The world is watching as the Catholic Church embarks on a new era with its 266th leader, Pope Francis. Much is being written about this man as he steps onto the world stage. Stories detail how he has lived his faith as a servant of the poor. Others examine his traditional views on contemporary debates, including the role of women in the church and equality for men and women who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender. Some articles assess the importance of the church having leadership from the Global South, focus on his conduct during the Argentine "Dirty War," and even describe why he assumed the name Francis, in recognition of the saint known for his dedication to the poor, to peace and to all living things.
In setting his agenda, the new pope has already talked about peace, optimism and the poor. This is a powerful vision, but the specifics of this agenda will only emerge over time. When we look back on the tenure of this new pope, I hope we will see that this vision included being a powerful global advocate and a voice for ending religious prejudice, hatred and violence.
The global community is ripe for such a movement. And much of the former Cardinal Bergoglio's history and trajectory suggest that he could become that voice.
As Cardinal of Buenos Aires, the new pope was known for his relations with other religious groups. After the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building, which killed 85 people, Bergoglio was the first public personality to sign a petition condemning the attack and calling for justice. Indeed, his ties to the Jewish community go deeper. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that he has distributed aid to the poor as a part of a joint program called "Tzedaka" and wrote that a Buenos Aires rabbi is "one of my teachers."Across other traditions, he is likewise recognized for having a staunch conviction that violence and hate against any person of any faith is a threat to all people of every faith. It thus makes sense that Bergoglio's ascension was widely praised. Just a few headlines make the point.
- Buenos Aires Muslim leaders praise Pope Francis for his proven record to being a friend to the Muslim community. (Pope Francis 'a friend of the Islamic community', Buenos Aires Herald)
- The Argentinian Jewish community praises Pope Francis for his helping the poor. (New pope said to have good ties with Argentinian Jews, Haaretz)
- International evangelist Luis Palau considers Jorge Bergoglio a personal friend, knows him for "building bridges and showing respect." (Why it matters that Pope Francis drinks mate with Evangelicals, Christianity Today)
- Just weeks ago, in February, a Jewish cemetery near Wroclaw, Poland, and a Holocaust memorial site outside Kazan, Russia, were defaced in anti-Semitic attacks. Unknown perpetrators spray-painted anti-Semitic slogans on a cemetery in Kalisz, and vandals in Russia smashed a memorial and a menorah inaugurated for the 2011 international festival of Jewish culture in Ulyanovsk.
- On Sept. 28, 2012, there was an arson attack at a Jewish boys' school in Stamford Hill, U.K. In July, a Jewish man was beaten by four unknown perpetrators in the same Jewish Orthodox neighborhood.
- On April 8, 2012, unknown assailants beat a 25-year-old Jewish man in Kyiv, Ukraine. The victim was wearing a kippah after attending a Pesach celebration at the Brodsky synagogue earlier that evening. He was hospitalized and remained in critical condition for several days.
On Oct. 13, 2012, a pig's head was found outside a British mosque. Last December in New York City, a Hindu man was murdered after an apparently mentally disturbed woman "pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I've been beating them up."
Elsewhere, Christians are being targeted and living in fear, including many Copts in Egypt and Catholics and Protestants in Nigeria. Sikhs have been slaughtered in the United States, Bahai's murdered in Iran, and Hindus killed in Pakistan.
There is reason to hope that Pope Francis will be the new voice, the new world leader who uses the power of his public pulpit to recognize the urgency of addressing religious hatred and who finds a path to help combat it.
In addition to his own past actions in building relations of respect across communities, it is noteworthy that he selected a namesake known not only for his love of animals, the environment and the poor, but also for his unusual relationship with Islam.
St. Francis lived during the Crusades, and it is known that he went to Egypt hoping to convert the Sultan from Islam to Catholicism. Accounts vary from here, but it is widely believed that St. Francis developed a deep respect for Islam after meeting the Sultan. He abandoned his efforts of Christian conversion and, instead, began urging the Crusaders to abandon their war and show respect for their Muslim brothers and their beliefs.
At this critical juncture, when religious minorities in more and more places around the globe are being repressed and oppressed, Pope Francis brings both personal experience and a namesake that suggests that he is ready to lead his community and the world in acknowledging a fundamental truth. People, good people, all over the world, have many ways of believing. And being different is normal, not an aberration.
I encourage him to seize this moment.
Imagine what could happen if Pope Francis truly follows in the footsteps of his namesake. Imagine a more peaceful world that respects religious difference. I believe it can happen. And I hope that, one day, respecting religious (and non-religious) differences will be what we remember, when we think of the legacy of Pope Francis.