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Issue Date:  September 29, 2006

Pope's quote bruises old hurts

Critics say he's tone-deaf to Muslim perceptions


Though the crisis set off by Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial comments on Islam is obviously no laughing matter, it may be that the signature question of comedienne Joan Rivers best captures where things stand now between Muslims and Christians: “Can we talk?”

However brutally, Benedict’s Sept. 12 citation of a Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought things “only evil and inhuman” and that he “spread by the sword the faith he preached” has ruptured a taboo on discussion of long-simmering resentments on both sides. Islamic critics of the pope contend he’s tone-deaf to the way many Muslims perceive themselves to be under siege from the West, while some Christians respond that until Muslim leaders are willing to denounce the extremists in their own camp and protect religious minorities, critical appraisals of Islam will only intensify.

Experts on both sides of the relationship say Christians and Muslims now face a stark choice: Find a way to talk to each other, or stand by and watch further blood flow.

During his general audience Sept. 20, Benedict put himself on the side of dialogue, saying he hoped that after the immediate reaction to his comments dies down, a “positive and also self-critical” exchange may emerge. The long-term drama of this episode, therefore, may lie in whether this theologian-pope, personally gracious but doctrinally and intellectually unyielding, can find an argot for such a dialogue that does not end up feeding the extremism he wants to critique.

Other points that also seemed to become clear as the crisis entered its second week:

  • Benedict is unlikely to offer further apology beyond his Sept. 17 statement that he is “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address,” a concession that some Muslims have found insufficient.
  • While Benedict’s use of an incendiary 14th-century quotation about Muhammad was destined to provoke a reaction, the backdrop of tensions over the war in Iraq made this an especially volatile moment. Ironically, some Muslims have charged that Benedict is supplying religious justification for U.S. President George Bush’s policy in Iraq, despite the fact that the Vatican was the leading moral critic of that conflict, setting off deep tensions between the Bush administration and the Holy See.
  • The pope’s scheduled late November trip to Turkey is, for now, still on the books, but officials both in Turkey and in the Vatican say they will monitor the security situation before making a final decision.
  • While debate continues about what exactly Benedict meant, his broader readiness to challenge Islamic leaders on issues of violence and what the Vatican calls “reciprocity” seems to promise more delicate moments ahead.

A university lecture

The present crisis began with a Sept. 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany, where then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger taught theology from 1969 to 1977, prior to his appointment as archbishop of Munich-Freising by Pope Paul VI. In the 40-minute lecture, the pope argued that efforts aimed at the “dehellenization” of Christianity, stripping it of its Greco-Roman encrustations and returning it to a state of “pure faith,” are misguided. The decision made in favor of the rationality of God under the impact of Greek philosophy was not an accident of history, the pope said, but part of the genetic code of Christianity.

Benedict opened with a reference to a 14th-century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a “learned Persian,” in which the emperor criticizes Islam.

The quote that caused the furor followed: “He turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,’ ” the pope said, emphasizing that he was quoting the emperor.

The pope went on to insist that religion and reason need one another, and included a plea against religious violence. Defenders of Benedict insist that if he was attacking anyone, it was Western intellectuals who marginalize God -- a sentiment, several pointed out, with which many Muslims would concur. Prior to the speech, senior Vatican officials were touting it as a “defining” address of Benedict’s pontificate in terms of laying out his core concerns.

Speaking on background, a senior Vatican official said the failure to adequately vet the pope’s speech may have been due to a vacuum of key personnel. In February, Benedict sent the Vatican’s top expert on Islam, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, to Cairo as his ambassador, meaning he is no longer in Rome to be consulted. The Bavaria trip also fell in a moment of transition between one secretary of state and another.

As reports of the comments made their way around the world -- usually out of context, and sometimes not even making the distinction that the pope was quoting someone rather than speaking in his own name -- wide protest and a handful of acts of violence erupted. Seven churches were attacked in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while massive rallies took place in majority Muslim states such as Indonesia and Iran, where seminaries were closed in protest.

On Sept. 17, Consolata Sr. Leonella Sgorbati, an Italian missionary, was shot to death in Somalia after a senior Somali cleric had denounced the pope’s remarks, though it was not clear if the slaying was connected to the controversy.

Some say it’s a crusade

At the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, widely considered the Vatican of the Islamic world, massive protests after last Friday’s prayer service included chants of “Down with the pope, down with the Vatican,” and “Where are you, Muslims? The pope is waging a new crusade against Islam.”

“Enough is enough,” said Sheikh Salah al-Din Nassar, the imam of the Al-Azhar mosque. “The pope talks about tolerance. Does insulting Islam and its prophet reflect any religious tolerance?”

