On Saturday, April 28, a meaningful event took place in Tripoli-El Mina: the inauguration of a street named after “St. Francis d’Assisi” (Via San Francesco), the Italian Saint who first sought to build bridges of interreligious dialogue in the Middle East. Indeed, by meeting Sultan Malik Al Kâmil in Damietta, Egypt, in 1219, “St. Francis announced a new way to live together based on dialogue, tolerance, and peace in the steps of Jesus Christ and the Gospel,” as reminded by Fr. Quirico Calella, Superior of the St. Francis Convent and major promoter of the initiative. “The approach of St. Francis – Fr. Calella stated – is all the more needed today to put an end to local and regional conflicts, and Tripoli has the potential to become a model of interreligious dialogue and ecumenism for the whole Middle East.”
The inauguration of “St. Francis d’Assisi Street” was held in conjunction with the worldwide celebrations for the 800 years of Franciscan presence in the Middle East, and featured religious, civil, and military authorities from Lebanon, Italy, and Vatican City. The closing remarks were delivered by the Grand Mufti of Tripoli and North Lebanon, Dr. Malik Al Chaar, who emphasized Tripoli’s historical traits “as a place where the encounter between Christians and Muslims materializes.”
“Brotherly relations between Christians and Muslims are rooted in the Quran and in the teachings of Prophet Mohammed – he argued –, so much so that, when the Muslim era in the Middle East begun, Christians could build Churches and practice their faith with no constraints. Therefore, differences between Christians and Muslims have never been grounded in religion, although religions have been exploited to cause tensions and rifts.” The Grand Mufti warned about “the lack of religious knowledge, which turns differences into religious hatred especially among young people,” and pointed out that “Christians are fully entitled to civil and political rights, regardless of whether they are majority or minority.”
“Dedicating a street to St. Francis – he added – helps get Tripoli’s Christians and Muslims closer to each other, strengthening their partnership relations and urging community leaders to take up their responsibilities in extinguishing conflicts and planning ahead for peace.”
The unveiling of St. Francis Street occurred in a time when positive signs are surfacing as to the role of religions in the Middle East. The landmark agreement recently signed in Saudi Arabia by the Muslim World League and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has laid the basis for a new cooperation to jointly address major issues of common concern for Muslims and Christians, starting with education and radicalization.
A new phase thus seems to be in the making. The tide of extremism reached its peak with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but it is now receding, making more and more room for religious moderate instances and actors in the public space and discourse.
The environment is changing in a way that enables the religious factor to play a constructive role in addressing extremism and meeting the widespread demand for peaceful and safe living conditions. Interreligious dialogue, in particular, is meant to gain increasing relevance as an instrument of reconciliation and conflicts resolution.
These developments will benefit Tripoli and Lebanon, as much as the broader region.