(Photo: Reuters/Giampiero Sposito)
Pope Francis, who returned this week from a trip to Brazil for World Youth Day celebrations, wrote a message to Muslims at the end of their month-long Ramadan fast, urging their leaders to promote mutual respect, especially through education.
"This year, the first of my Pontificate, I have decided to sign this traditional message myself and to send it to you, dear friends, as an expression of esteem and friendship for all Muslims, especially those who are religious leaders," the pope wrote in the letter, addressed to "Muslims throughout the World" and released Friday.
The Vatican message comes days before Eid al-Fitr celebrations at the conclusion of the month-long Ramadan fast next week. The festival is also called "Feast of Breaking the Fast."
"This year, the theme on which I would like to reflect with you and with all who will read this message is one that concerns both Muslims and Christians: Promoting Mutual Respect through Education," Francis wrote. "Regarding the education of Muslim and Christian youth, we have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers, and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices."
The greetings are normally sent by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, but Francis chose to send the message personally, as Pope John Paul II did in 1991.
Francis went on to write that "what we are called to respect in each person is first of all his life, his physical integrity, his dignity and the rights deriving from that dignity," adding the people of the two faiths must also respect the property, the ethnic and cultural identity, the ideas and the political choices of each other.
In doing so, "families, schools, religious teaching and all forms of media have a role to play in achieving this goal," he said. "We all know that mutual respect is fundamental in any human relationship, especially among people who profess religious belief. In this way, sincere and lasting friendship can grow."
Researchers say most of the Christian persecution in the world is taking place at the hands of Muslims. Of the top 50 countries persecuting Christians, 42 have either a Muslim majority or have sizeable Muslim populations.
In his message, Pope Francis clarified that wishing each other on religious celebrations does not mean acceptance of the tenets of others.
"When we show respect for the religion of our neighbors or when we offer them our good wishes on the occasion of a religious celebration, we simply seek to share their joy, without making reference to the content of their religious convictions," he said. "I send you my prayerful good wishes, that your lives may glorify the Almighty and give joy to those around you."