Friar Jack Muses About Better Understanding Between Muslims and Christians

As a Franciscan and a Christian, I feel uneasy about the violent conflictin Afghanistan. It is clear that the kind of terrorism that traumatized our nation in September, killing several thousand innocent people, must beresisted and stopped as effectively as possible. Indeed, every nation must protect its citizens and guests from such murderous attacks. And it's hard to see how the terrorists can be stopped and brought to justice without physical conflict and confrontation, but are we doing everything right in Afghanistan?

I feel highly concerned about the frequent reports (and, yes, we need to be aware of the propaganda factor) of innocent civilians being killed or made homeless and forced into harsh refugee situations. Some accidental deaths of civilians and severe dislocations seem sadly unavoidable in warfare, but is our nation doing everything it reasonably can to value and protect such lives? I am similarly concerned about what is happening to Christian-Muslim relations—and the level of respect and understanding that all people of good-will want to see between these two world religions. It seems rather clear that Muslims around the world who seek to live out the true spirit of Islam abhor the terrorist attacks of September 11, as well as the lame attempts of extremists to link such incredibly cruel behavior to the will of God.

Our nation is sincere, I believe, in saying that our war is not against Islam but terrorism. Yet, how does it look to many Muslims around the world when they see the incessant and violent pounding of a Muslim land (Afghanistan) with our massive air attacks. And what do Muslims think when they hear repeated reports of civilian casualties of Muslims and the worsening plight of Muslim refugees. For example, many fear that thousands and thousands of refugee children may starve or die in the freezing cold as winter sets in.

It's imperative that we find ways to show concern for the precious lives of innocent civilians and children. Otherwise, our insistence that we are fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and not Islam will become harder and harder to believe. In this country, too, there are instances of brothers and sisters being harassed, threatened or assaulted by bigoted individuals because they are Muslim—or simply because they are Arab or Middle Eastern in appearance. This can only add to the impression in Muslim circles that Islam itself is under attack. We need to work harder to bring our actions into greater harmony with our words.

At this point, we look to an incident in the life of St. Francis that can serve as a model for solving conflicts in a nonviolent way and for improving understanding between Christians and Muslims. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who lived during the time of the Crusades, had come to distrust violence and war. In the year 1219 he sought a non-violent way to solve the conflict between Christians and Muslims. Francis journeyed to Damietta, Egypt, near the mouth of the Nile, determined to have a meeting with the Sultan of Egypt, even as Christian crusaders were engaged in bloody conflict with the Muslim forces nearby.

Francis succeeded in getting an audience with Sultan Malek-el-Kamel. Though Francis tried to persuade the Sultan of the good news of Jesus' saving love for all, the Sultan was not drawn away from his own faith and convictions. Yet, he saw Francis' enthusiasm and courage and listened to him courteously and with admiration. He saw to it, moreover, that Francis was given safe passage back to the Christian camp. In our day, we need to follow the example of St. Francis and the sultan and reach out in respectful dialogue with our brothers and sisters of different religions and cultures. I'll tell you about one recent example of this in the conclusion to my musings, below.

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St. Francis himself had reached out to a Muslim sultan in Egypt, as I described above. A few weeks ago, a similar reaching out took place closer to home when Franciscan Friar Fred Link, O.F.M., the provincial of the Franciscan friars of Cincinnati, extended a gesture of friendship and peace to the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati. It was October 12 (a Friday, the Muslim day of prayer). In the name of his Franciscan brothers, Father Fred sent a large floral display to the Center's mosque with the note: "As St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Melek-el-Kamel blessed each other with greetings of peace in 1219, the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist Province, Cincinnati, Ohio, extend best wishes of peace to our Muslim brothers and sisters in the Greater Cincinnati area."

The following week, Father Fred received a thank-you note from Sister Karen Dabdoub, administrator of the Center: "May God bless you for your kindness and generosity. The beautiful flowers you sent have brightened our worship space all week. Please extend our thanks to all in your order."

When I contacted Sister Dabdoub by phone at the Islamic Center and identified myself as a Cincinnati Franciscan, she was very friendly and spoke enthusiastically about the large floral arrangement they had received. The display, she added, had been placed in the lobby of the mosque where worshippers could see it on their way to prayer. Although she admitted that the Center had received several unkind and threatening phone calls immediately after the September 11 attacks, she said that by and large they received much support from the Greater Cincinnati community. She estimated that for every negative or biased comment received at the Center, there were 25 responses of support.

What did the Islamic Center most desire from the Christian community? "An increase of communication and understanding between our two communities," Sister Dabdoub replied. She said she also wished Christians and Muslims could work together on issues like family values, anti-abortion efforts and human rights—and to pray for each other. It was her wish that we "not only live together in peace, but work together for the good of our city and nation."

I'm not sure of the best strategy for solving the huge problem of terrorism. But I see more hope in improving communications and in turning to actions of peace, friendship and social improvement than in increasing our reliance on bombs.


As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions via e-mail:

—Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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