By PARVEZ AHMED
WASHINGTON -- As the world bids goodbye to one of its most beloved citizens, Pope John Paul II, it is natural to reflect on his legacy. That the pope is beloved by Roman Catholics is no surprise. What is remarkable is the respect he earned from other faiths as he took unprecedented steps to build bridges of understanding.
John Paul was the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to set foot inside a mosque. In 2001, he visited the Ummayad Mosque -- one of the world's oldest mosques -- in Damascus, Syria. Of further significance, the mosque contains the tomb of John the Baptist. According to the Vatican, this was the first time that Muslims and Christians had prayed together in an organized way.
Of this visit, John Wilkins, editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, said, "Traditionally, Islam has been tolerant of Christianity -- more tolerant than Christianity has been of Islam." However, the continued occupation of Muslim lands, the authoritarian rule in most of the Mideast and the accompanying rise of militancy in some Muslim societies threaten to derail the historic tolerance of Islam toward people of other faiths.
Muslims will do enormous good by reflecting on some of their great traditions, such as the Prophet Mohammed's standing up to pay respect as the funeral procession of a Jewish man passed, or his visiting the sick regardless of their faith. Also remarkable was Salahuddin Ayubi, the great Muslim general, who sent his personal physician to treat King Richard the Lionheart when the two were at war, during the Crusades.
John Paul, writing in his 1994 book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," understandably disagreed with the theology of Islam, but said: "Nevertheless, the religiosity of Muslims deserves respect. It is impossible not to admire, for example, their fidelity to prayer. The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all. (Church officials) also called for the Church to have a dialogue with followers of the Prophet, and the Church has proceeded to do so."
In 1994, the Vatican normalized relations with Israel, yet the pope continued to speak of the "natural rights" of the Palestinian people to their homeland. In 2004, the pope, expressing his disagreement with the Iraq war, warned of its damaging effect in further polarizing religions. He urged Washington to develop better understanding of the Islamic world.
On this issue, the sentiment of the pope is no different from that of many American Muslims.
Many Muslims will rightfully remember Pope John Paul II as an advocate of justice, a bridge builder and a visionary leader. The pope promoted his own faith without appearing condescending to others'. Public figures who have espoused Islamophobic views could borrow a page of tolerance from the book of this great Christian leader.
Our faith is no stronger when we denigrate the faiths of others.
X Ahmed is a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Distributed by Scripps Howard.