Juan Pablo II: hombre de todas las religionees

As the world bids goodbye to Pope John Paul II, it also reflects on his legacy. That this pope was beloved by Catholics is of no surprise. What is remarkable is the respect he earned from other faiths, for he took unprecedented steps to build bridges of understanding.
John Paul II was the first leader of the Catholic Church to set foot inside a mosque. In May 2001, on a trip to Damascus, the Syrian capital, he visited the Ummayad Mosque — one of the world’s oldest, which contains the tomb of John the Baptist. According to the Vatican, this was the first time Muslims and Christians officially prayed together.
Commenting on this visit, John Wilkins, editor of the Tablet, a Catholic newspaper, said, «Traditionally, Islam has been tolerant of Christianity — more tolerant than Christianity has been of Islam.» John Paul II, in his 1994 book, «Crossing the Threshold of Hope,» quite understandably disagreed with the theology of Islam but went on to say: «Nevertheless, the religiosity of Muslims deserves respect. It is impossible not to admire, for example, their fidelity to prayer. The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all. The Council has also called for the Church to have a dialogue with followers of the ‘Prophet,’ and the Church has proceeded to do so.»
In 1994, under John Paul II, the Vatican normalized relations with Israel, yet the pope continued to speak of the «natural rights» of Palestinians to their homeland. In 2004, expressing his disagreement with the Iraq war, he warned of the damaging effects of this war in further polarizing religions. The pontiff urged Washington to understand better the Islamic world. On this issue, the sentiment of the pope is no different from those of many American Muslims.
John Paul II will rightfully be remembered by many Muslims as an advocate of justice, a bridge-builder and a visionary. He promoted his own faith without appearing condescending of others. Public figures who have espoused Islamophobic views could borrow a page of tolerance from this great Christian leader. Our faith is not any stronger when we ridicule or denigrate the beliefs of others. At a time when misunderstandings between religions threaten world peace, we should all reflect upon this pope and continue building his bridges of understanding.
Parvez Ahmed (pahmed@cairfl.org) is a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil-rights and advocacy group

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