What Is Missing in the Interreligious Dialogue With Muslims?

Showing charity toward Muslims is best manifested by the ardent desire to see them become fully children of God, which can only be arrived at by Baptism, something interreligious dialogue misses altogether. 

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Last month was the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue. Formerly called the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, it created the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims with the end not to covert those who profess Islam to the teachings of Christ but “to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of others religious traditions; to encourage the study of religions, and to promote the formation of persons dedicated to dialogue.” 

The public rapport with the Islamic world has been a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy, as seen by his numerous visits to Islamic communities and Muslim-majority countries. Sustaining, as proclaimed by the Vatican II Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, that Muslims “together with us, adore the One, Merciful God,” the pontiff says: “[I]t is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions, and I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.”

Catholics who have engaged in such dialogue, either as a one-shot experience or in the context of an ongoing group, tend to abstain from mentioning the name of “Jesus” as the divine Son of God for fear of offending Muslims—while Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, they deny that He is God’s Son just as they deny the Holy Trinity: 

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They [Christians] have certainly blasphemed who say: “Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary” while the Messiah has said: “O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord” for there is no God except one God Allah. They have certainly blasphemed who say: “Allah is the third of three.” (Sura 5:72)

These Catholics, in their utopian-centered mentality, refer to the encounter St. Francis of Assisi had with the Sufi-inclined Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219 in the port city of Damietta, Egypt. Catholics who have engaged in such dialogue, either as a one-shot experience or in the context of an ongoing group, tend to abstain from mentioning the name of “Jesus” as the divine Son of God for fear of offending Muslims.Tweet This

Fully aware of the perils that lay ahead, St. Francis, along with his fellow friar Illuminato da Rieti, was determined to go on a mission of peace to the unbelievers of the Muslim nations. Yet, as Frank M. Rega explains in his book St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, there was an underlying purpose in the saint’s visit. It was not to simply discuss common values, as some revisionists or modern churchmen erroneously claim. It was to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, subsequently pointing out the incongruity of Islam with the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

At the encounter, after they reciprocally exchanged greetings of peace, the sultan, uncertain about his visitors’ intentions, inquired if the friars had come to him as representatives of the pope’s army—the Fifth Crusade was well underway.

St. Francis replied: “We are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ,” asserting that he was God’s ambassador, not the pope’s. Despite al-Kamil’s religious advisers warning him that the friars’ preaching would violate sharia law, the sultan believed he was acting within the law in listening to them. When he realized that St. Francis and Illuminato began pointing out the errors of Islam, some in al-Kamil’s court demanded the execution of the friars. Advised by the Sufi-Persian Fakr al-Farisi, he adhered to the Koranic verse: “And you shall certainly hear much that will insult you from those who received the Scripture before you…but if you persevere patiently and guard against evil, this will be the best course with which to determine your affairs” (Sura 3:186).

St. Francis proposed that the sultan should have a great fire prepared; then St. Francis and the Muslim clerics would both walk into the fire to prove which religion God favors. Al-Kamil turned down the offer and eventually sent St. Francis and his confrère back to the Christian camp under his protection. 

St. Francis not only obtained an assurance the Christian prisoners of war would be treated more humanely but, as relayed by John V. Tolan in Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter—citing a sermon of St. Bonaventure—the sultan, as a result of the encounter with the Franciscans, converted to the Catholic faith or accepted a death-bed baptism.

This past May 29th marked a dark day in the history of Christendom: the fall of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to the Ottoman Turks. Initially called Byzantium, Emperor Constantine consecrated the city, which would bear his name, as the seat of the Roman Empire in A.D. 330. It would remain as such until 1453 when what is now called the Byzantine Empire ceased to exist. 

Thereafter, Islam became the flag of allegiance of the former Christian Greco-Roman society that had endured for more than a millennium. The once powerful Roman and Christian provinces of North Africa, which gave birth to a number of great Catholic heroes and heroines, such as Sts. Cyprian, Augustine, Felicity, and Perpetua, had already vanished by the eighth century under Muslim assaults.

Pope Francis has previously stated that “[it is] not fair to identify Islam with violence. It’s not fair and it’s not true.” He also pointed out that when those of other religions (including Christians) commit violence, it is not typically attributed to their religious identity. Inadvertently, he is correct because notwithstanding the misgivings of Christians, vis-à-vis unjust wars and terrorism, such conduct is not endorsed by the Gospels as taught by the Catholic Church, whereas jihadists always refer to their religious books to justify their acts of terrorism.

We also witnessed an unfortunate day in Constantinople last month. The ancient Chora Church, which had been initially erected by Constantine in the fourth century, was officially reopened for Islamic prayer after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed an order in 2020 that changed the status of the building from a museum to an Islamic prayer house; it is now called Kariye Mosque.

This is the second historic Byzantine church the Ottoman-inclined Erdoğan converted into a mosque. In 2020, he did so with the former cathedral Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which had been used as a museum since 1935.

If these are some of the results of interreligious dialogue with Muslims, then it has been a win-win victory for Muslims—and a disaster for the Christian world.

Showing charity, after the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ, toward Muslims—and for that matter other non-Catholics—is best manifested by the ardent desire to see them become, in the fullest sense of the notion, children of God. This can only be arrived at by the grace of the Sacrament of Baptism, something the interreligious dialogue is missing altogether. 

Instead, what is promoted is a naturalistic concept that solely focuses on arriving at common values with religions that deny Christ. Indeed, such ideas were condemned by Pope Pius XI in his Encyclical Mortalium Animos (1928). For, not even indirectly offering an invitation to discover and understand the teachings of Christ as the Church teaches is not the love of neighbor commanded by the Lord.


  • Fr. Mario Alexis Portella

    Fr. Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He was born in New York and holds a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He is the author of Islam: Religion of Peace?—The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up (Westbow Press, 2018).

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