KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 3 — In a rare personal message to the Muslim community, Pope Francis has called for mutual respect between Christians and Muslims as the end of the Ramadan fast approaches.
Although it is customary for the Vatican to send messages to religious leaders around the world on their significant holy days, such greetings are typically signed by the Holy See’s department for interfaith dialogue.
“This year, the first of my Pontificate, I have decided to sign this traditional message myself and to send it to you, dear friends, as an expression of esteem and friendship for all Muslims, especially those who are religious leaders,” the head of the Catholic Church worldwide wrote in the message published yesterday.
“Turning to mutual respect in inter-religious relations, especially between Christians and Muslims, we are called to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values,” he said.
Although not penned specifically for a Malaysian audience, the message will have greater bearing here as the country again prepares to wade into the legal case surrounding the Arabic word “Allah” at the centre of a tug-of-war between Muslims and Christians.
Francis’ message also comes after the first Vatican envoy to Malaysia, Archbishop Joseph Marino, caused an uproar among several Malay and Islamic groups recently for his comments on the “Allah” controversy here.
Marino had described arguments by local churches, which countered claims that the word “Allah” belonged exclusively to Islam, as “logical and acceptable”.
He apologised after being summoned by the Foreign Ministry last month. But Malay rights group Perkasa has urged Putrajaya to expel Marino, calling him an “enemy of the state”.
Francis said in his message yesterday that “particular respect is due to religious leaders and to places of worship”.
“How painful are attacks on one or other of these!” he said.
The 2009 High Court decision upholding the Catholic Church’s constitutional right to use the word “Allah” had shocked Muslims who considered the word to only refer to the Muslim God. It also led to Malaysia’s worst religious strife, with houses of worship throughout the country coming under attack.
“Regarding the education of Muslim and Christian youth, we have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices,” said Francis.
“It is clear that, when we show respect for the religion of our neighbours or when we offer them our good wishes on the occasion of a religious celebration, we simply seek to share their joy, without making reference to the content of their religious convictions,” he added.
Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, had sparked Muslim anger when he gave a speech in 2006, in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who had called some of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings “evil and inhuman” and “spread by the sword”.
Muslims worldwide are expected to mark the end of the Ramadan fasting month and the start of Aidilfitri on August 8.