Why Pope Francis won't link Islam with terrorism

The pope said Sunday that identifying Islam with violence is 'not right and not true,' as there is 'always a little fundamentalist group' in every religion. 

L'Osservatore Romano/AP
Pope Francis (l.) joins Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran praying in the Sultan Ahmet mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2014. On Sunday, after a visit to Poland, Pope Francis said he won't label Islam as 'terrorist' because that would be unfair and not true.

To identify Islam with violence is "not right and not true," said Pope Francis on Sunday, when asked why he doesn't use the word "Islam" when referring to acts of terrorism.

Responding to reporters aboard the papal plane after a pilgrimage to Poland, where he spoke of the "devastating wave" of terrorism in parts of the world, Francis said he believes there is "always a little fundamentalist group" in every religion, echoing similar remarks from 2014.

"I don't like to talk of Islamic violence because every day, when I go through the newspapers, I see violence, this man who kills his girlfriend, another who kills his mother-in-law," he said on Sunday. "And these are baptized Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, then I have to speak of Catholic violence."

Since his election in 2013, Francis has made an effort to reach out to the Muslim community by calling for increased interfaith dialogue and support. Last month, he sent a top-ranking official from the Vatican to visit Al-Azhar University in Cairo, sometimes referred to as the "Sunni Vatican." The meeting marked the first between a pontiff and a grand imam since 2011, when the Muslim university suspended the formal dialogue established in 1998, following Pope Benedict XVI's remarks that Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution.

The relationship had begun to deteriorate in 2006, when Francis's predecessor made comments that drew from sources who had argued Islam is inherently irrational and can lead to violence. Some extremists were able to use Benedict's comments to their advantage, furthering the divide between Christians and Muslims, as The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy reported at the time.

Benedict later apologized for his remarks, saying that the address was meant to be "an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."

Francis is far from the first pope to advocate for a stronger relationship between Catholicism and Islam. Still, as theologian James Ball writes for U.S. Catholic, to his knowledge, no other pope has been as explicit in denying any inherent connection between Islam and violence as Francis was in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel." 

In it, Francis wrote: "Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence." 

The sentence was significant, said Dr. Ball, because it meant that the claim that Islam is inherently violent could no longer be made with official Catholic support – a fact underscored for the public by the pope's remarks on Sunday. 

"In the West, many Christians have learned through friendship and inter-religious dialogue that 'good Muslims' are not accidents; they are not good and holy in spite of their religion and its scriptures, but in response to them," Ball wrote in 2014. "What Francis said confirms what Christians have already experienced, but such confirmation from the top is important."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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