Muslims in Europe see hope for better relations with Roman Catholicism after the new pope took the name Francis, recalling the 13th-century saint known for his efforts to launch Christian dialogue with Islam.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose the name after his election on Wednesday in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, who is revered for his radical poverty and humility. Francis met the sultan of Egypt in 1219 on a peace mission during the Fifth Crusade.
St. Francis crossed enemy lines unarmed to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil and discuss war, peace and faith. He spent several days with the Muslim ruler, unsuccessfully trying to convert him, and was then returned safely to the Crusader side.
Muslim leaders in Italy, France and Germany, where St. Francis and his Franciscan order of brown-robed friars are well known, struck an upbeat tone.
"As Muslims of the West, we take as a particularly hopeful sign the reminder, in the name of the new pontiff, of the great example of sanctity and opening to the East and to Islam that St. Francis of Assisi gave," the Italian Islamic Religious Community (COREIS) said in a statement.
Vatican relations with the Muslim world were badly strained in 2006 when now retired Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying Islam was a violent and irrational religion.
That sparked violent protests in the Muslim world. Benedict apologised but many Muslims remained wary of the German-born pontiff. Such reserve was echoed in congratulations the Saudi Arabian-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) sent the new pope, saying it hoped "the relationship between Islam and Christianity will regain its cordiality and sincere friendship".
Muslim scholars of the Common Word group who met Benedict to seek better understanding said his remarks had been hurtful but they later came to appreciate his willingness for dialogue.
MEETINGS IN ARGENTINA
Clerics at the Grand Mosque of Paris said French Muslims wondered what kind of pope had been elected on Wednesday when a Vatican cardinal announced "habemus papam" - "we have a pope".
They hoped he would be inspired by his link to St. Francis, "who at the start of the 13th century voluntarily initiated the first Islamic-Christian dialogue in history".
Germany's Muslim Coordination Council (KRM) said the choice of the name Francis "set an important tone" for a dialogue with Muslims "on an equal basis and with respect".
Muslim leaders in his native Argentina said the pope had visited them several times while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and had cordial relations with the country's 800,000 Muslims, mostly of Syrian and Lebanese origin.
"We have a lot of faith in the breadth of his vision and his openness to dialogue," said Galeb Moussa, president of the Federation of Argentinian Arab Organisations.
He thought Francis could help foster Catholic dialogue with Muslims in Europe because he had "no links to the Eurocentric axis where Islam in Europe is being attacked and bad-mouthed".
The new pope apparently focused his dialogue with Muslims on his home country. Vatican officials said he was not known to have participated in many international dialogue meetings.
Paul Moses, author of the book "The Saint and The Sultan" about the 13th-century encounter, said al-Kamil received Francis because he had approached him peacefully in time of war.
His effort to convert the sultan is "not a proper foundation for inter-religious dialogue today", he said, but it was the only way for them to have met at the time.
"The sultan, who was known for his sensitivity to Egypt's Christian minority, allowed Francis to preach for several days before sending him back to the enemy camp with a military escort," Moses told Reuters. The sultan did not convert.
Moses, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College in New York, said he had been invited several times by Muslim groups to lecture about the event: "Hearing about St. Francis seemed to touch many of the Muslims in the audience."