Reaction was especially pointed in Turkey, where Benedict is scheduled to visit at the end of November, in part to meet the patriarch of Constantinople. It would also be his first visit to a majority Islamic state.

“It looks like an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades,” said Salih Kapusuz, a top deputy in the governing Islamic party in Turkey, predicting that Benedict would go down in history with leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini. Sensitivities in Turkey were particularly raw in light of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s opposition to Turkey’s entry into the European Union.

Another Turkish lawmaker suggested that if Benedict comes to Turkey, he should be arrested when he steps off the papal plane for violation of a Turkish law against religious defamation.

Nor was criticism restricted to the Muslim world.

Catholic writer John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope, said the effect of Benedict’s remarks has been “to alienate rather than forge connections with Islam,” and suggested he was guilty of “a startling lapse in historical accuracy.”

Scott Appleby, director of the Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said the controversy has been a setback for dialogue.

“Anytime a ... speech like this gets distorted a bit, lifted up and made an international cause célèbre … it certainly hurts any other efforts to engage in dialogue,” he said, assigning blame partly to the pope, partly to the media, and partly to “the climate today, the eagerness to jump on something and to be offended.”

Historian James Reston, speaking on National Public Radio Sept. 18, charged that Benedict’s comments put him in the same camp with Bush and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in terms of a “cold warrior” mentality on Islam.

Defenders of the pope reacted angrily to this last charge, pointing out that in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pointedly observed that the concept of “preemptive war” does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Moreover, in the recent crisis in Lebanon, Benedict XVI opposed the Bush administration by calling for an immediate cease-fire, rather than giving Israel time to “break the back” of the Hezbollah first, as the White House desired. Hence linking the pope’s comments, however ill-advised, to the foreign policy of the Bush administration, such defenders say, is unfair.

The price he paid

Privately, some Vatican officials ruefully told NCR that the Holy See paid a steep price in Western public opinion for what was seen as a pro-Islamic stance in the war, and these officials wonder why Muslim leaders have not been more willing to remind their people of that history.

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Madigan, rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and himself an expert on Islam, said the Vatican’s stance on Iraq may actually help explain the ferocity of Muslim reaction.

“For many Muslims the Vatican was sort of their last ally in the West,” he said. “If it’s gone, what’s left?”

By the standard of the Vatican’s normally unflappable response to public indignation, its “damage control” operation has been nothing short of remarkable.

Four times over five days, statements from senior Vatican officials or the pope himself attempted to calm the waters, including a Sept. 17 apology from Benedict for the uproar that resulted from his statement, and stating that the emperor’s words did not reflect his personal opinion.

The pope’s ambassadors in Muslim nations have been given instructions to explain the context of Benedict’s Sept. 12 address in Regensburg, and the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, even printed the text of his Sept. 17 apology in Arabic. In his condolence note for the slaying of Sgorbati, Benedict went out of his way to express desire for “authentic fraternity among peoples based on reciprocal respect of religious convictions.”

To date, however, Muslim reaction has been mixed. On Sept. 19, hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for calm, saying he “respected” the pope.

Yet many Muslim leaders insist that the pope must apologize for what he said, not just the reaction to it, and protest has continued to mount. Things have gotten so volatile that Egyptian journalist Fawaz A. Gerges has quoted radical leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood expressing concern that street violence may get out of control.

On the surface, Vatican officials have attempted to project an air of calm. Speaking on background, one senior Vatican official compared the present flap to a controversy that arose in 1994, when Pope John Paul II’s book Crossing the Threshold of Hope provoked outrage across Asia for his comments that Buddhism has a “negative soteriology” and is an “atheistic system.”

In response, Buddhists demanded that the pope’s scheduled January 1995 trip to Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist nation, be canceled; churches and Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka were attacked in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence; and terrorist threats circulated against the pope himself. When John Paul arrived, a planned interfaith meeting featured only the pope and a handful of Hindus, as all the Buddhist representatives staged a boycott.

Like Benedict, John Paul resisted calls to apologize for his comments, offering only regret for the reaction, and expressing his “esteem” and “highest regard” for Buddhism. In the end, the trip came and went, and the crisis died down.

Officials also pointed to another papal apology flap just last summer, ironically one in which the complaining party was not Islam but the Jewish world, especially the state of Israel.

In a July 24, 2005, Angelus address, Benedict expressed sympathy for the victims of recent terrorist actions in Great Britain, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, but not in Israel, where five people died on July 14, 2005, after a bombing in Netanya. Mark Regev, a spokesperson for the Israel foreign ministry, said that the omission of Israel “cries out to heaven,” and that it “could be interpreted as a license for acts of terrorism against Jews.”

