Middle East-friendly pope gets Arab Christians rejoicing

Published March 16th, 2013 - 05:00 GMT
A man walks past an advertising billboard displaying the front page of Sydney's tabloid newspaper the Daily Telegraph with picture of Pope Francis, Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio. (AFP PHOTO/ Saeed KHAN)
A man walks past an advertising billboard displaying the front page of Sydney's tabloid newspaper the Daily Telegraph with picture of Pope Francis, Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio. (AFP PHOTO/ Saeed KHAN)

The Catholic Church’s election on Wednesday of Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio as its new pope is giving hope to faithful Catholics across the Arab world.

He is the first-ever pontiff from the Americas, and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium.

He has shown a special interest in the Middle East, highlighting the plight of the Palestinians in his book “Sobre el cielo y la tierra,” or “On Heaven and Earth,” published in 2010, said Lebanese Father John Maroun from the Mariamite Maronite order.

“With the new pope, there will be more Arab elements in the Vatican,” said Father Maroun, adding that there is a large Arab Christian community in Latin America, with whom the pope has already made contacts.

A new role, a new name

The pope has chosen to be named after the 12th-century St. Francis of Assisi, the son of wealthy merchants who abandoned his material possessions for a life of poverty in the path of Jesus Christ.

The new pontiff, who lived in a modest apartment in Buenos Aires, frequently prepared his own meals and commuted by bus, has already garnered the admiration of many Arab Christians.

Pope Francis will have to leave his austere apartment opposite the Cathedral of Buenos Aires to the 10-room papal residence inside the vaulted gates of the Holy See.

He is set to give his much-awaited first address to the Catholic world in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on March 19.

Arabs in Latin America

There is a sizable population in Latin America who are of Arab ancestry, mostly Christians from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. It is said that Argentina has the highest percentage of Arabs on the continent.

The pope’s background as a Latin American and non-European has struck a chord with Arab Christians, who believe he will be more understanding of their problems.

“Choosing his papal name to be Pope Francis, and coming from the southern hemisphere and not from a rich country like Germany, he has set the tone for his papal term as one of understanding,” Father Maroun said.

“He’ll work to consolidate the presence of Christians in the Middle East,” Father Maroun added.

“I’m happy to see the Vatican choosing Pope Francis. His background heralds the age of a more open Vatican, especially towards poorer nations,” Lebanon’s Father George Iskander told Al Arabiya.

The new pope’s background is also being hailed by Latin Americans, who comprise 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

“A Latino is more open to others, while a European is more closed,” said Ana Solis from Chile. “A change like this ... will be very important for us Latin Americans.”

Al-Azhar welcomes new pope

Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning, al-Azhar, is “hoping for better relations with the Vatican” under Pope Francis, said Mahmud Azab, adviser for inter-faith affairs to al-Azhar Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb.

“As soon as a new policy emerges, we will resume the dialogue with the Vatican which was suspended in early 2011,” Azab said. “We congratulate the Church of St. Peter and all Catholics around the world.”

The previous Pope Benedict angered Muslims in 2006 when he described an anecdote in which Islam’s Prophet Mohammed was portrayed as a “warmonger” who “spread evil teachings by the sword.”

While relations resumed three years later, they were severed again when Pope Benedict called for the protection of Christian minorities in the Arab world following a Jan. 2011 suicide bombing at a church in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.

Al-Azhar viewed his reaction as negative towards Islam


What do you think about the new pope? Will it mean better relations between Muslims and Christians? Do Christians in the Middle East have a bad time of it? Share your thought with us below.

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