LA Muslims see hope for interfaith relations in the new Catholic Pope Francis

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L'Osservatore Romano

In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis washes the foot of an inmate at the juvenile detention center of Casal del Marmo, Rome, Thursday, March 28, 2013. Francis washed the feet of a dozen inmates at a juvenile detention center in a Holy Thursday ritual that he celebrated for years as archbishop and is continuing now that he is pope. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho)

Mahmoud Adel-Baset was shocked when he found out Pope Francis washed two Muslim inmates' feet during Holy Thursday last month.

Chairman of the religious committee at the Islamic Center of Southern California, Adel-Baset saw the gesture as a "new kind of hope" and an opportunity for stronger relations between the Muslim and Catholic community.

"I thought, 'Wow,'" he recalls. "This is something Mother Teresa does, not the Pope."

He found himself speechless once more after the new pontiff urged the West to intensify dialogue with Islam.

He isn't alone. Many in Los Angeles' Muslim community view Francis' actions as a catalyst for bolstered relations — relations they hope will continue with a renewal of the Catholic-Muslim forum, a three-day interreligious summit that first took place in 2008. The first-ever conference opened "a new chapter in the long history" of dialogue between the two faiths.

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"We anticipate a stronger, more cordial relationship," Adel-Baset says. 'Francis' actions so far are amazing."

While interfaith relations between Catholics and Muslims have come a long way since the Crusades, some Muslims say Pope Benedict XVI, who announced his resignation from the papacy in February, did little to engage with Islam.

Under Benedict, dialogue between the two religions took a turn toward the tumultuous. At the University of Regensburg in 2006, Benedict quoted a Byzantine Emperor, saying, "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman."

The Pope quickly responded to criticism and apologized for the reactions his remarks elicited from the Muslim community.

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought."

But Yasmin Nouh, 22, believes that with Francis' leadership, there is potential for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and 1.6 billion Muslims to come together and tackle universal concerns, such as poverty — something the pope has been outspoken about since his election one month ago, when he asked for "a poor Church and [a Church] for the poor."

American Muslims are confident

"American Muslims feel confident that Pope Francis will make significant strides in building upon the foundation of interfaith trust and respect," says Nouh, who works for the Greater Los Angeles branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Intensified dialogue between the two faiths began in 2007, when Muslim scholars released an open letter entitled "A Common Word Between Us and You" to the world's Christians, inviting religious leaders to seek common ground. Shortly after, the Catholic-Muslim forum was established.

After two of these interfaith summits — a second was held in 2011 — religious leaders have made various pacts, including an agreement that "human life should ... be preserved and honored in all its stages" and that "religious minorities are entitled ... to their own places of worship."

For many Muslims, the pope's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, offers clues to his position on interfaith relations.

According to a 13th-century tale, the Franciscan monk crossed enemy lines and spoke with the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil, during the height of the Crusades. The meeting left an indelible mark on St. Francis and led him to ask members of his nascent order to be more understanding of Islam. Many believe the visit marked a pivotal moment in interfaith dialogue and provides the current pontiff with a model for Muslim engagement.

"There is a rich tradition of dialogue between Muslims and Catholics," Nouh says. "I expect Pope Francis will continue the [Catholic-Muslim] forum and create a space to come together for honest and sincere conversation."

Though church attendance is falling among U.S. Catholics — the share of Catholics who say they attend mass at least once a week has dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012 —  combined, Christians and Muslims make up nearly half of the global population.

More light and less heat

The Rev. James Heft, a religion professor at the University of Southern California, says the interfaith relationship is important for that reason: Better communication is required to reduce the possibility of needless conflict between religious titans.

"What we need most is more light and less heat," Heft says. "That is usually generated through careful conversation over time."

But some say Francis' power is limited to that of a figurehead: his outreach, which is symbolic at best.

Eric Hanson, an expert in Vatican politics at Santa Clara University, argues that conversation will be continued under the new pope, but that he alone cannot change the course of interfaith relations.

"Francis will be good at coverage at the top," Hanson says. "But dialogue takes place at a whole bunch of levels — religious leaders, theologians, practitioners — and those nuanced levels are what will lead to a better world."

Hanson says Catholic-Muslim dialogue is vital for the future of international relations, particularly in regions where a Catholic majority lives with a Muslim minority — as in the Philippines — or where a Muslim majority lives with a Christian minority — as in Indonesia.

"There's an awful lot of places where Christians and Muslims come into close contact," Hanson says. "The emphasis is going to shift to the Third World, and part of that is growth of Islam. I would expect Francis to be better for that sort of dialogue."

Hanson's argument resonates with many L.A. Muslims, such as Edina Lekovic. While her expectations of Francis were low when he was first elected, she now believes his actions have heralded a new era of cooperation. She says interfaith relationships are important because to be religious in the 21st century is to be interreligious.

"The message of interfaith dialogue is critical," says Lekovic, who works as director of public policy and planning at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "Francis is creating higher expectations because he started off on the right foot with goodwill gestures."

Adel-Baset echoes Lekovic's sentiments. He believes Francis has the ability to move the masses and propel interfaith relations. Reports from Argentina show Francis, as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, was a steadfast friend of the Islamic community.

"One pope can completely damage what his predecessor has accomplished," Adel-Baset says, referring to Benedict's 2006 statement. "But one pope can make a difference. We are very hopeful. This is a man with conviction."

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.

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