Saints, Sultans and Narco Jihad

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March 2019. Pope Francis begins his apostolic journey to Morocco, the North African nation where Sunnis made up 99% of the population and Catholics less than 0.01%. Addressing a congregation at Saint-Pierre Cathedral in the capital, Rabat, the Pope launched a fervent call for the building of friendship and brotherhood between Christians and Muslims. “God desires a greater sense of brotherhood between Catholics and Muslims as descendants of the same father, Abraham”. The Pope also signed with King Mohammed VI of Morocco an “Appeal for Jerusalem” calling for the preservation of the holy city as a peaceful meeting place for Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Yet in Kerala, their greatest haven of peace in India, the spiritual leaders of the children of Abraham seem to be going against the desire of their God and the call of their Holy Father. Forget brotherhood, Catholics and Muslims in Kerala are now engaged in a bitter war of words which has threatened to escalate into violence in some places. Archbishop Joseph Kallarangad of the Syro Malabar Church (SMC), India’s largest Roman Catholic Church, has launched Kerala on a trail of religious frenzy with the sensational accusation of ‘narcotic jihad’ leveled against sections of Muslims. Organizations and leaders on both sides of the fence are now angry with each other. The SMC had previously raised the charge of “Love Jihad”, which was later found to be baseless by the police and the courts. Yet the presence of a Christian and Hindu girl among those who married young Muslims and traveled to Afghanistan to join ISIS in 2016 is cited as proof of Love Jihad in Kerala.

The Narco jihad controversy follows multiple incidents that have ignited passions on both sides for some time. The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference and various secular groups defended the bishops while Muslim groups took to the road in protest. Extremists on both sides have found the controversy practical enough to continue their agenda. The BJP, which has long sought out Christians in the state, found an opportunity in the muddy waters and rushed to support the Church. Convulsions raged within the LDF and UDF with Kerala congressional factions on both fronts supporting the church. The CPI (M) and the Congress try to appear neutral but hesitate to take a firm position, fearing a reaction from the communities. Catholic groups accuse the two “secular” parties of being “pro-jihadists”.

Fortunately, healthier voices in both communities, including leaders of other Christian churches, have opposed attempts to divide the communities. However, Fr. Paul Thelakat, former spokesperson for the SMC, seems the only senior official within the SMC to have dared to oppose the archbishop. Thelakat lambasted him for taking the sectarian path and not following Pope Francis’ fervent efforts to build bridges between Muslims and Christians. Catholic extremists now want to kick Thelakat out of the church for “insulting” the archbishop.

War in Kerala erupted when Pope Francis took a series of historic and unprecedented steps to strengthen the friendship between Christians and Muslims. Vatican efforts to build interfaith harmony and continue dialogue with Muslims began in the 1960s. The historic Vatican II Council under Pope John XXIII in 1965 first expressed respect for Islam after mutual rivalries of several centuries. He also established a high level body to initiate Christian-Muslim dialogues. Although his progress was late due to the growth of terrorism around the world, the Pope’s efforts met a wall during the time of Pope Benedict XVI, the Pope’s current predecessor, despite his efforts to continue. dialogue. This happened when Muslims took offense at a 2006 lecture by Pope Benedict, who was seen as hostile to Islam.

Since Pope Francis took office in 2013, rebuilding bridges with Muslims has become a priority among many other progressive measures initiated by the very first Latin American pontiff. Pope Francis began in 2019 with the very first visit of a Roman Catholic pontiff to the Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam. This followed the UAE government’s declaration in 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance” intended to mend barriers with Christians. During the visit to Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis met with “Sunni Pope” Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, and issued a joint statement on “human brotherhood” emphasizing the need for harmony between Muslims and Christians. . The Pope made history again when he led the very first papal mass on the peninsula, which was attended by Muslims and Christians. Later, the Pope published an encyclical – “Fratelli Tutti” – on brotherhood and friendship in which he mentioned four times how he was influenced by the Grand Imam. No pope has ever said that an encyclical was influenced by a non-Christian according to a scholar.

The Pope arrived in Morocco the following month where he recalled that his pilgrimage was also in commemoration of the visit to Egypt of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, 800 years ago. He recalled that Saint Francis’ visit was in the middle of the Fifth Crusade and was aimed at converting the powerful Sultan Malik al-Kamil. Mutual hostilities between the two religions were then at their highest and the meeting would even have led to violence. However, the saint and the sultan spoke to each other and instead of converting, resolved to live in fraternity, with respect for differences.

Last March, Pope Francis launched another “friendship offensive” by becoming the first pontiff to visit Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham, the common patriarch of the monotheistic religions. The 84-year-old Pope’s visit ignored objections raised in the context of recent attacks on churches and also the spread of COVID-19 there. But the visit proved historic when the Pope met the Shiite supremo, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, at his residence. They issued a joint statement calling for interfaith harmony and a call to end clashes between Muslims and Christians in areas like Yemen, Myanmar and Nigeria.

The Pope’s visit could console the besieged former Catholic communities located in the plains of Nineveh who desperately clung to their identity despite declining numbers, wars, bloodshed, etc. following the rise of the Islamic State. He prayed at the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was once desecrated and burnt down by ISIS and called for harmony. The Pope visited the ancient city of Ur, considered the birthplace of Abraham, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad where 48 Catholics were killed in a jihadist attack in 2010. “Terrorism and death never have the last word… Catholics and Muslims must not be afraid of differences because God allowed it but we must be afraid if we do not work in fraternity, to walk together in life ”recalled Pope.

The last papal visit to Kerala dates back 35 years by John Paul II. The last papal visit to India was also made by him in 1999, when Kerala was not on his itinerary. Pope Francis could visit India after COVID-19 ends. Let us pray to all the gods that this will happen sooner rather than later. Never before has papal intercession seemed so essential for Kerala.


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