THROUGH my work as an imam, I have met many interesting, inspirational and powerful individuals from the worlds of religion, politics and sports. However, the invitation to meet the spiritual leader of around 1.2 billion people was completely unexpected.
I was delighted and humbled to have been invited to converse with Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Popes are usually circumscribed by tradition and hemmed in by bureaucracy, but Pope Francis seems to have broken the papal protocol. His interventions in global politics, as well as his displays of public humility, have made him popular amongst people of all faiths as well as no faith.
His first months as Pope were a veritable love-fest. He washed the feet of inmates, women and a Muslim. He wants people to have easy access to him.
Many could learn from the inspiring precedent he has set. The Prophet Muhammad says “the leader of a community is their servant” – hence, the term ‘public servant’. In the last three years, the papacy has continued on a “journey of fraternity, of love, of trust”.
As such, it was a great privilege to meet the Pope. He looked directly into my eyes, held my hand and spoke with a gentle and loving voice. I praised him for aspiring to be a spiritual leader who is foremost a pastor to the flock, not a king, and for focusing on ordinary people and not on religious dogma.
He slightly lowered his head with humility and brought his hands together as a gesture of thanks to His Lord, which was a deeply moving moment.
I was keen to share some of the remarkable work that faith communities have done in Britain to strengthen inter-faith relations.
During his visit to the Central African Republic in November last year, Pope Francis told worshippers in a mosque that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters”.
The growing persecution of faith minorities around the globe – whether it be Christians in Pakistan and the Middle East, Muslims in parts of Africa, or the rise in anti-Muslim hatred in Europe – was brought up during the conversation.
I highlighted the recent Marrakesh Declaration that Muslim leaders from around the globe endorsed earlier this year. In this, high-ranking imams and religious ministers called upon politicians to take the political and legal steps necessary, and for civil society “to establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights”.
The Pope appreciated the efforts made by so many of my colleagues to bridge the gap between communities when he said: “Continue your work, and we are with you.”
On behalf of Makkah Mosque, British Muslims and the White Ribbon anti-domestic violence campaign, Ikram Butt (Ambassador for the White Ribbon Campaign and founder of the British Asian Rugby Association) and I presented a glass memento to Pope Francis in recognition of his work in promoting peace and bringing an end to violence.
The glass memento read: “Violence has no religion. People of all faiths and none stand united against violence.”
The Pope replied: “Those who claim to believe in God must also be men and women of peace.”
Given that one of the key challenges facing free societies is terrorism committed in the name of faiths, I raised my concerns about the growing violence against innocent people.
The terrorists do not represent any faith. They recruit young, impressionable individuals, who lack religious literacy, for their own political and violent aims. I mentioned the efforts of ImamsOnline in combating internet radicalisation.
As well as making his views known about immigration and climate change, the Pope has urged a rethink of the capitalist economics. He has previously said: “Unjust economic structures create great inequities.”
During our conversation, I mentioned the groundbreaking partnership between my employers, DLA Piper, and the charity Unicef aimed at strengthening the protection of children around the world from violence and economic exploitation.
History will judge the popular, powerful and enigmatic Pope but I was deeply moved by the patience that he displayed sand was profoundly inspired by his humility, his courage and spiritual leadership to speak out against global injustices and inequalities.
Qari Asim MBE is chief imam at Makkah Masjid mosque in Leeds.