Saints, Sultans and Narco Jihad
March 2019. Pope Francis sets out on his apostolic journey to Morocco, the north African nation where Sunnis formed 99% of the population and Catholics, less than 0.01%. Addressing a congregation at St. Peter’s Cathedral in the capital, Rabat, the Pope made a fervent call for building friendship and fraternity between Christians and Muslims. “God desires a greater sense of fraternity among Catholics and Muslims as the descendants of the same father, Abraham”. The Pope also signed with the Moroccan King Mohammed VI an “Appeal for Jerusalem” calling for the preservation of the holy city as a peaceful place of meeting for the Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
Yet in Kerala, their largest haven in India, the spiritual leaders of Abraham’s children appear to go against their God’s desire and their Holy Father’s appeal. Forget fraternity, Catholics and Muslims in Kerala are now engaged in a bitter war of words that has threatened to slip into violence in some places. Setting Kerala on a trail of religious frenzy was the sensational charge of “narcotic jihad” made against sections of Muslims by Archbishop Joseph Kallarangad of the Syro Malabar Church (SMC), India’s largest Roman Catholic Church. Organizations and leaders on both sides of the fence are now arrayed angrily against each other. The SMC had earlier raised the charge of ‘Love Jihad’ which was later found baseless by the police and courts. Yet, the presence of a Christian and Hindu girl among those who married Muslim youth and went to Afghanistan to join ISIS in 2016 is cited as proof of Love Jihad in Kerala.
The Narco jihad controversy has come on the heels of multiple incidents that have been inflaming passions on both sides for some time. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference and various laity groups have defended the bishops while Muslim outfits have hit the road in protest. Extremists in both camps have found the controversy quite handy to pursue their agenda. The BJP which has long been angling for the state’s Christians has found an opportunity in the muddy waters and rushed in to back the Church. Convulsions rage inside both the LDF and UDF with the Kerala Congress factions in both the fronts backing the church. CPI(M) and Congress are trying to appear neutral but hesitate to take a firm view, fearing backlash from the communities. Catholic groups, accuse both the “secular” parties of being “pro- jihadi”.
Fortunately, saner voices in both communities, including leaders of other Christian churches, have opposed attempts to divide communities. However, Fr. Paul Thelakat, former SMC spokesperson, seems the only senior inside the SMC who has dared to oppose the Archbishop. Thelakat has lambasted him for taking the sectarian route and not following the fervent efforts being made by Pope Francis to build bridges between Muslims and Christians. Catholic extremists now want to sack Thelakat from the church for “insulting” the Archbishop.
The war in Kerala has broken out when Pope Francis has been initiating a spate of historic and unprecedented steps to enhance the friendship between Christians and Muslims. The Vatican’s efforts to build interfaith harmony and pursue dialogue with Muslims were begun in the 1960s. The historic Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII in 1965 for the first time had expressed respect for Islam after centuries-long mutual rivalries. It also established a high-level body to initiate Christian-Muslim dialogues. Though its progress was tardy on account of the growth of terrorism across the world, papal efforts hit a wall during the time of Pope Benedict XVI, the present Pope’s predecessor, in spite of his efforts to continue the dialogue. This happened when Muslims took offense to a lecture made in 2006 by Pope Benedict which was seen as hostile to Islam.
Ever since Pope Francis took over in 2013, rebuilding bridges with Muslims has assumed high priority among the many other progressive steps initiated by the first-ever Latin American Pontiff. Pope Francis “walking the talk” began in 2019 with the first-ever visit by a Roman Catholic Pontiff to the Arabian peninsula, the cradle of Islam. This followed the UAE government’s declaration of 2019 as ‘The Year of Tolerance’ meant to mend fences with Christians. During the visit to Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis met with the “Sunni Pope”, Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar mosque, and issued a joint statement on “Human Fraternity” harping on the need for Muslim-Christian harmony. The Pope made history again when he led the first-ever papal mass on the peninsula, attended by Muslims and Christians. Later the Pope issued an encyclical -“Fratelli Tutti”- on fraternity and friendship in which he mentioned four times how he was influenced by the Grand Imam. No pope has ever before stated an encyclical been influenced by a non-Christian according to a scholar.
The Pope arrived Morocco the following month where he reminded that his pilgrimage was also in commemoration of the visit to Egypt of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, 800 years ago. He recalled that St Francis’s visit was in the midst of the Fifth Crusade and intended to convert the powerful Sultan Malik al-Kamil. Mutual hostilities between the two religions were at the highest point then and the meeting would have even led to violence. Yet, the saint and the sultan spoke to each other and instead of converting the other, resolved to live in fraternity, respecting differences.
This March, Pope Francis made another “friendship offensive” when he became the first pontiff to visit Iraq, the birth place of Abraham, the common patriarch of monotheistic religions. The 84-year-old Pope’s visit was by overlooking objections made in the background of recent attacks on churches and also the spread of COVID-19 there. But the visit proved historic when the Pope met with the Shiite supremo, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, at his residence. They issued a joint statement calling for interfaith harmony and a call to end the Muslim-Christian clashes in regions like Yemen, Myanmar, and Nigeria.
The Pope’s visit could console the beleaguered, ancient Catholic communities located in Nineveh Plains who have clung desperately to their identity despite the fall in their numbers, wars, bloodshed, etc following the rise of ISIS. He prayed at the Syrian Catholic Immaculate Conception church there which was once desecrated and burnt by ISIS and appealed for harmony. The Pope visited the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, and Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral at Baghdad where 48 Catholics were killed in a jihadi attack in 2010. “Terrorism and death never have the last word… Catholics and Muslims must not be afraid of differences because God has allowed this but we must be frightened if we don’t work in a fraternity, to walk together in life” the Pope reminded.
The last papal visit to Kerala was 35 years ago by John Paul II. The last papal visit to India too was by him in 1999 when Kerala was not on his itinerary. Pope Francis may visit India after the COVID-19 blows over. Let’s pray to all gods to make it happen at the earliest. Never before has the papal intercession looked so indispensable for Kerala.