The Jesuit who challenges Francis: "He doesn't want to understand what Islam is".
Francis concluded his visit to Bahrain on Sunday, a journey marked by his condemnation of capital punishment and his umpteenth call for interreligious dialogue. "I have come to you as a believer in God, a brother and a pilgrim of peace," said the Pontiff. An embrace of Islam that the Argentinean has been preaching for years, despite the doubts it raises in some sectors of the Catholic Church.
Among the most skeptical is Henri Boulad, a 90-year-old Egyptian Jesuit who has even written a harsh letter to the Holy Father. "Our dialogue with Muslims has become bogged down in compromises and misunderstandings. We imperatively need to change course. Will we have the courage to do so? It is a matter of life or death, both for Christianity and for Western civilization. The time is not ripe for ambiguity or speculation. We are at a crossroads and any complacency in the face of the unacceptable is a betrayal", writes the religious.
The missive, dated in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria in 2016, has been reaching the Pope through different hands, all of them belonging to the Catholic curia. To date, however, it has elicited no response. "I have not received anything at all. I sent him first the letter in French and later a translation in Spanish. Both were delivered personally to the Pope. The absence of a reply means that he doesn't want to talk. What can one expect from him? For me, he is already a hopeless case. The Pope believes in this kind of dialogue that since the Second Vatican Council has not yielded any results," Boulad explains in conversation with The Independent.
"It is always the same. The Pope and Muslim leaders smile and sign anything and nothing changes. This so-called dialogue does not bear fruit. In reality, it is a dead dialogue between two completely deaf people," Boulad opined, referring to the Pontiff and Ahmed el Tayeb, the leader of Al Azhar, a Cairo-based institution that boasts of being the beacon of Islam in the world. Its relevance among Muslims, however, is severely wounded by El Tayeb's political posturing and his support for events such as the military uprising in Egypt. "Neither of them are going to change their positions and we are all wasting our time," he adds.
Darts against Al Azhar
Boulad doesn't mess around with political corrections. El Tayeb, who has established a close relationship with the Pope since their meeting in Cairo five years ago and whom Francis met again during his visit to Bahrain this past week, is, in his view, "a liar." "I don't trust him at all. He is not even capable of dialoguing with Egyptian President Abdelfatah al Sisi," the Jesuit said. Calls for reform of Muslim discourse, in the midst of the rise of jihadist groups, have been constant in recent years, but without any real and practical progress.
"In the face of violence committed in the name of Islam, it is all too easy for moderate Muslims to distance themselves and blindly and dangerously assert that 'all this has nothing to do with Islam.' You have to have the courage and honesty to recognize that those who act in this way are relying on the founding texts of their religion," retorts Boulad. "In this, the institution of the Al Azhar, the major reference of orthodox Sunni Islam, is more honest in refusing to condemn the organization of the Islamic State," slips the Egyptian religious. "It is an institution that promotes intolerance and many Muslim intellectuals have denounced it by exhibiting the manuals and their teaching models. They educate in the murder of their Christian neighbors," he says.
From Bahrain, during his four-day visit, the Pope urged Islamic leaders to promote reconciliation to avoid divisions and conflicts in Muslim communities, with extremism as the main expression. "May peace descend and abide upon you, who wish to spread peace by instilling in people's hearts the values of respect, tolerance and moderation; upon you, who seek to foster friendly relations, mutual respect and trust with those who, like me, are followers of a different religious tradition; upon you, who strive to provide young people with a moral and intellectual education that opposes every form of hatred and intolerance," the Holy Father pleaded.
Statements that Boulad considers insufficient. "It's that he doesn't want to understand what Islam is. That is the main problem and it is not serious. The Pope has his ideas but refuses to listen to those who know the real situation. How can Francis talk about dialogue if he does not want to dialogue with me?", asks the Jesuit, very critical of emigration to Europe and with political positions close to Viktor Orbán, the Europhobic and ultraconservative Prime Minister of Hungary, who has even granted him citizenship.
The Egyptian who discusses in public the strategy of the Vatican denounces "the doctrine of conquest and war of Islam". "The fact that the call to prayer and the invitation to murder are both preceded by the same invocation Allah-ou akbar, -Allah is great-, is particularly eloquent," he writes, underlining the precarious situation of the Christians of the East, "today reduced to a small minority because of the persecutions suffered for centuries."
"These Christians have a different way of seeing things from that of some of the specialists of an Islamo-Christian dialogue who err in a distressing innocence. Many among them have only an academic knowledge of Islam, often falsified and complacent. These 'experts' are far less well positioned than most Middle Eastern Christians who live Islam in the flesh and know it from the inside. Without this kind of knowledge, there is a risk of losing sight of the substance of Quranic doctrine, which explains the evident failure of the Islamo-Christian dialogue," outlines Boulad.
"Islam cannot be reformed".
"I admit that for all this I am very skeptical and pessimistic. The Pope should support the Eastern Christians, who have centuries of survival on their backs," stresses one who admits to being close to the statements on Islam of Benedict XVI, who in 2006 paraphrased a speech of an old Byzantine emperor that caused an earthquake in the Muslim community. "Show me what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find only evil and inhuman things, such as his order to spread by the sword the faith he preached," the current Pope Emeritus declared at the time.
"The only solution I see is to talk to those who know Islam first hand. Before any interreligious dialogue, I should talk about the dialogue between Christians. Is the Pope willing to do so?" challenges Boulad, who declares himself "Islamophobic but not Muslimophobic." "In a text I published under the title 'I accuse Islam' I focus on the religion, not on its faithful. Most Muslims are good and tolerant people and I have good Muslim friends. I accuse Islam because it represents a fascist system. One can hate Nazism and not the Nazis in the same way that Jesus despised evil but not the evil ones," he says.
The Jesuit considers that "Islam cannot be reformed". "Islam chose its path in the ninth century A.D. by choosing between two opposing forms, those represented by the cities of Mecca and Medina. That of Mecca is a spiritual, open and tolerant Islam while that of Medina is a fascist political system. The ulema agreed that Medina should prevail," says Boulad.
"The second decision was to establish that the Quran comes directly from heaven. Unlike the Bible, an inspired book, the Koran is a heavenly and secret work whose translation from Arabic was forbidden for centuries because it was understood as a sort of accommodation to modern times. The third decision was to fix that any critical thinking is banned. The measures taken then are definitive and cannot be reversed. Rigorist and intolerant Islam won," he reflects. It is, he says, a creed "caught in its own trap". "Can Islam adapt to modernity without betraying itself? If any of its ulema were to take the decision to publicly affirm that the literal reading of the Koran is not licit, they would be questioning the foundations of Islam and would cease to be Muslims," he replies.