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Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Pope speech suggested deep dismay over the current conditions of Christians in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Analysis: Pope’s ‘jihad’ remarks a sign

Friday, September 15, 2006


Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on religious radicalism are another sign of his intention to bring his voice into one of the world’s most critical showdowns: Islam’s internal struggles between moderates and extremists.

The remarks – tucked into an address at a German university where he formerly taught theology – were interpreted by many experts in interfaith relations as a signal that the Vatican is staking a new and more demanding stance for its dealings with the Muslim world.

Benedict, they say, appears to increasingly view the West’s confrontation with radical Islam as a fateful moment in history that demands the Vatican’s moral authority – just as his predecessor, John Paul II, reshaped the dimensions of the papacy by openly taking sides in the Cold War.

The risk for the Vatican is whether it will be perceived in the Muslim world as part of a broader Western cultural and political campaign against Islam.

“We have seen a hard line from this pope,” said Ali El-Samman, president of the interfaith committee for Egypt’s High Islamic Council. “It’s a disappointment for many Muslims. But just because we are disappointed in a pope doesn’t mean we are against all Christians.”

The Vatican said Benedict did not intend the remarks to be offensive and sought to draw attention to the incompatibility of faith and violence.

The pope quoted from a book recounting a conversation between 14th-century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and a Persian scholar on the truths of Christianity and Islam.

“The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,” the pope said. “He said, I quote, ‘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.’”

Benedict, who is supposed to visit Turkey this fall in his first trip to a Muslim nation, did not explicitly agree with the words nor did he repudiate them.

In the backlash, some of the more subtle – yet potentially far-reaching – references have been overshadowed.

The speech suggested deep dismay over the current conditions of Christians in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, said John Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

“This reflects the intention of Pope Benedict to distinguish himself from his predecessor on his approach to interfaith dialogue,” said Voll. “And by this, it means more reciprocity.”

Voll said the pope may increasingly instruct Vatican envoys to stress issues of forced conversions of Christians and limits on Christian rights and worship.

“It’s the next step after John Paul began opening doors” with historic pilgrimages to Muslim nations, including a visit to a Syrian mosque in 2001, Voll said.

As John Paul’s chief watchdog on Roman Catholic doctrine, Benedict – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – had little role in shaping the Vatican’s contact with Islam and other faiths.

Some experts say Benedit’s theological scholarship gives him an affinity for Orthodox churches and Judaism because of many shared traditions and holy texts, but leaves him less equipped to deal with Islam at a time when suspicions dominate relations between the West and Muslim world.

The speech, some say, shows the pontiff intends to carry on with his strong defense of the values of the Christian West rather than compromise for the sake of building bonds with Islam.

“They went to the speech expecting to meet Pope Benedict, but instead they met Professor Ratzinger,” said the Rev. Khalil Samir, a Vatican envoy for interfaith links in Lebanon.

In July 2005, about two months after assuming the papacy, Benedict was asked if he considered Islam a religion of peace. He said: “Certainly there are elements that favor peace. It also has other elements.”

The Rev. Robert Taft, a specialist in Islamic affairs at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, said it was unlikely the pope miscalculated how some Muslims would receive his speech.

“The message he is sending is very, very clear,” Taft said. “Violence in the name of faith is never acceptable in any religion and that (the pope) considers it his duty to challenge Islam and anyone else on this.”

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