The Pope and the Muslims: An Interview

Pope Francis and Grand Sheikh Al-Tayyeb Will Pope Francis still be travelling to Riyadh? What will be the outcome of his planned visit to Indonesia? How important is his friendship with Grand Sheikh al-Tayyeb? Interview with Islamic scholar Felix Koerner, five years after the Abu Dhabi document "on human fraternity".

Five years ago, on 4 February 2019, Pope Francis and the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar University in Cairo, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, signed “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living”. The text of just a few pages is unrivalled among papal documents. The adoption of the statement was considered spectacular in terms of religious policy. 

In interview with, Islamic scholar and Jesuit Felix Koerner puts the Abu Dhabi document and subsequent developments in context. Koerner, a lecturer at the Central Institute for Catholic Theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin, is considered one of the most respected Catholic experts on Islam.

Father Koerner, the Abu Dhabi document symbolises Pope Francis’ approach to Islamic believers. How important is it to his papacy?

Felix Koerner: He is driven by longing. He wants to break down walls. He wants people to come together. His word for this is fraternity. And he goes about it by making friends. 

Back in Buenos Aires, he was already friends with Omar Abboud, a key Muslim figure in Argentina. Then came his trip to the Holy Land in 2014, when he made a four-fold appeal to Israelis and Palestinians. The first was: Let us respect and love one another as sisters and brothers. So at some point, a new step needed to be taken towards the human family. 


Pope Francis visits  the United Arab Emirates
The Pope (right) had already visited the United Arab Emirates in February 2019: here with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb (left) and Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Emir of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE (image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Al Hammadi)

"The document is a gesture"

What actually happened in Abu Dhabi? A Grand Imam of Al Azhar University in Cairo is not a pope. So what significance does the document have? 

Koerner: Exactly! Who is the Sheikh of Al Azhar? I have been asked that accusingly by several Muslims. Just because the Pope signs a document with him doesn’t make the other person an Islamic Pope. Because there is no such head as the Pope in Islam. 

And many Islamic theologians would also say that there shouldn’t be one. Two leaders compose a joint text – that’s very Catholic thinking. One man as the face of a religious community for the entire world? Compared to Muslims, Christians are far more concerned with personal representation. 

However, Ahmad al-Tayyeb is not just anyone. He heads a very large Sunni educational network. And, as he says, he wants to reform Islamic teaching. Al-Tayyeb and Francis get on well. The two have developed a friendship. Nevertheless, the document is not a guide to doctrine, neither for Muslims nor for us Catholics. It is a gesture.  

Is diversity God's will?

Did enough preparation go into the signing? Or to put it another way – would you, as an expert, have advised the Pope to take this step before his trip to Abu Dhabi? 

Koerner: The signing certainly wasn’t spontaneous! Someone very close to the Pope told me that the text had gone back and forth between Cairo and Rome fourteen times beforehand. It was reworked fourteen times. Would I have advised the Pope to sign it? I would have formulated a few passages differently, because there were protests afterwards, especially from the Catholic side. 

What were the protests about?

Koerner: The document says diversity is God’s will. All well and good. But when it goes on to list everything that is different by God’s design, it doesn’t just talk about skin colour and language, but also says that different religions are by God’s design. Of course, you could therefore ask: does it matter whether I choose Jesus Christ or the Koran? 

On the flight home to Rome, Francis then explained that this was already clear from the texts of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He was referring to the conclusion of the document “Nostra aetate”, the Council’s declaration on the Church’s attitude towards non-Christian religions. 

It rejects all discrimination against people, regardless of their skin colour or religion. That is correct – but the question still remains as to whether all religions are God’s will. I understand this in terms of the traditional assertion made by the church that an encounter between two people of different religions can be purifying and enriching for both. This encounter is intended by God.

The Abraham Accords are about making money

You work with Muslims from around the world. Has the document really had an impact and is it widely recognised? The text itself emphasises the importance of education for dialogue and mutual acceptance. 

Koerner: Indeed. The text itself even calls for it to be used in lessons. I have already read it together with Muslim, Catholic and Protestant students. To be honest, the students find the piously formal language of such documents difficult to understand. 

To them, it sounds almost ideological. But then again, they were all young people studying theology in Germany. At university, you learn to scrutinise beautiful formulations from an ideological perspective. It did however prompt further discussion.

One can always ask: how would you put it? What would you call for? That is why the Abu Dhabi document is the best starting point for Christian-Islamic encounters, especially at universities. 

Do you think this step taken by leading religious representatives paved the way for the Abraham Accords Declaration of September 2020? The declaration was actually a political declaration of intent by Israelis and the United Arab Emirates, which was then joined by other Muslim, Sunni states. 

Koerner: As far as I know and understand, the Abraham Accords have little to do with religion and understanding. They are more about trade and making money. 


Islamic expert Jesuit priest Felix Koerner
“The only thing that will help is recognising the needs and fears of people on both sides. That is what is meant by saying that we are sisters and brothers. The document says it clearly: all people are this ‘we’,” says Islamic scholar and Jesuit Felix Koerner (image: SJ photo/C. Ender)

How do you see the document against the backdrop of 7 October 2023 and the terror of the radical Hamas? 

Koerner: Hamas calls itself Islamist. It deliberately brings religion into play. This sets it apart from Fatah. But a text by the Pope and a Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar? 

No Hamas ideologue would listen to such a document. If you showed it to them, they would probably say: “This is written by people who have forgotten us. Perhaps even people who have betrayed us.” 

Nevertheless, the key lies in the document and in its history. How can this war end? We must respect others as sisters and brothers. 

We must first see them as people, as individual faces and listen to their stories! And even more clearly: in Jerusalem in 2014, the Pope said the decisive thing in his fourfold appeal: let us learn to understand the pain of others.  

What were the other appeals? 

Koerner: As I said, the Pope called on us to respect each other as brothers and sisters – to recognise each other’s pain, not to misuse the name of God to justify violence and to work together for justice and peace. This is a vision of a future that can really inspire people, really change them.

Recognising the needs and fears of all people

Al-Tayyeb has also been accused of anti-Semitic thinking. Even after the Hamas bloodbath, no clear condemnation of terrorism was forthcoming.   

Koerner: For far too long, people have confused two things: being against Israel’s policies and being against Jews. Many in the Middle East make this terrible mistake, and more and more of us are doing the same. The only thing that will help is recognising the needs and fears of people on both sides. That is what is meant by saying that we are sisters and brothers. The document says it clearly: all people are this “we”.  

Pope Francis has regularly travelled to the Islamic world over the years, especially since 2019. Are you still expecting him to visit Saudi Arabia? 

Koerner: It would be nice. But a visit to Riyadh is not on the cards at the moment. The first problem is that no non-Muslim is allowed to go to Mecca. Should we skip that? What’s more, I don’t see any special friendship between Francis and a dialogue partner there at the moment. But who knows! 

In summer 2024, the Pope wants to travel to Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. What relevance does the Abu Dhabi document have for this trip?    

Koerner: The document is not the basis for the trip. The Indonesians are keen to show they can do it themselves. They aren’t going to let a scholar from Egypt speak for them. But Abu Dhabi 2019 is of course a model. Perhaps there will then be a new document, the Yogyakarta Charter, for instance.

Interview conducted by Christoph Strack

© 2024


Pope Francis and Grand Sheikh Al-Tayyeb
Pope Francis and Grand Sheikh Al-Tayyeb in Rome in October 2012: "Peace, love and fraternity" (image: Vatican Media/IPA/imago images)

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