Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Despite the non-stop hubbub in U.S. politics that dominates the news, and the sexual molesting crisis that consumes Catholic media outlets, history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula achieved some spot coverage. But journalists now need to offer richer analysis of the longer-term significance of the February events in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

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Islam and Catholicism each claim the allegiance of more than one billion souls. Terrorists claiming inspiration from Islam vex the entire region, with fellow Muslims frequently among the victims of carnage, while targeted Christians have been pushed out of their faith’s ancestral heartland. In the U.S. State Department’s latest religious freedom report, six of the 10 worst nations “of particular concern” are majority Muslim (Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), with others on State’s “special watch” listing.

There was substance alongside the pageantry and photo ops in the UAE, a joint declaration issued by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, who leads venerable Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This is generally considered the chief intellectual center in Islam’s dominant Sunni branch (though long tainted by links with Egypt’s authoritarian regimes). Tayyeb is no pope but as authoritative as any figure in Sunnism. The joint statement results from years of intricate diplomacy between the Vatican and Al-Azhar.

Among the many moral evils addressed, the pope and imam called upon the world’s leaders “to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression,” adding that “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people. … Terrorism must be condemned in all its forms and expressions”

The declaration also proclaimed that “each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action” and opposed forcing people “to adhere to a certain religion.” It stated that “protection of places of worship — synagogues, churches and mosques — is a duty” under both religious teachings and international law. It upheld women’s rights to education, employment and political action. And so forth, including some interesting theological commentary on God creating the various world religions.

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Sunni vs. Shi'a Muslims worldwide: What? Why? Where? How many?

Sunni vs. Shi'a Muslims worldwide: What? Why? Where? How many?


Muslims in the U.S.: Sunni or Shi’a? And a second reader asks about the two groups’ numbers and over-all relationship on the international level.


This two-sided split underlies the increasingly dangerous Mideast rivalry between a rising Shi’a axis under revolutionary Iran and a bloc led by Saudi Arabia with its strict Sunni regime. A 2012 Pew Research survey asked people in Sunni lands “do you personally consider Shi’as to be Muslims or not?” Those  answering “no” ranged from 37 to 52 percent in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Tunisia. This troublesome rejection of Shi’a religious legitimacy is enforced with a vengeance by the bloodthirsty “Islamic State” that purports to have restored the Sunni “caliphate” within Iraq and Syria.

On Jim’s question, there’s considerable dispute about the total of U.S. Muslims but Pew estimates 10 to 15 percent are Shi’a,  roughly the same as in Canada and Britain. Iran contains some 40 percent of the world’s Shi’as, followed by sizable populations in southern Iraq, India, and Pakistan, and smaller numbers across Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Globally, the Muslim population estimated at 1.5 billion is heavily Sunni, with a Shi’a minority of perhaps 13 percent. Some say followers of Sufi mysticism form a third branch of Islam, which is more or less true, but they overlap the other two categories and are hard to count. (This over-simplified discussion will omit many Muslim variants and those regarded as heterodox.)

The Sunni vs. Shi’a schism was as much political as religious.

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