"There is always a small group of extremists in practically every religion."
“It isn’t right to say that Islam is a terrorist faith. I don’t like talking about Islamic violence.” Speaking to journalists on the return flight from Krakow to Rome, Francis said this in response to a question about the murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel, the elderly French priest who was slain while he was celebrating mass.
Catholics are in shock following the barbaric murder of Fr. Hamel. You told us that all religions seek peace, yet he was killed in the name of Islam. Why do you never mention the word Islam when you speak about terrorism?
“I don’t like speaking of Islamic violence because I come across violence every day when I leaf through the newspapers here in Italy: you read about someone who’s killed his girlfriend or his mother-in-law and these are violent baptized Catholics. If I talk about Islamic violence should I speak about Catholic violence too? Not all Muslims are violent. It’s like a fruit salad, you do find some violent people in religions. One thing is certain: there is always a small group of extremists in practically every religion. We have them too. And when extremism goes as far as to kill – you can kill with your tongue, the apostle James says so, not me, and you can kill with a sword – it is not right to identify Islam with violence. I had a long conversation with the grand imam of Al Azhar: they seek peace and understanding.
The nuncio of an African country was telling me that in his country’s capital there are always people queuing up to pass through the holy door and some approach the confessionals. But most go straight to the altar to pray to the Madonna and there are Muslims who want to celebrate the Jubilee. When I was in the Central African Republic I visited them and the Imam boarded the Popemobile. Peaceful co-existence is possible. Extremist groups do exist. I wonder how many young people have we as Europeans robbed of their ideals so that they turn to drugs, alcohol or they go there and enroll. Yes, we can say that so-called ISIS is an Islamic state that presents itself as violent because the ID card it shows us is how it killed Egyptians. But this is just a small group, you cannot and it is not true and not right to call Islam a terrorist faith.”
Aside from prayer and dialogue, what other concrete initiative is there to counter Islamic violence?
“Terrorism is everywhere, just think of the tribal terrorism that exists in some African countries. Terrorism grows when there is no other option. Now I’m going to say something that may be risky. When you make the money god the center of the world economy instead of man and woman, then this is a first form of terrorism. You have erased the magnificence of creation and placed money at the center. This is a first basic form of terrorism. Let’s just think about that.”
In your first speech at Wawel straight after your arrival in Poland, you said that this country was your starting point for getting to know central-eastern Europe. What were your impressions?
“Poland was special because it was invaded once again, this time by young people! I thought Krakow was beautiful, there was so much enthusiasm among the Poles. This evening, there were so many people in the streets, despite the pouring rain. Not just young people but old ladies too. I have been familiar with Polish people since my childhood days. Some Polish women came to work at the place where my father used to work. They were kind people and I encountered this same kindness again.”
Our young sons and daughters were moved by your words because you spoke their language. How did you prepare, using examples that were so pertinent to their lives?
“I like talking to young people and I like listening to them. They always make me sweat because they tell me things I had not thought of or that I had only half thought about. Restless, creative young people, and this is where I get this language from. I very often have to ask the meaning of some expressions. They are our future and there needs to be a dialogue between past and future. This is why I place so much emphasis on dialogue between young people and grandparents because have our own experience to offer too: They should feel the past, history, grasp it and take it forward with the courage of the present. This is important. I don’t like it when I hear people say: these youngsters are full of nonsense! We say many stupid things too. They say stupid things and they say good things, just like us, just like everyone else. We need to learn from them and vice versa. That way we grow, avoiding closed-mindedness and censorship.”
Your Holiness, repression in Turkey following the coup is perhaps worse than the coup itself: members of the military, judges, diplomats, journalists. There have been more than 13,000 arrests and over 50,000 people have been sacked. It’s a purge. The day before yesterday, President Erdogan told his critics to mind their own business! We would like to ask you why you haven’t spoken about this yet. Do you fear this may have repercussions on the Catholic minority?
“When I had to say something Turkey didn’t like but which I was certain of, I said it, and you are all aware of what the consequences were [this being an obvious reference to his words on the Armenian genocide] but I was certain. So far I have not spoken because I am still not certain, based on the information I have been given, about what is going on there. I listen to the information I am given by the Secretariat of State and by an important political analyst or two. I am examining the situation, with the Secretariat of State and the whole affair is not yet clear. It is true that Catholics should always be protected from harm. But not at the cost of the truth. There’s the virtue of prudence but in my case, you are witnesses to the fact that when I have needed to say something regarding Turkey, I have said it.”
There is one question that has been on everybody’s lips in recent days: the Australian police are investigating the fresh accusations made against Cardinal George Pell. This time he is being accused of abusing children. What, in your opinion, would be the right thing for the cardinal to do?
“The first news reports that came out were confused. It was news dating back 40 years ago and even the police didn’t think much of it at first. Then complaints were filed and these are now in the hands of the justice system. No judgement should be made before justice speaks. If I spoke either in favor or against, it would not be right because because I would be judging first. It is true, there is doubt. And the law has a very clear principle on this: in dubbio pro reo. We have to wait for justice to take its course and desist from making a media judgement, a judgement based on gossip. We need to be attentive to the ruling that will be presented by justice. Once justice has spoken, then I will speak.”
How are you after your fall in Czestochowa?
“I was busy gazing at the Madonna and I forgot about the little step! I was holding the thurible and when I felt I was falling I let myself go and this is what saved me. Had I resisted the fall, there would have been consequences. But everything was OK.”
Last week there was talk of the Vatican acting as one of the negotiating parties in the Venezuelan crisis. Is this a real possibility?
“Two year ago I had a positive meeting with President Maduro. Then he asked for an audience with me last year but cancelled because he had otitis. I let some time go by and then I wrote him a letter. We talked about a potential meeting. Yes, with the conditions that are presented in such cases: at the moment – though I am not sure – the possibility of a representative of the Holy See joining the mediation group is being deliberated.”
Before starting the press conference, Francis spared a thought for a RAI correspondent who died in Krakow: “As you are her colleagues, I wish to express my condolences for the death of Anna Maria Jacobini. I met her sister and other members of the family. This was a sad part of the trip.” The Pope also celebrated the director of the Vatican press office Fr. Federico Lombardi’s last day on the job, along with Mauro, a member of staff who handled baggage on papal flights. It was his last day on the job too. “I would like to thank Fr. Lombardi and Mauro as this is the last time they will be travelling with us. Fr. Lombardi has been with Vatican Radio for more than 25 years and has been on papal flights for ten years. Mauro has been in charge of baggage for 37 years. I thank both of them very much.” After the press conference, Rome Reports journalist Javier Martinez Brocal introduced WYD 2019, which is to be celebrated in Panama, by presenting Pope Francis with a Panama hat, which he wore straight away.