Gesture caused discussions within the church in 1999

Theologian: John Paul II wanted to show respect by kissing the Koran

Bonn - John Paul II kissed the Koran as a gesture of respect. The picture went around the world. In an interview with katholisch.de, Islamic scholar Felix Körner talks about the sign of the Polish head of the Church and looks at the following pontificates.

Published  on 14.05.2024 at 00:01  – by Mario Trifunovic

The picture of 14 May 1999 of Pope John Paul II kissing the Koran went around the world and sparked discussions within the Church. At that time, the Polish Pope received a Muslim delegation of Shiites and Sunnis as well as the Chairman of the Iranian Ministry of Religion in the Vatican. Among them was the then Archbishop of Baghdad, Raphael I. Bidawid. The Polish church leader received a copy of the Koran as a gift from the Muslim visitors. As a sign of respect, John Paul II kissed the book, which is sacred to Muslims. In an interview with katholisch.de, the Islam expert and Jesuit Felix Körner talks about the gesture 25 years ago and takes a look at the pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis.

Question: Mr Körner, it is now 25 years since John Paul II kissed the Koran. Why was this event so controversial?

Körner: Behind it was the big theological question: what is the Koran for us? For in Christ are hidden all the treasures of knowledge. That's what it says in Colossians. But for the Koran, Jesus is just one of many prophets. So if the Pope kisses the Koran, does that mean that the Catholic Church no longer sees Jesus as the all-important Saviour? Of course not! The dispute about the kiss only arises if you want to misunderstand John Paul II.

Question: What was the significance of this gesture? Does it still have an effect on the dialogue between Christians and Muslims?

Körner: What did the Pope want to say with it in 1999? Firstly, that he was happy about the gift; and secondly, that he respects the faith of others. In other words, a gesture that was completely in line with the Second Vatican Council. And it went even further: Benedict XVI prayed in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. No press spokesperson said afterwards that it was a silent meditation. Benedict prayed in the mosque and Francis said to the Muslim guests: "Pray for me. In an atmosphere like this, we can also say clearly today where we disagree, what we expect from each other - and how we can work together.

Question: Have there been similar actions, whether by John Paul II or his predecessors?

Körner: Yes, there certainly were. As Apostolic Envoy to Turkey, John XXIII already made the Muslims feel that he liked them. Then Paul VI - he introduced the word dialogue into the vocabulary of the Church, also for Islamic-Christian relations. John Paul II later brought real experts on Islam into the dialogue council. Networks were established, texts written - the 1984 document "Dialogue and Mission" was already outstanding. And John Paul II himself then in his encyclical "Redemptoris missio" that the Holy Spirit also touches cultures and religions. In doing so, he opened doors.

Bild: ©KNA/Stefano dal Pozzolo/Romano Siciliani

The Jesuit Felix Körner is Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is considered one of the Catholic Church's best experts on Islam.

Question: What was the headwind like in this regard?

Körner: Sometimes the headwind seemed to slam the doors of dialogue shut again. But now there are the texts, the relationships and above all the institutions - and ever more courageous signs. In the Holy Year 2000, we saw the Pope praying in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. At the time, his press spokesman said he had to deny it afterwards, saying it was just a moment of quiet meditation.

Question: Fundamentalist Christians criticised John Paul II for his gesture. Some said at the time that he was confirming the Islamic faith. What can be said in response?

Körner: There are fundamentalists on all sides, because they want to establish a firm identity for themselves. The Christian faith is much more exciting. You can always discover something new there! If you look into the world with the gospel, you can see how the kingdom of God is already growing, how the spirit of Christ is already at work. When I say that I see the good in you, your faithfulness, your seriousness, I am not saying that I am adopting your view. Sometimes we agree to disagree. But there are things that we find exemplary in each other, and in the end we learn from each other.

Question: Benedict XVI was criticised for his Regensburg speech, while Francis was criticised for the Abu Dhabi document on brotherhood between people, which he signed in 2019 together with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Sheikh of Azar University and therefore one of the most respected representatives of Sunni Islam. What is the current mood on both sides?

Körner: I am interested in the arguments of the critics. Those who are worried are often right, because there is cause for concern. But the crucial question is not how bad it is, but what we do now. After Regensburg, we have started a new, serious series of Christian-Islamic encounters. This has become theologically serious. There are now even Islamic theology programmes at German universities. I have respectful and curious encounters with students and colleagues on an almost daily basis. You can also bear witness to your own faith.

Joint declaration by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Mohammad Al-Tayyeb
Bild: ©picture alliance/AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Mohammad Al-Tayyeb sign a joint declaration on "Human Fraternity" on 4 February 2019.

Question: The so-called Abu Dhabi Document provided a new impetus in the Church's dialogue with Islam. How did this come about?

Körner: The document is also based on the Second Vatican Council. There it said: We condemn all discrimination based on skin colour or religion. In 2019, it now said: Differences are willed by God. In the case of religious differences, this means that if the other person believes differently, then the encounter can also be purifying and enriching for me - and that is God's will.

Question: Francis has been sharply criticised for this God-ordained pluralism. Why?

Körner: Well, almost everything a pope does gets a shitstorm, including a Catholic one. Good theology helps here too. The question behind such voices is usually whether the Gospel is still really being emphasised. And we can use it to make that clear. In any case, these gestures are a testimony to the Gospel.

„Wir haben nach Regensburg eine neue, ernsthafte Reihe christlich-islamischer Begegnungen begonnen. Das ist theologisch seriös geworden.“

—  Zitat: Jesuit und Islamkenner Felix Körner zum interreligiösen Dialog

Question: In what way do these gestures serve to clarify?

Körner: Pope Francis aptly said in the programmatic letter "Evangelii gaudium" at the beginning of his pontificate: evangelising means making the kingdom of God present in the world. When people come closer to God and to one another, then what the Good News of Jesus promises happens: then God's kingdom grows among us. A sign of this can also be a courageous word of fraternity, or a respectful kiss on a book that is sacred to Muslims and which they present to a pope.

Question: In your opinion, what else should Francis do to advance the dialogue?

Körner: Francis knows that Christian-Islamic dialogue is not about agreement on matters of faith. Rather, he is talking about the courage to be different and to deal with each other as people of different religions. He is now moving from friendship to institutions, from the atmospheric to the legal. Because living in dialogue also requires political freedom.

by Mario Trifunovic