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Friar’s E-Spirations: President Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World: Looking Back and Looking Forward

St. Francis meets the sultan

Convinced that violence and war was the wrong path, Francis determined to engage in peaceful dialogue with the sultan and the whole Muslim world. When he gained entrance to the sultan’s camp, Francis fearlessly tried to persuade his Muslim host that Christ was the true path to salvation.

Although the sultan was not about to change his belief system, he admired St. Francis’ enthusiasm and courage, and listened respectfully to him. Francis also showed a deep respect for his Muslim brother. The sultan offered gifts to Francis and saw that he was given safe passage back to the Christian camp. As they parted, according to one account, the sultan said to Francis, “Pray for me that God may reveal to me the law and the faith that is more pleasing to him.” Franciscan scholars find evidence that Francis had truly entered into a spirit of dialogue with the sultan and was personally open to positive values present in the Muslim faith and culture.

Fewer than three weeks ago at Egypt’s Cairo University, President Obama delivered a challenging address on Muslim and American relations. He held out a hand of friendship to Islam and called for dialogue on a variety of issues, hoping the dialogue would lead the world to greater peace and interreligious understanding.

According to the New York Times, the speech was Mr. Obama’s “call for a fresh look at deep divisions, both those between Israel and its neighbors and between the Islamic world and the West. Among his messages was a call for Americans and Muslims to abandon their mutual suspicions and to do more to confront violent extremism.”

I see President Obama’s address as an opportunity for me to look back on a number of observations made in past issues of Friar Jack’s E-spirations on the same subject. Regarding past, long-ago events in the Christian-Muslim dialogue, my mind turns naturally to a dialogue that took place in 1219, while Christian Crusaders were engaged in bloody warfare with Muslim combatants. Francis of Assisi traveled to Damietta, Egypt, to enter into dialogue with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, leader of the Muslim forces.

Looking back at the U.S. invasion of Iraq

The United States began its invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. In Friar Jack’s E-spiration of March 28, 2003, I wrote: “The die has been cast! President Bush has decided to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein—despite many opposing voices around the world.

“What do those who argued for a peaceful solution do now? For starters, we hope and pray that the dreaded consequences many feared, such as the loss of life and escalating tensions between Christians and Muslims, can be minimized. In addition, we try harder to be voices and instruments of peace and understanding—and builders of a global human family as the spirit inspires each of us.

“More than once, President Bush has tried to convince us, as well as Muslims around the world, that his war is not against Islam. But what must it look like to the Muslim world when an avowed Christian, and the leader of the world’s only superpower, determines to depose with overwhelming force the head of a Muslim nation? Although many of Iraq’s Muslim neighbors (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) are not particularly fond of Hussein, President Bush’s aggressive determination to invade a Muslim land must have made words about not being hostile to Islam seem something of bad joke!”

From aggression to peacemaking

“Twelve years ago, when American troops were in the Persian Gulf and on the brink of going to war with Iraq in that first Gulf War, I had a conversation with a Franciscan friar working in Jordan. A native of Lebanon, he was director at the time of a Catholic high school in Amman, attended by 627 Christians and 706 Muslims. When I asked him how the western troops were looked upon, he replied that many in the Arab world saw ‘American and western forces in the Persian Gulf as new Crusaders seeking to occupy Muslim lands.’ Nor did the Arab peoples fail to notice, according to the friar, that the United States was in no ‘similar hurry to solve the Palestinian question in Jerusalem.’ The same perspective is no doubt held with even greater conviction right now.

“We cannot abandon our efforts, as a nation and as individuals, to move from the path of aggression and violence to that of peacemaking and diplomacy, and to improve relations with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Clearly, one of the reasons why Pope John Paul II speaks out in opposition to the war with Iraq is his desire to heal relationships between Christians and Muslims, not to inflame them. He is keenly aware that in many Islamic countries, Christians live as minority communities and can be subjected to duress because of the perceived aggression of the Christian West.

“A case in point is Iraq itself. Some 200,000 Christians have left that country since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the Catholic population of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today [March 2003] it is about 175,000. [Now in June 2009 the numbers are surely much worse.] The more the Christian West [is perceived] as a bully aggressor against Islam, the more these Christian minorities are susceptible to persecution and forced to flee to safer lands.”

New views of President Obama and others

To be consistent with what I wrote in my E-spiration of March 2003, I must say that the views of President Obama expressed in his address of June 4, 2009, seem to be on the right track in reversing some of the mistakes of March 2003. At this point, the majority of Americans and many others around the world seem to approve of his views on Iraq.

The March 2003 Friar Jack’s E-spirations received a barrage of outrage and criticism from many readers. There were also readers who agreed with my positions. The most painful accusations were that I was not honoring the brave men and women who were laying their lives on the line in defense of our nation. In retrospect, I believe I was honoring them. I am profoundly grateful for their heroism and for their families. I also believe our brave men and women would have been better honored and served if they had not been sent into that unnecessary war.

Prayer for world peace

All loving and compassionate God—God of Abraham—protect the lives of all your children, especially those in harm’s way because of violence and war. Help us to be responsive to your loving spirit within us. May your all-powerful spirit inspire us to help heal our broken world. Amen.

Dear Friar Jim: (I) really enjoyed your beautiful article on the speck of sand and the love of God. One part of it caused me to ask the question of receiving in the hand vs. the tongue. As a cradle Catholic, I received on the tongue, but reformed to the hand when told to do so. Now I see people, young and old, that have gone back to the tongue. I am confused. Could you please explain? Maddie

A: Dear Maddie: You have the option of doing it either way, whatever you prefer. No one (unless the pastor or the bishop makes the rule) can tell you that you are restricted to one way. Either way is pleasing to the Lord. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: Your article on the earth being like a grain of sand was wonderful. The most poignant part for me was the part on “The Answer is Love.” Your line about God leaving human footprints on the earth, this speck in the universe, just hit me. Thank you for making that point. It is impossible for me to fathom the love God has for humankind. Janet

A: Dear Janet: It is amazing. I have my baby book and, sure enough, there is my tiny footprint right on the second page as identification. Actually, it wasn’t exactly tiny since I was 10 pounds at birth. Imagining God in the flesh having a footprint: How incarnational is that! Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: Gaze at the Eucharist in one’s own hand? Firstly, never mine; I am not ordained and this just shouldn’t be happening. Lastly, you are not supposed to encourage people to linger over the Eucharist in that way. This is to lead in the wrong way. Receiving the Eucharist is supposed to be done physically with all reverence and piety due to our Lord and interiorly, just as you’ve recommended. Deborah

A: Dear Deborah: I’m not sure what you are talking about here. To “gaze” doesn’t mean for a long time; but look at it! It is Jesus the savior. When you say “amen” you are saying “I believe,” and it is nice to actually look at the host when you say those words. I agree, you should not leave your place without putting the host in your mouth. But that takes only a second or two. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: …you mention gazing at the Eucharist in your hand at Communion and realizing that you are holding God. I have often felt this way. However, recently I have been reading some books and listening to some discussions at church about how receiving the Eucharist in your hand is not pleasing to Our Lord. Receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is the preferred way. Ginger

A: Dear Ginger: No, you are free to receive Eucharist in your hand. Some say that is not permitted, but it is. If you watch the Masses in the Vatican, when the pope gives communion, people do not take it in their hand. But you will see when the other dozens of priests distribute at that Mass, many, many receive in the hand. I think Jesus is just as happy whether you receive it on your tongue or in your hand. If the pastor says, “no,” then, of course, do what the pastor wants. Friar Jim