By Arthur Brown
Last month saw the publication of Pope Francis’ Evangelli Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel. This rare and significant publication, known as an apostolic exhortation, seeks to encourage the faithful to live out the teachings of the Catholic Church within the context of the day. It is clear both from the content and tone of the document that Pope Francis played an active role in its development, focusing as it does on the joy that is evident in the Gospel and our responsibility to share this joy with the world around us. The document includes chapters on:
- The Church’s Missionary Transformation,
- The Crisis of Communal Commitment,
- The Proclamation of the Gospel,
- The Social Dimensions of Evangelization, and
- Spirit-filled Evangelizers.
Of particular interest, given IMES’s mandate to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond, is Francis’ focus on inter-religious dialogue, particularly of the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
To be honest, much from Evangelli Gaudium could have come straight from of an IMES document, and this is a source of great encouragement for me. For example, Pope Francis affirms the belief, as does IMES, that:
An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides.
Francis suggests that such dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world and is therefore the duty of people of faith. He further asserts that as we spend time with those from different traditions, we share in their joys as well as their sorrows, and learn to appreciate others’ ways of living, thinking, and speaking.
Whilst ethical approaches toward interfaith dialogue do not view such interactions as opportunities for evangelization, it is no doubt true that the attitude by which we approach inter-faith dialogue is in itself an ethical position that demonstrates the values of the One we seek to make known.
True openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being “open to understanding those of the other party” and “knowing that dialogue can enrich each side.”
As we come together discuss our own faith with those of a different faith, our purpose cannot be the vilification of another’s beliefs and practices. Our role is to speak in positive terms about what we believe, and to listen with respect to those who hold different beliefs. With an attitude of humility, we may actually come to see something of the God who created all humanity in His image.
This is not to say we must agree with everything we hear, or remain quiet about such issues. However, the way in which we deal with disagreements perhaps says more about the God we hope to represent than the particular words we might say about that God.
Quoting the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pope Francis acknowledges that followers of Islam:
Profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day. 
Furthermore, Francis speaks positively of Muslims, stating that:
Many of them also have a deep conviction that their life, in its entirety, is from God and for God. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.
Francis suggests that in order to sustain dialogue with Islam it is important that those from various traditions have suitable training:
Not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs.
Without seeking to be self-promotional, IMES was in many respects set up for this very purpose. Grounded in our own Christ-centered identity, IMES provides exactly such training through our Masters of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program, our annual Middle East Consultation (MEC), our annual Middle East Immersion (MEI) program, our Academy of Languages and Practical Skills (ALPS), this very website, and the variety of other activities and partnerships with which we are engaged and/or planning.
I, for one, would also like to join with Pope Francis in calling on Christians – and all Christ-followers for that matter – to avoid ‘hateful generalizations’ about Islam and its followers, even in the face of ‘violent fundamentalism’. Francis asserts that we must respect ‘true followers of Islam…for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence’. The degree to which this is true is, of course, subject to interpretation. Yet, what is undoubtedly true is the fact that it is easy to buy into uncritical discourses of hate – often stemming from fear – by both Christians who attack Islam and Muslims who attack Christianity.
Maybe one of the most significant calls Francis makes in relation to Islam is to the Christian communities currently hosting Muslims:
We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition.
It is well known that Lebanon has both Muslim and Christian populations. It is also clear that we are now host to countless Muslim [and Christian] refugees from Syria. Lebanon is almost at its breaking point and yet the Pontiff’s message to his church in Lebanon is clear – embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to your country! (Naturally, this is easy to say and very hard to do given the historic relations between the various communities of Lebanon.)
How then will the Catholic Church respond? How will the evangelical church respond? How will all people of faith respond to the call of the Pope?
Finally, Francis also humbly challenges the global Muslim community to reciprocate the right to religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the West:
I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!
I have only scratched the surface of Pope Francis’ monumental document, which contains so much for us all to consider. I urge you to look at it and to see what you might be able to draw from it, regardless of your own faith and religious tradition. It is a hopeful document, which for the most part I would suggest seeks to speak the truth, in love (Ephesians 4:14-16), encouraging the church in its joyful proclamation of the gospel.
 Evangelli Gaudium, 250.
 Evangelli Gaudium, 251.
 See Volf, Allah: A Christian Response, p.115.
 Second Vatican Ecumenical CouncIl, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 16.
 Evangelli Gaudium, 252.
 Evangelli Gaudium, 253.