Pope Francis on Friday called for the Roman Catholic Church to “intensify” its dialogue with Islam, echoing hopes in the Muslim world for better ties with the Vatican during his reign.
“It is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam,” the new pontiff said in an address to foreign ambassadors at the Vatican.
Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI was seen by some Muslim leaders as hostile to Islam and the change at the top had been welcomed by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, head of the Saudi-based OIC, said earlier this month that he hoped “the relationship between Islam and Christianity will regain its cordiality and sincere friendship”.
Mahmud Azab, adviser for inter-faith affairs to Al-Azhar imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb in Cairo, also told AFP earlier: “As soon as a new policy emerges, we will resume the dialogue with the Vatican”.
Al-Azhar broke off ties in 2011 after Benedict called for the protection of Christian minorities following a suicide bombing at a church in Egypt.
Benedict was also heavily criticized early in his reign when he recounted a Byzantine emperor’s description of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed as a warmonger who spread evil teachings.
In his address on Friday, Francis also called for the Church to dialogue more with non-believers -- returning to an effort begun during Benedict’s reign amid rising secularism in the Western world.
“It is also important to intensify outreach to non-believers so that the differences which divide and hurt us may never prevail but rather the desire to build true links of friendship,” he said.
The Argentine pope said he wanted to “build bridges connecting all people” and said this was particularly significant for him personally because of his own Italian immigrant roots.
“This dialogue between places and cultures a great distance apart matters greatly to me,” he said.
Francis referred to it as a “dialogue between one end of the world and the other, which today are growing ever closer, more interdependent”.
The 76-year-old pope elected last week has named himself after St Francis of Assisi -- a mediaeval Italian saint who shunned riches to live a life of poverty, and he said he wanted the Church to struggle against poverty in all its forms.
“How many poor people there still are in the world!” he said, adding that there was also a “spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called rich countries particularly seriously”.
In a further indication of the humble image he has projected ever since being elected last Wednesday, the pope earlier on Thursday celebrated a mass for Vatican gardeners and rubbish collectors.
The Vatican said earlier he will hold a special pre-Easter mass next week in a youth prison during which he will wash the feet of 12 young offenders in a traditional Catholic ritual representing Jesus Christ’s actions with his 12 apostles.