Pope Francis. Picture: AFP PHOTO/TIZIANA FABI
Pope Francis. Picture: AFP PHOTO/TIZIANA FABI

Vatican City — Pope Francis said on Wednesday he hoped his historic trip to the Arabian peninsula will help dispel the notion of an inevitable clash of civilisations between Christianity and Islam.

Francis returned to Rome on Tuesday from the United Arab Emirates, where in Abu Dhabi he presided at the largest public Mass ever celebrated on the peninsula where Islam was born.

“In an era like ours, where there is a strong temptation to see a clash between Christian civilisation and the Islamic one, and even to consider religions as a source of conflict, we wanted to send another clear and decisive signal that [an] encounter is possible,” he said at his regular general audience.

Francis was referring to a document he signed during the trip with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, one of the most authoritative theological and educational institutions in Islam.

The pope said the Document on Human Fraternity was proof that “it is possible to respect each other and hold dialogue, and that despite differences in culture and traditions, the Christian and Islamic worlds appreciate and protect common values…”

The document, signed on Monday, called on “all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression”.

He invited everyone to read the document, saying it would offer ideas on how individuals can work for tolerance and coexistence.

Ultra-conservative Catholics have been opposed to any dialogue with Islam, with some saying its ultimate goal is to destroy the West.

On the plane returning from Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, a reporter asked Francis about possible negative reaction to the document by Catholics “who accuse you of allowing yourself to be used by Muslims”.

Francis, a progressive who has been in the crosshairs of conservatives since his election in 2013, responded with a joke: “Not only the Muslims. They accuse me of allowing myself to be used by everyone, even journalists. It’s part of the job.”

But he said “from a Catholic point of view, the document had not strayed a millimetre” from teachings on inter-religious dialogue approved by the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.

“If anyone feels bad, I understand. It is not an everyday thing. But it is a step forward,” he said on the plane.

Earlier during his visit Francis, whose papacy has been marked by efforts to quell a global crisis over sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, said he was committed to stopping the abuse of nuns by priests and bishops, some of whom had used the women as sex slaves.

Francis made his comments  in response to a reporter’s question about an article last week in a Vatican monthly magazine about the abuse of nuns in the Catholic Church. Recently more nuns, encouraged by the #MeToo movement, have come forward to describe abuse at the hands of priests and bishops.

In 2018, the International Union of Superiors General, which represents more than 500,000 Catholic nuns, urged their members to report abuse. “It is true… there have been priests and even bishops who have done this. I think it is still going on because something does not stop just because you have become aware of it,” Francis said.

“We have been working on this for a long time. We have suspended some priests because of this,” he said, adding that the Vatican was in the process of shutting down a female religious order because of sexual abuse and corruption. He did not name the order. 

Reuters