SHAFAQNA- A visit to one of the largest mosques outside the Muslim world may rank among the most symbolically powerful moments in Pope Francis’s tenure at the Vatican and comes at a time when immigration and terrorism have strained interfaith relations.
The 79 year-old Argentinian, who was elected to the papacy nearly three years ago, has been remarkable for his drive to reform the Vatican and refocus attention on the poor, migrants and the environment.
But he is putting increasingly more energy into efforts to heal religious divisions that are often the sources of extremism and conflict — what he has described as a “third world war in pieces”.
Christopher Lamb, a Vatican reporter for The Tablet, the Catholic newspaper, said: “This visit is both historic and a significant moment in his attempts to have a dialogue with Islam. He believes the three major monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — must work together to combat religious violence and terrorism.”
Vatican officials said a final decision on a visit to the Great Mosque had not yet been made. The formal invitation was extended this week by members of Italy’s Islamic community and ambassadors from a number of Muslim countries, and Vatican experts said it would be highly unlikely for him to turn it down.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said: “The invitation was delivered and naturally the Pope will consider it with the attention it deserves. We will proceed with calm and thoughtfulness.”
A Vatican official confirmed that the first pope to enter a mosque was John Paul II on a visit to Damascus, Syria, in 2001. Benedict XVI and Francis have visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey — and in November last year Francis made the first papal visit to a mosque in a predominantly Christian country on his trip to war-torn Central African Republic. However, no Catholic pontiff has visited a mosque outside the Middle East or Africa — meaning the Pope’s decision to so in the capital of Roman Catholicism would be breaking new ground.