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Pope Francis’s Poland visit overshadowed by pontiff’s comments on Islam

By Shalle McDonald/

Pope Francis in 2013

Pope Francis in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since being elected as the leader of the world’s roughly 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in 2013, Pope Francis has never shied away from breaking with traditional Catholic dogma by speaking his mind.

Last week, as part of festivities for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day, Pope Francis made his first official visit to Poland, where he also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The pontiff was joined by Jewish leaders – including the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich and Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – on the solemn visit, which also included meeting with a dozen concentration camp survivors.

“The visit was an important reminder for the world of the depths of inhumanity that are possible and of how Jewish history uniquely testifies to this,” Rosen said, according to Reuters.

“What also was unique was that the only public words heard here were Psalm 130 and Kaddish, emphasizing the unique Jewish significance of this site,” Rosen said.

Rosen later told that he, along with Rabbi Schudrich and other leaders in the Jewish community of Krakow, also met with local Catholic Church officials, including Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, the Primate Emeritus of Poland as well as Vatican officials, including Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jewry, where they discussed “how to advance the promotion of Holocaust education and the mission of the Centre.”

The “the input from the rabbis was important for them [Catholic Church officials] as they seek to be a place of reconciliation for other groups from conflict zones and to explore more universal messages without losing sight of the Jewish particularity of the site,” Rosen said.

Although Rosen was very appreciative of Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz, he told that he could not fully embrace the pontiff’s comments on Islam following his tour of the concentration camp.

He referred to the pontiff’s comments in the aftermath of the tragic murder of Catholic priest Father Jacques Hamel by Islamic State-affiliated terrorists on July 26 in a church in the northern French town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. The priest was held hostage along with three nuns and two congregants. Another victim was also stabbed and remains in stable condition.

After the attack, while still in Poland, Pope Francis said “the world is not at war” with Islam, and that the religion should not be blamed for the wave of terrorism in Western Europe in recent months.

“I am not speaking of a war of religions,” Pope Francis told reporters on a plane from Rome to Krakow. “Religions don’t want war. The others want war,” he said. In a press conference aboard the papal plane as he returned to Rome he also added, “it’s not right to identify Islam with violence. It’s not right and it’s not true.”

“Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and to the extent the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person,” the pope said in response to a question on why he did not link Islamic terrorism with the terror attack in the Catholic Church in northern France. “This is fundamental terrorism, it is against all humanity.”

While in Poland, Pope Francis also used the opportunity to speak out and criticize the Polish government’s stance on Middle East refugees, where he encouraged Poles to “welcome those [refugees] fleeing from wars and hunger, and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”

The Polish government refuses to accept refugees fleeing from the Syrian civil war due to a security concern that there is no efficient way to detect lone-wolf terrorists, especially Islamic State sympathizers, amongst the refugees.

Rosen told that “of course social political and especially economic alienation are the swamp in which the anopheles of religious terrorism breeds; and draining that swamp is essential to combat terrorism.”

“But there are other factors at play; not least of all, what examples and ideals of tradition and heritage are nurtured. And this is above all a challenge for Islam,” he said.

“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,” Francis said, in apparent reference to local crime predominately Catholic Italy. “And these are baptized Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, I should speak of Catholic violence,” Pope Francis also said.

Rosen acknowledged that there are extremists in all religions, “and we must not generalize about peoples or religions. However, I think it is a bit disingenuous not to acknowledge that much of contemporary terrorism is perpetrated in the name of Islam.”

“Moreover, I would not hesitate to call Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir perpetrators of Jewish terrorism, Rosen continued. We must beware of tarring Islam with the brush of terrorists, but if we do not recognize the role and abuse of Islam in these terrorist groups, we will not be able to deal with them effectively,” Rosen said.

CAP: A close-up of the main gate at Auschwitz with the inscription Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes one free). Pope Francis visited Auschwitz on Friday. Credit:Wikimedia Commons. 

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