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Pope Francis pushes Catholic Church towards interfaith dialogue on travels

During his trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, the pope is pushing for "the wealth of our differences" to be part of the conversations between religions. Some in Germany see the Pope's approach as part of a long-term trend.

In his first official speech in Myanmar on Tuesday, the head of the Catholic Church refrained from using the word Rohingya. In the capital Naypyidaw, however, he cautioned that "every ethnic group" must be respected. Conflict, he said, must be resolved through dialogue, not violence.

Prior to these remarks, Pope Francis met with various religious representatives in Rangoon, where he called for the "wealth of our differences" to be acknowledged in religious and ethnic questions. The 17 participants present included six Christians, five Buddhists, three Muslims, two Hindus and a Jew.

On Wednesday, the pope will visit one of Myanmar's most important Buddhist monasteries, where he will address the country's Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist Monks.

Read more: Opinion: The pope is visiting a minefield in Myanmar

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Did the Pope address the Rohingyas' plight? Bastian Hartig from Yangon

'To inspire reflection'

For Timo Günzelmansur, the head of the Center for Christian-Muslim Encounter and Documentation (CIBEDO) in Frankfurt, the pope's attitude is only logical. 

"Though a profoundly Christian approach, the pope is exhibiting how one can deal with difficult situations. And perhaps that will resonate with people, with deeply religious Muslims but also with his own followers, and eventually lead to a further development," Günold Deutsche Welle.

The 80-year-old pontiff is on his nineteenth foreign trip of his papacy. The common thread that brings them all together is interfaith dialogue, especially with Muslims — whether in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, Albania and Turkey (all in 2014); in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Central African Republic (2015); in Egypt (2017); and now in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Pope Francis stands with other religious leaders during his visit to Myanmar (Reuters/Osservatore Romano)

Pope Francis met with numerous leaders during his visit to Myanmar. He has emphasized interfaith dialogue on previous trips.

'New ways'

The path to interfaith dialogue has not been smooth in recent years. Catholic-Muslim relations entered a crisis after then-Pope Benedict XVI gave his Regensburg speech in 2006. His remarks on Islam, taken in part from 14th-century writings, were seen as insulting and a mischaraterization of the religion and sparked an international outcry.

 In the years that followed, dialogue did not go beyond proposals put forth by Islamic scholars and new talks. At the same time, Catholic leaders often were shocked by the atrocities carried out by the so-called Islamic State (IS), which were aimed at Muslims as well as adherents of other religions and those who did not profess any religious belief.

Today, under the leadership of Pope Francis, interfaith dialogue and calls for religious freedom have gained a new intensity. Günzelmansur's organization, a special department within the Catholic Conference of German Bishops, aims itself to increase interfaith dialogue. He sees the current era as a continuation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the most important meeting of Catholic leaders in the modern age at which the church declared a more open stance.

The pope "is showing how dialogue can function," Günzelmansur said. "He is pointing out new and courageous paths that can also be traveled by others."

When Pope Francis travels abroad and speaks to those on the periphery, he also makes a point of seeking out those countries' minorities, Güzelmasur said, adding that the pope wants to give those people a voice and alert the world to their difficulties.

Pope Francis is greeted by children in Yangon (Reuters/M. Rossi)

Pope Francis is greeted by children upon arriving in Yangon

'We think it's good'

Aiman Mazyek, the chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, approves of the regular dialogue between religions. He sees a "very broad, common thread" being woven by this pontiff in terms of interfaith dialogue. And Mazyek points out that this dialogue is not something that the pontiff has only recently discovered. "We think it's a good thing that he is so serious about the issue," the chairman told Deutsche Welle.

With respect to the pope's current trip, Mazyek believes the pontiff is placing focus on the displacement and persecution of Muslims "and the very lax way in which the government in Myanmar is dealing with it." Mazyek thinks that there can never be enough international support on the issue.

Read more: Pope faces tightrope act in Myanmar amid Rohingya crisis

Pope Francis will travel to Bangladesh on Thursday. Ahead of the visit, Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario, the archbishop of the capital Dhaka, emphasized that Pope Francis would be welcomed by all of the country's citizens, not just its Catholics and politicians but other religious representatives as well. The majority of Bangladesh's 163 million citizens are Muslim while some 400,000 are Catholics. D'Rozario also said the visit will help further interfaith dialogue.

The Vatican's second most powerful representative, Secretary of State and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, underscored this week how serious and fundamental an issue dialogue is for Pope Francis. Interfaith dialogue, said Parolin ahead of the pope's departure to Asia, serves to further world peace. He pointed out that the pope has often said that the world is experiencing "a Third World War."

According to Parolin, "religions can play a key role in fostering peace [ … ] But to do so they must come together and work towards it hand in hand." 

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