After a nasty exchange between Israeli officials and the Vatican’s spokesperson, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the rhetoric cooled, and both sides seemed to put the episode behind them. Benedict recently confirmed that he hopes to visit Israel in the near future.

With such recent history, Vatican officials tried to maintain perspective.

“This too shall pass,” was the way the senior Vatican official who spoke to NCR summed up current thinking Sept. 20.

Yet beneath such surface assurance, senior church officials seem to recognize that Benedict’s comments on Islam do not represent a one-off episode, as was the case with John Paul and Buddhism, but they form part of a deeper critique of Islamic fundamentalism emerging in Benedict’s pontificate.

In part, it’s driven by anti-Christian persecution in the Islamic world, such as the Feb. 5 slaying of Italian missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro in Trabzon, Turkey. A 16-year-old Turk pumped two bullets into Santoro, shouting, “Allah akbar,” (“Allah is great”). He later said he had been agitated by Danish cartoons ridiculing Islam.

In part, the more challenging line is driven by frustrations over what the Vatican calls “reciprocity.” To take the most notorious example, while the Saudis contributed $20 million to build Europe’s largest mosque in Rome, Christians cannot build churches in Saudi Arabia. Priests in Saudi Arabia cannot leave oil industry compounds or embassy grounds without fear of the mutawa, the religious police. The bishop of the region recently described the situation as “reminiscent of the catacombs.”

Observers of the Catholic/Muslim relationship thus say that things stand at an important crossroads. Madigan said that it’s important the dialogue Benedict has said he wants be couched in the proper terms.

“We’ve got to be for human rights across the board,” he said. “It’s not just protecting the rights of our people, and withholding the rights of yours until you take care of ours.”

‘Reciprocity’ an aspiration

In that regard, Madigan said the concept of “reciprocity” must be understood as an aspiration, not as a precondition for dialogue. To refuse to talk without promises of reciprocity, he said, would be “completely un-Christian.”

“The message of the New Testament begins with grace, with God’s generosity, which we hope is transforming. We have to be ready to listen, to discuss, even if the other is not really taking notice.”

Madigan, who serves as a consultor for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said the key is to deal with Islam not as an abstraction expressed in a 14th-century text shaped by the content of defensive battle, but as flesh-and-blood individuals.

“It won’t work if we tell them what we think they believe, and then criticize what we think they believe,” he said. “We have to ask, ‘Where do you stand? How do you justify that? What can I expect from you?’ ”

There are signs that the crisis has reawakened an interest in interfaith issues within the Holy See that some regarded as largely dormant in the first 18 months of Benedict’s pontificate. In an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the new secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the time has come to “relaunch” the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Last March, the council was more or less merged with the Council for Culture, and much activity in the office either slowed down or stopped altogether. Some veterans of the Vatican’s interfaith work have complained that 40 years of progress was being “dismantled.” Now, it seems that senior Vatican leadership may realize the urgency of getting those efforts back on track.

Imam Yahya Hendi, who serves as the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, echoed Madigan’s point that this dialogue must occur not at the level of abstraction, but with “the right imams and the right intellectuals.”

Hendi said that the Vatican already has contacts with institutions such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Umm al-Qura in Mecca and the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malayasia, representing “a huge segment with the Muslim community.”

It’s in direct conversation with such interlocutors, he said, that fruitful dialogue can occur.

“We’re willing and ready to sit around the table and dialogue on specific issues,” he said. “There are legitimate issues on both sides.

“The late Pope John Paul II spent decades building bridges between our communities,” Hendi said. “He was loved and accepted. … Muslims were in tears over his death. We must not paralyze what he built. Both sides have to come to their senses.”

Gerges, the Egyptian journalist, said that hope may lie in figures such as Kamal el-Said Habib, a former emir of a wing within the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which played a role in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Habib has since embraced peaceful dialogue, calling on his fellow jihadists to lay down their arms.

Playing with fire

“The pope’s diatribe is very dangerous because it plays with fire -- with religion,” Habib told Gerges in a recent interview. “A clash of religions is the most perilous and difficult to extinguish. Everyone will lose.”

Such sentiments from a former militant who once believed in the clash of civilizations himself, Gerges said, offer hope that the “frank and sincere” dialogue Benedict wants may find an echo among Muslims who are just as clear as the pope about their own religious identity, but likewise committed to the path of reason.

Before Benedict’s trip to Turkey, an important moment looms in Rome to test the waters. On Oct. 26-27, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is scheduled to visit Benedict and to take part in an interfaith congress at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University. Khatami was among the first Muslim leaders to appeal for moderation in the present crisis, saying “My impression of the pope was rather an educated and patient man.” His visit therefore provides something of a laboratory in the possibilities for renewed dialogue.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006

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