Speaking in the halls of Egypt's 1,000 year-old al-Azhar University, the premier Sunni Islamic institution in the Islamic world, Grand Imam and Head Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi reacted on April 3 to news of the death of Pope John Paul II. "The passing of the pope of the Vatican represents a great loss to the Catholic Church," Tantawi intoned, adding "and to the Islamic world, for what he provided it from values such as supporting truth and peace, and establishing bonds of love and friendship between the Islamic and Christian peoples."

Two days later, popular columnist Ahmad al-Ruba'i wrote in Saudi Arabia's Asharq al-Awsat, "The widespread reactions to his loss underscore a new truth, for Pope John Paul II was not merely pope of the Catholics, but rather an international personality who succeeded in crossing obstacles and boundaries between religions."

In response to this op-ed, readers wrote letters to the newspaper using the traditional Islamic formula for the recently deceased. One letter from Kuwait simply said: "May God have mercy on him, the foremost man of peace in the world." A letter from a Qatari said, "May God have mercy on this great man who worked with all sincerity in the interest of the oppressed peoples of Earth. We implore from God that He ensure the world with a successor to him that comes close to him in his deeds."

These are not examples of hyperbole. Long before his death, many in the Arab and Islamic worlds have expressed a deep admiration of Pope John Paul II, premised on two equally important factors. The first is the pope's religious devotion, morality, and sincere attempts at interfaith dialogue. He hosted numerous Islamic delegations at the Vatican and spoke eloquently about the two faiths' shared ideals. He was the first pope to ever visit Islamic nations or enter a mosque (the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in 2001).

The other reason Muslims and Arabs look to him so positively has to do with the pope's political record. He was a strong anti-war advocate, having opposed both the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq War. Furthermore, he criticized the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza and during his 2000 tour of the region he actually visited the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh.

As the above letter indicates, not only cardinals are offering up prayers during the Vatican conclave to choose the next pope. A Muslim's supplication for a successor to Pope John Paul II who will continue in his tradition represents the positive assessment of his legacy as much as the hopes for strengthening the spiritual bridges he built during his lifetime.

According to many Arab writers, the future pope will have to contend with, and should attempt to continue, the legacy of Pope John Paul II. Taysir Amari, writing in Jordan's al-Ra'i on April 6, lays out his vision of why the pope was so great. "The inhabitants of earth differ as to their views about any leader or president in the world," Amari argues, ".except his Holiness the pope, as everybody is united in honoring and appreciating him and the reason is simple: because he represents the culture of life and not the culture of death."

The pope's message to the region was not only spiritual, reminds Isa Haddad, but also contained an important social element. Writing in al-Ra'i on April 8, Haddad suggests "What we loved in this great pope was that he emphasized in every one of his meetings he had with Arab Christians that we are an indivisible part of Arab identity, and he continuously urged us to closely unite with our Muslim brethren."

Jordanians and Palestinians feel a special bond with the pope because of his historic visit to their lands in 2000. I was living in Jordan at the time and witnessed huge crowds running after the pope's motorcade, expressing uncontrollable joy at seeing the pontiff. The same scenes occurred among Palestinians when the pope visited the West Bank. A visibly moved Yasir Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, held the pope's hand, a common cultural practice for Arab men that symbolizes deep friendship. When the pope visited the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh and made his famous impassioned statements about the ignored plight of Palestinian refugees, the awe Arabs held for the pope was so profound that the general mood was one of ecstasy.

For this reason, Yaha Ribah remembered the pope's visit to Dheisheh in a mix of spiritual and political terms. In his column in the Palestinian Alhayat Aljadeeda on April 4 Ribah writes "this man who seemed like a candle beaming light.a brave man, brave indeed, and he knew exactly what he was doing; when he came to their refugee camp, he announced a message to everyone that the camp is the issue, that the refugee is the crucified body, and that the suffering here gushes like a geyser."

Walid Mahmoud Abd al-Nasir's April 8 column in Egypt's al-Ahram, expressing the general sentiment shared by Arabs who wrote about the papal successor, states "We are spurred on by hope that the next pope will reinforce the attention given by Pope John Paul II to the Arab world and Islamic world in particular, and in [his work] in the domain of the concept of dialogue with [other] religions, civilizations, and cultures in general."

As a non-Catholic with doubts about the divine will behind the election of the next pope, Abdullah Hamudah wonders in Oman's Alwatan on April 5 "[Since] it is the opinion of many that his [Pope John Paul II's] selection was a part of a political process to rock the communist system in Eastern Europe and cause its ruin.whether this is a divine selection or a political election to determine who will be entrusted with the papal throne." Continuing with his political analysis, Hamudah suggests "if the Italian cardinals.want to return the papal office to themselves, perhaps there will be an agreement on the person of the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze (72 years old), who lived in the Vatican and Italy a long time, as a compromise, achieving through him what everybody wants in addition to his being the first black pope in the history of the Catholic Church, exactly like Kofi Annan was the first black Secretary General of the United Nations."

Many columnists, like Hamudah, suggest that a pope from the developing world would be good for both the Catholic Church and Arabs. While it is believed that an African pope would probably bring more practical experience in working with Arabs and Muslims, any successor from the developing world would understand from first-hand knowledge the many economic and social ills that also afflict the Arab world.

This interpretation is most unambiguous in the April 4 editorial in the London-based pan-Arab al-Quds al-Arabi: "[As] all eyes turn to the Vatican in order to learn the identity of the new pope who will succeed the late is hoped that this time he will be from the African continent, or from the Third Word, as the people of the Third World form 65 percent of the Catholics in the world [and] it is their right that the leader of the Vatican is one of them."
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus