Cardinal Cupich joins Muslim, Christian leaders for panel on dialogue

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Christians, Muslims and all people of faith must work together to follow the example of Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Islamic leaders from the Sunni and Shia traditions.

That was the conclusion of Cardinal Cupich, two Muslim leaders and a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, who participated in an online panel Sept. 27.

The panel was sponsored by Georgetown University’s Office of the President, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

“His holiness the pope has shared with us the importance of religious freedom, of justice, of dialogue,” said Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, and a former president of the Islamic Society of North America. “This dialogue takes place with both Shia and Sunni, Imam el-Tayeb from Egypt and Ayatollah al-Sistani from the Shia community.”

The participants reflected on Pope Francis’ 2019 meeting with Grand Imam el-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi, where the two signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” and his trip to Iraq in March, during which he visited Ayatollah al-Sistani, an authority for Shiite Muslims in that country, as well Iraqi Christian leaders.

In statements following the pope’s visit to Ayatollah al-Sistani, both men encouraged greater fraternity among all people.

“Both those great leaders have encouraged and invited the grassroots to engage in sincere dialogue and work together in the neighborhoods, and create a community of compassion and solidarity,” Magid said.

Cardinal Cupich, the Catholic co-chair of the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, noted that the Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq was the fulfillment of a desire of Pope John Paul II to travel to the country.

“Even in this moment of the pandemic and the security issues that were raised, the Holy Father decided he still needed to go,” Cardinal Cupich said. “It was a way to say we need to take the risk of dialogue. … The ayatollah welcomed him in a very personal way. It said to the world that these two see each other as brothers, as having very much in common. Shouldn’t we then be able to cross our neighborhoods and our cities to encounter people of different faiths? This doesn’t have to have a lot of fanfare. This could be a normal thing.”

Even so, he said, he wished the media would have given the meeting more attention.

“I didn’t see that the media covered this very well, with any kind of prominence,” the cardinal said. “This was a historic moment for people of goodwill.”

Chorbishop George Toma of the diocese of the Eastern United States of the Assyrian Church of the East, said the pope’s visit to Iraq was important for all Christians in the region.

“The visit of Pope Francis to the city of Mosul and Nineveh, it was very significant for us,” said Chorbishop Toma, who is based in Glenview. “Pope Francis is a spiritual father recognized by the whole world. I believe as a father he went there to comfort the people who have been suffering and persecuted unjustly for a long period of time. He went there to give them hope. Pope Francis, to be with a suffering people, he put his life at risk.”

The precipitous decline in the numbers of Christians in Iraq started with the U.S. invasion in 2003, which destabilized the country and led to extremism and terrorism, Chorbishop Toma said.

“If you look at Iraq, with the coexistence of three major religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — we have a long history of coexisting together,” Chorbishop Toma said. “I believe if we don’t make a real change, Christianity will not survive there. The meeting of Pope Francis with Ayatollah al-Sistani gave a big message, not only to Christians but to Muslims. We have to respect one another’s differences. We cannot exist by hating one another, killing one another and persecuting one another.”

Imam Sayyid Mohammad Baqir Kashmiri, Ayatollah al-Sistani’s representative in North America, said the message of the pope and the ayatollah was for the entire world, not just Iraq.

“We see from time to time wars in different corners in the world,” Imam Kashmiri said. “I understand from this thinking of two holinesses, when they insist on cooperating and working together, being aligned together against all these challenges, that when they meet they give a strong message to everyone, not only Muslims and Christians, not only Shia and Catholic, we have to work together, we have to respect one another, we have to put our weight to stop war. Enough is enough. We have to stop war wherever it be.”

Imam Kashmiri said that respecting the rights of people of all religions and no religion is a principle of Islam.

Cardinal Cupich said Pope Francis’ meeting in Iraq had given Catholic leaders the platform to encourage Catholics to engaged in dialogue with people of other religions, and to push back against prejudice against them.

“Ecumenism and relationships with people of other faiths is something we should invest in and not be afraid of,” he said. “One of the things I have heard from the Muslim leaders was the fears they were having or their children were having of being ostracized or bullied because of their faith, to the point they could be radicalized and not feel at home in this country. … This says something to us as leaders: We have to step up. Whenever we see a person of a different faith being bullied because of their religion or left to feeling as though they don’t belong in our society, that has to stop.”


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