In the summer of 1219, Francis of Assisi traveled to Egypt with the hope of converting the Saracens from Islam to Christianity. He stayed with some crusaders, who told him his mission was impossible and could easily cost him his life. Francis ignored the warnings and managed to secure an audience with the sultan, who was not at all interested in his visitor's message but was kind enough to return him safely to the crusaders’ camp.
Although he made no converts, Francis was a lot more fortunate than a certain Eulogius, who was beheaded in Cordova in 859 for denouncing Muhammad as an imposter and trying to shield Leocritia, a young Muslim woman who had become a Christian.
Francis would have been startled if he could have foreseen what the Second Vatican Council had to say about Islam in 1965. In its “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” the council insisted that the church “looks with esteem” upon the Muslims and their adoration of the “one God Maker of heaven and earth.”
Mindful perhaps of figures like the pugnacious St. Eulogius, to say nothing of the far from saintly crusaders, the declaration conceded that over the centuries there have been many quarrels between Christians and Muslims, but it urged “all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding.”
That is not an impossible goal in a democratic and pluralistic society like the United States. In recent years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has joined some Islamic groups in cosponsoring three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues.
But in Saudi Arabia or Iraq, setting up an interfaith dialogue is about as likely as obtaining a license to open a bar or night club. In fact, many Islamic nations forbid by law any preaching of the Gospel.
All the same, even in those countries certain forms of evangelization may be possible, if evangelization is understood in its fullest sense.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, pointed out in “The Good Olive Tree,” in America’s Sept. 17 issue, that evangelization in its proper theological sense includes elements such as simple presence in a locality or the carrying on of humanitarian social projects “that do not have the goal of increasing the number of Catholics.”
Evangelization in that broad sense has proved possible even in an unfriendly culture. For 37 years (1932-69) members of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus worked successfully in Iraq, which is largely Islamic. In 1932 they founded Baghdad College, a secondary school for boys, and in 1956 A1 Hikma, Iraq's first modern university.
The Jesuits got along well with the government until 1968, when the Baath, a socialist party now totally controlled by Saddam Hussein, came to power. The Baath leaders were opposed to private education and had become anti-American because of U.S. support for Israel in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 1968 they expelled the 26 Jesuits at Al Hikma, which had 700 students at the time, and in 1969 they deported the 33 Jesuits at Baghdad College, which then enrolled 1,000 boys.
Those schools had bucked up the Christian minorities—the Catholic Chaldeans and the Assyrian Orthodox—but they had observed the laws against proselytizing and made no converts.
Conversions, however, were not their purpose. They gave a first-rate education, and that was a good work in itself. Along the way, they somewhat diminished 12 centuries of hostility between Muslims and Christians, since half their student body was Islamic. They also gave witness to their faith by their good example. There is hardly a better way than that to let the light of the Gospel shine forth.