Of Many Things

In the summer of 1219, Francis of Assisi traveled to Egypt with the hope of converting the Saracens from Islam to Christianity. He stayed with some crusaders, who told him his mission was impossible and could easily cost him his life. Francis ignored the warnings and managed to secure an audience with the sultan, who was not at all interested in his visitor's message but was kind enough to return him safely to the crusaders’ camp.

Although he made no converts, Francis was a lot more fortunate than a certain Eulogius, who was beheaded in Cordova in 859 for denouncing Muhammad as an imposter and trying to shield Leocritia, a young Muslim woman who had become a Christian.

Advertisement

Francis would have been startled if he could have foreseen what the Second Vatican Council had to say about Islam in 1965. In its “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” the council insisted that the church “looks with esteem” upon the Muslims and their adoration of the “one God Maker of heaven and earth.”

Mindful perhaps of figures like the pugnacious St. Eulogius, to say nothing of the far from saintly crusaders, the declaration conceded that over the centuries there have been many quarrels between Christians and Muslims, but it urged “all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding.”

That is not an impossible goal in a democratic and pluralistic society like the United States. In recent years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has joined some Islamic groups in cosponsoring three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues.

But in Saudi Arabia or Iraq, setting up an interfaith dialogue is about as likely as obtaining a license to open a bar or night club. In fact, many Islamic nations forbid by law any preaching of the Gospel.

All the same, even in those countries certain forms of evangelization may be possible, if evangelization is understood in its fullest sense.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, pointed out in “The Good Olive Tree,” in America’s Sept. 17 issue, that evangelization in its proper theological sense includes elements such as simple presence in a locality or the carrying on of humanitarian social projects “that do not have the goal of increasing the number of Catholics.”

Evangelization in that broad sense has proved possible even in an unfriendly culture. For 37 years (1932-69) members of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus worked successfully in Iraq, which is largely Islamic. In 1932 they founded Baghdad College, a secondary school for boys, and in 1956 A1 Hikma, Iraq's first modern university.

The Jesuits got along well with the government until 1968, when the Baath, a socialist party now totally controlled by Saddam Hussein, came to power. The Baath leaders were opposed to private education and had become anti-American because of U.S. support for Israel in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 1968 they expelled the 26 Jesuits at Al Hikma, which had 700 students at the time, and in 1969 they deported the 33 Jesuits at Baghdad College, which then enrolled 1,000 boys.

Those schools had bucked up the Christian minorities—the Catholic Chaldeans and the Assyrian Orthodox—but they had observed the laws against proselytizing and made no converts.

Conversions, however, were not their purpose. They gave a first-rate education, and that was a good work in itself. Along the way, they somewhat diminished 12 centuries of hostility between Muslims and Christians, since half their student body was Islamic. They also gave witness to their faith by their good example. There is hardly a better way than that to let the light of the Gospel shine forth.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pro-life advocates participate in the annual March for Life in Washington January 2017. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Describing abortion as a “key social evil” in the United States, the Jesuits say: “The most fundamental building block of a just social order is respect for human life.”
America StaffJanuary 19, 2018
Men carry a replica of Peru's most revered religious icon, the "Lord of Miracles," during an Oct. 18, 2017 procession in Lima. Each year thousands of Catholics gather to commemorate the image's survival in a 17th-century earthquake that destroyed Lima. (CNS photo/Mariana Bazo, Reuters)
Father Ernesto Cavassa was provincial of the Jesuits in Peru from 1998 to 2004, and president of the Conference of Latin American Jesuit Provincials from 2005 to 2012.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 18, 2018
For over 45 years, Feminists for Life has been committed to ending the practice and legality of abortion and promoting the feminism of Susan B. Anthony.
Serrin M. FosterJanuary 18, 2018
A President Donald Trump supporter is see seen at the annual March for Life in Washington Jan. 27. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
During their tenure in office, President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush all addressed the march via telephone or a radio hookup from the Oval Office.
Catholic News ServiceJanuary 18, 2018