“It’s a long time since the world has had such a strong spiritual leader”

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Omar Abboud, the Argentinean Muslim who will accompany Francis in the Holy Land, describes the Pope’s decision to have a Jew and Muslim accompany him as “one of the strongest gestures” the world has seen.

“It’s a long time since the world has had such a strong spiritual leader”, Omar Abboud, the Muslim from Buenos Aires who will accompany the Pope on his “pilgrimage of prayer” in the Holy Land, told me on the eve of the Francis’ departure for the Holy Land.

He described the Pope’s decision to invite a Jew and a Muslim to accompany him on his three-day visit to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem as “one of the strongest gestures that has been seen, and it seems to me that it is on a universal scale given that he makes it in the most conflictive region of the planet”.

“He has always been a man of action, and this gesture demonstrates that. And now as Holy Father, of course, he is committed to dialogue, but it’s not up to him to resolve the conflicts, rather it is up to the political conjuncture and the international community”, he added.
He revealed that he will be on the tarmac at Amman’s international airport to welcome Pope Francis when he steps off the Alitalia plane that brings him from Rome around lunchtime on May 24.

From that moment on Abboud will be an integral part of that select delegation - which includes 5 Vatican cardinals and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem- that will accompany Pope Francis on the rest of his journey until he departs for Rome, on the evening of May 26. So too will Rabbi Abraham Skorka (also from Buenos Aires); he will join the papal delegation once the Sabbath has ended.

As we sat drinking coffee before he departed for Amman, it became clear that Omar Abboud is still struggling to come to terms with his presence on this extraordinary “pilgrimage of prayer”, and to understand its global significance. “I am only a believing Muslim that is accompanying the Holy Father. I do not represent the Muslims. I do not represent anybody but myself. I believe sincerely in dialogue, and I agree with what Pope Francis says: We must not let them rob us of our hope, our vision of peace!”

“For us who come from Argentina, where there has always been integration and good coexistence between the different faiths, this is not a novelty because the impulse to inter-religious dialogue was always a constant (element of our lives)”, Abboud, the Director of the Institute for Interreligious Centre in Buenos Aires, stated.

“Argentina does not have the same baggage that exists in the Middle East, but that does not mean that our model can be exported, but it can be an inspiration to others”, he observed.

He recalled that many Jews, Christians and Muslims from countries in Europe and the Middle East had immigrated to Argentina in the past century and have been able to live together in harmony and peace in this land, whereas in their countries of origin this has not always been the case. Today, there are around 500,000 Muslims in Argentina, he said, but between one and two million Argentineans can trace some of their roots to the Middle East.

This gentle, low-profile Muslim revealed that his own roots are Syrian on his mother’s side of the family, and Lebanese on the side of his father. His paternal grandfather, who lived in Argentina, translated the Koran into Spanish. It took him six to seven years. This was the first translation of the Koran into Spanish done in Latin America.

Omar Abboud, 48, stopped over in Rome on his way from Buenos Aires to Amman and we spoke together then. He went out of his way to explain that he is a layman, not an Imam. He is Director of the Interreligious Centre in Buenos Aires and a director in the Muslim community there.

He recalled that he first met the future Pope in the year 2002 when he and representatives of the other religions in Buenos Aires went to the Catholic cathedral Aires for the Te Deum (“We thank you God”) ceremony on May 25, Argentina’s national day. Cardinal Bergoglio greeted him on that occasion, and they have remained in contact ever since. Indeed, as archbishop, the future Pope also visited the Interreligious Centre where Abboud is Director on more than one occasion.

Speaking about Pope Francis, Abboud said, “The thing that has always struck me about this man, even since I came to know him, is his coherence. He has many virtues, he has the capacity to place himself at the level of the other person, and he has always been able to affirm his message of social justice, solidarity, dialogue, in favor of a culture of encounter and against a culture of discarding people and exclusion. But, the most striking characteristic is his coherence”.

He explained that he is going on this visit to the Holy Land with the Pope – “something I had never even imagined could happen” – because Francis personally invited him on 28 February.

Earlier that month, he said, he had travelled to the Holy Land with a group of 45 Argentineans from different walks of life: 15 Christians, 15 Jews and 15 Muslims. They visited the shrines that are sacred to all three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem, and on that sojourn he had one of the most deeply spiritual experiences of his life when he prayed at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Holy City. At the end of their journey they stopped over in Rome to visit their old friend, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires with whom they had had a long history of involvement in the inter-religious field.

During that joyful encounter in Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where Pope Francis lives, Abboud recalled how Pope Francis came to him and said, “Let us go together to the Holy Land’.” It was “a totally unexpected honor”, he added. Weeks later, “the Nunciature (Vatican embassy) in Buenos Aires gave me the formal invitation”, he said.

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Gerard O'connell