Why I want Pope Francis on my team

Updated 4:05 PM EDT, Tue September 8, 2015

Story highlights

Pope Francis has urged Europe's Catholics to host refugees

Haroon Moghul: Saudi Arabian response has been lacking

Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author, essayist and public speaker. Follow him @hsmoghul. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Muslim countries are not poor; they are poorly governed. They are not backward; they are held back. And though they may be this way today, it does not mean they have to be forever.

There’s no Muslim figure comparable to Pope Francis, and certainly none with the kind of platform he enjoys. We Sunni Muslims used to have a Caliph, but not since 1924. Of course, we do have leaders who aspire to similar authority, including Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz, whose official titles include that of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”

Sounds nice, right? Virtuous, humble, devotional: He leads by serving. And leads who? Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, Christianity’s largest denomination. Saudi Arabia claims to be, and is often described as, the principal Sunni Muslim power, leading the world’s more than 1 billion Sunnis, though its government isn’t even chosen by its own citizens.

Haroon Moghul
Courtesy of Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul

But lets take a step back from Saudi Arabia for a moment, and look at what has been going on in its backyard and beyond.

Since Bashar al-Assad unleashed his army on Syria’s people, about a million have sought refuge in Lebanon, while a greater number have been warmly welcomed by Turkey (both Muslim-majority countries). Meanwhile, although Saudi Arabia has offered financial support for refugees, it has flatly refused to host any refugees – even since heartbreaking pictures went viral of 2-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body being picked up by an officer after being washed up on a beach. Finland’s prime minister responded by offering his residence to refugees. And Saudi Arabia’s response? Nothing.

Maybe the kingdom feels hard up. But wait – when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman arrived in our country last week for high-level meetings, his entourage reportedly annexed a Four Seasons hotel, setting down red carpet in the parking garage so the Custodian of the Holy Mosque wouldn’t have to commit the grave sin of touching the ground. Gilded furniture was reportedly wheeled in because apparently existing accommodations were insufficiently luxuriant.

The timing, the cynical indifference to suffering across his region, the refusal to welcome Syrians, is, quite simply, disgusting. But perhaps hardly surprising; Saudi Arabia’s recently crowned King has distinguished his brief reign by going to war in Yemen, summoning other rich Arab monarchies to join him. Fabulously wealthy, wholly unaccountable and officially unwelcoming dictatorships are pummeling a poor, fragile country, creating another grave humanitarian crisis.

Of course, Saudi Arabia hasn’t been the only country to roll up the welcome mat. Tens of thousands of refugees are seeking safety in the West, with mixed responses. They’ve faced resistance from the governments of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, among others. Indeed, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has explicitly said he does not want large numbers of Muslims in his country, while Slovakia’s government acquiesced to “200 refugees” on condition they be Christian.

That’s where Pope Francis comes in. Telling those fleeing war and death to “have courage” and “hang in there” are insufficient. So His Holiness was right this past weekend to urge “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe [to] host a family” of refugees. And some of these being historically Catholic countries, I cannot help but see Pope Francis’ address as a powerful remonstrance.

Indeed, raising the stakes, he stressed this policy would be “starting from my diocese of Rome.” The Vatican’s two parishes would each host a family, one or both of whom might be Muslim. 

Think on that for a moment.

Of course Saudi Arabia’s government does not represent all of Islam and, because it is an absolute monarchy, does not really represent Saudi Arabians either. And many Muslims have certainly done great things for refugees, while others, including Gulf Arabs like Sultan al-Qassemi, have called on their governments to change course. Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya has pledged to donate much of his wealth – some $700 million – to aid refugees. But as significant as such a sum is, it does not rival the wealth of the Gulf, and especially Saudi Arabia.

But King Salman is the ruler of Mecca and Medina, and even if I don’t want him to represent Islam, so long as he rules over these cities, his regime will be associated with my religion. Do you know what that makes me feel? Shame. A deep, burning shame. The Pope welcomes refugees to the Vatican itself, while the Saudi delegation is apparently judging high-end hotels insufficiently grand.

In the past, the disparity between the needs of Muslim communities and the indifference of their governments was a major driver of extremism. In the present, people ask: What did that extremism accomplish? In the future, maybe they will not only want to go elsewhere, but to be someone else, too.

At one Berlin church, Muslim refugees are reportedly converting to Christianity “in droves.” Some observers allege these transformations are merely a ploy to increase the likelihood of receiving asylum. I don’t know that that’s true, because I can’t know what’s in people’s hearts. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the sentiment is sincere. After all, how must it feel to see all these wealthy countries claiming to represent and serve Islam closing their doors to you even as your life is in danger?

Syria’s people are caught between a dictatorship allied to the Islamic Republic of Iran on the one side, and a brutal terrorist movement calling itself the Islamic State on the other.

Maybe Pope Francis isn’t the one who will feel the need to convert after all.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.
Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine.