then, shortly after that, while Muslims were still angry, the pope criticized the treatment of Christians in Egypt, following the bombing of the churches. So, Al-Azhar broke off relations with us.
When Pope Francis was elected, he received greetings from Muslim leaders in Egypt. They said, “Let’s do our best to restore good relations between the two communities.”
I think this visit is an effort in that direction. Of course, it’s complicated by political issues. The new government of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is much criticized around the world for its human rights record and the way it came to power through a coup and then carried out so many imprisonments and disappearances. That’s not to say that Mohamed Morsi’s government, though democratically elected, did not have its own bad record of human rights abuses. But that is what the pope is dealing with now. That’s why I think he is going mainly to Al-Azhar: to meet the religious leaders, not the political leaders.
How important is his visit to Al-Azhar?
Muslims around the world respect and consider Al-Azhar as one of their top institutions. But it has suffered in recent years because of a brain drain, with so many of their top professors being siphoned off to the Gulf states and going to Europe, the United States, the Arab Emirates, Qatar for various reasons, including better salaries and facilities. They’ve also lost a lot of people to the West, where there’s more academic freedom. So, Egypt being a poor country compared to these other places is naturally going to lose a lot of its best people.
How can we live with Muslims? That’s the big question Christians are asking today, and, of course, Muslims, are asking the same question—how can we live with Christians?
In Cairo, Francis will speak at an international conference for peace. How significant is this?
It is a sign that they trust him. They have been reading what he has been doing in the last four years and they think this is somebody who is honest, who is not going to use the conference for a hidden agenda or anything like that.
The grand imam of Al-Azhar University, Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, visited the pope in the Vatican in May 2016. It was the first time such a meeting took place at the Vatican.They got on well, and he invited Francis to Cairo to participate in the Al-Azhar sponsored peace conference. What do you think the pope can achieve? Some worry he will be manipulated.
I think there’s always a certain amount of manipulations when you’re dealing with organized government events. I think there’s that possibility, and I’m sure the pope is aware of that. I think we have to wait and see what the pope has to say. A peace conference is certainly something that’s much needed and I’m hoping he can give some sound suggestions on how peace can be achieved.
Remember the Second Vatican Council said, in its document “Nostra Aetate,” that even though there have been many conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the past, the church urges both sides to go beyond the past and to work together in four key areas of modern life. The first of these is building peace together, the second is establishing justice, the third is defending moral values and the fourth is promoting human liberty.
So according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, all the popes—whether it’s John Paul II, Benedict XVI or Francis—have to accept that the church looks upon Muslims as our collaborators, working together to accomplish these four tasks in the modern world. I think it is very consistent with the direction given by the Second Vatican Council that the pope would be going to Al-Azhar and doing this. And Francis is an intelligent person and not naïve, he knows the dangers and the possibility—you might even say probability—that this is going to be to some extent manipulated by the government.
In this context, how do you read relations between Christianity and Islam over these last years?
I don’t agree with the way you put it. Christianity and Islam are ideas, the relations are between Muslims and Christians, and there are different kinds of Muslims just as there are different kinds of Christians. The Second Vatican Council never addresses Islam, never uses the world “Islam.” It always says, the church has great esteem for Muslims. It talks about Muslims always, not about Islam. There is no dialogue with "Islam."
How can we live with Muslims? That’s the big question Christians are asking today, and, of course, Muslims, are asking the same question—how can we live with Christians? So, our job is to find ways that we can live together—positive ways, not negative ones, to find things that we can do together for the good of humanity, not to be agents of hatred, destruction and death.
How easy is it for Christians to relate to Muslims given there’s a split within the Muslim world between Sunnis and Shiites?
You have many splits, not just between Sunni and Shia. In Egypt, for example, it’s a split between the supporters of Mr. Morsi and the supporters of Mr. Sisi—they’re all Sunni Muslims. You have Sunni and Shia fighting in Iraq, and you have Sunni and Shia living in Edmonton, Canada, and they go to the same mosque and they go to the same celebration of the feasts and there’s no conflict there because the context is not the same.
It’s the same in Argentina.
Yes, you cannot make a general statement that there’s always conflict between Sunni and Shia. It all depends upon the context. If there’s a conflict between some Sunni Muslims and some Shia in a place, reasons can be found—economic, political, ethnic—that explain it. Elsewhere, where those factors don’t apply, Sunni Muslims and Shi’a live quite easily together.
The military have been in power in Egypt for over 60 years. What do you see as the possible points of understanding between the Christians and Muslims on that issue?
I know so many Egyptians. Some are very strongly in favor of this government, other people that I know are very much against it. Most of the people I know in Egypt are Muslim, though some are Christians.
I lived in a Coptic seminary in Cairo for a few years between 1973 and 1976, and I know a lot of people in the church there, and the thing that everybody is talking about is that they want a society with good government. They want a government that’s going to listen to the needs of the people. They want a government that’s going to provide education and health care, and a level of economy that enables people to have good decent life like people want in places like England, Australia or Japan.
Is this the type of government that provides that? These are the kinds of things on which Egyptians are differing and when they get together to talk about it they’re asking what kind of government, what kind of people are going to provide us with the basic things?
They want to be sure that when their children go out in the evenings they will not suffer violence or disappear returning home. Now some Egyptians feel that an Islamic state is the best way to achieve this; others say no, that has been tried and failed; we need a state that is going to be more secular where the radical Muslims are going to be controlled. These are the kinds of issues they talk about.
You were the desk officer under John Paul II for relations with Muslims and Islamic organizations. As you look at the situation today how do you see the relation between Christians, the Holy See, the Catholic church and Muslims, in the light of your own experience then?
John Paul II had a real respect for Muslims because he saw them as practicing worshippers of God who are trying to do God’s will. He looked favorably at what was happening in the Muslim world compared with what was happening in Western Europe, which he felt had abandoned religion and religious values. He tended to be quite positive towards their religion.
At the time he died, Muslims felt that in this world where everybody is putting us down, here’s somebody, a thinker, who respects us and they really responded tremendously well to him. I was in several places where Muslims would come up to me and shake my hand, knowing that I was from the Vatican and they would not say, “How are you?”, they would just say, “John Paul, John Paul.”
I think they were really shocked when things went worse under Benedict XVI, they felt that this relationship that they thought was so strong and was going to last, they realized that it was very fragile.
But when Pope Benedict stood with his face towards Mecca in the mosque in Istanbul and bowed his head in prayer, that was the first time that Muslims thought “maybe we were too hasty in seeing him as just a Muslim baiter” and so they thought “maybe we should hang around and see what is going to happen.”
Then when Pope Francis was elected, many Muslims said, “OK, it’s time for a new start, let’s try it again,” and you get people like the president of Al-Azhar sending him this very warm message of congratulations hoping to start things up again. So, there’s a lot of interest now. They’ve seen over these four years that Francis is somebody who is serious about Christians and Muslims living together and working together and making peace together. They see him as someone who seriously respects Muslims as the Second Vatican Council called him to do, and so they said, “Let’s invite him and see what he has to say.”