Compared to his recent pronouncements about gay Catholics, little fanfare accompanied Pope Francis's personal message to Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan this weekend. Francis communicated his "esteem and friendship" and issued a call to "avoid ridicule or denigration," showing that in addition to his reluctance to pass judgment on homosexual believers, he is also more relaxed than his predecessor about the threat that the Muslim faithful represent to Roman Catholicism.
Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the Vatican's Commission for Relations with Islam. At the time, Vatican City was one of many European states reaching out to the Muslim world to mitigate the oil embargo by OAPEC countries on Western customers. Now, in a context of brewing civil wars that threaten the Middle East's remaining Christian minorities, Francis is attempting to stave off religious war.
Pope Francis's cumulative gestures towards Muslims contrast sharply with Benedict XVI's approach to Christian-Muslim affairs. Francis has engaged Islamic communities since his earliest words as pope, and one of his first public acts was to ritually wash the feet of two young Muslims in a juvenile detention center. The German pope never fully recovered from an early faux pas in Regensburg, where he evoked a Byzantine emperor's words on the "evil and inhuman" Prophet Mohammed bent on violent proselytism. These were not his own sentiments, he later said, but it was a view that he nonetheless publicized widely and never overcame.