Pope angers Muslims, al-Qaeda vows war on cross, but ‘Turkey talk’ still on
HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) - When Pope Benedict XVI cited the views of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor during an address to scientists in Germany last month, it was only a brief illustration within a much longer dissertation on the role of faith and reason in cultural dialogue.
For many, thanks in large part to the media's failure to understand the pope's context, those views seemed to be the only words they heard.
Recalling a German professor's translation of Emperor Manuel II Paleologus' memoirs of his 1391 exchange with an "educated Persian," Pope Benedict cited the emperor's "startling brusqueness" in telling the Muslim, "Show me just what Mohammed 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."
Anger and clarification
Around the globe, some leaders of Islam responded with diplomatic caution, but many other Muslims here and there lashed out with anger and violence. In Iraq, the pope was burned in effigy. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, several Christian churches were firebombed. Even some moderate Muslim states such as Morocco and Egypt recalled their ambassadors to the Holy See.
Alarmingly, an al-Qaeda militant group vowed war against "the worshippers of the cross" and the West. Such threats and violent acts, however, only seemed to confirm the very perspective of the emperor whom Pope Benedict had quoted.
Most of all, however, much of the Muslim world demanded an apology. Vatican officials quickly clarified the pope's intent, stating his message in its full context was not an attack but "an outstretched hand" and an invitation to interfaith dialogue. Pope Benedict himself said Sept. 17 he regretted that his remarks "were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims."
Stating he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries," the pope pointed out that the passages in question were "a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought."
He said he hoped the Vatican statements and his explanation would "appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."
That helped soothe some Muslim nerves, but not all.
The provocative passage came near the beginning of a 3,800-word address on "Faith, Reason and the University" given Sept. 12 at the University of Regensburg. The thesis of his talk was the importance of the voice of religious faith and reason in the modern cultural dialogue, but that critique was largely lost in the sensationalized stories that came out of the secular press.
Aslam Abdullah, acting president of the Muslim Council of America and a longtime participant in Muslim-Catholic dialogue, called the quote from the emperor "a political statement within the context of his relations with the emerging Ottoman dynasty, not worthy of giving any credibility."
Writing Sept. 16 in the online edition of The American Muslim, Aslam said the pope's speechwriters "should be better educated when making reference to other religions."
He noted that in the year 628, the prophet sent a written "charter of freedom" to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, guaranteeing the protection and civil rights of all Christians. Calling Christians "my citizens" and stipulating that "no compulsion is to be on them," the charter promised that Muslims would defend the Christians, respect their property and church buildings, grant freedom of worship and disallow forced marriage.
"This letter was written at a time when no one was talking about freedom of religion or the pluralism or protection of human life," Aslam said.
Across the Atlantic, Italian journalist Sandro Magister of L'Espresso characterized the pope's statement as part of his "less diplomacy and more gospel" strategy of engagement. God is love, as Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, but God is also reason; faith in an "irrational" God can lead to violence, something all religions and cultures must confront, Magister said.
That point was lost in the post-Regensburg press coverage.
"The accusations sprang from an outrageous distortion of the theses expounded by Pope Benedict XVI, and sidestepped precisely that exercise of reason invoked by the pope as the proper terrain for a true dialogue among the religions and civilizations," wrote Magister.
Sheila Musaji, editor of The American Muslim, agreed that such a dialogue is needed, stating there was "no justification" for violent response to the pope.
"If we are to avoid a clash of civilizations, all of us must pray that incidents like this one can be turned from examples of mutual misunderstanding and distrust to opportunities for real dialogue and mutual understanding," Musaji wrote in a Sept. 16 editorial.
The flap over Pope Benedict's speech came little more than two months before his scheduled visit to the Muslim state of Turkey, where some of the most brutal criticism has originated. Vatican and Turkish officials both said the trip will not be postponed.
As the controversy has aged, more moderate Islamic leaders have asked Catholic leaders to be more sensitive to Muslim sensibilities, even as they urge calm over the pope's recent remarks.
Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Vatican council that dialogues with Muslims, suggested a different strategy for followers of Islam: Study the full context of Pope Benedict's address at Regensburg.
"I invite our Muslim friends of good will to take the pope's text in hand and read it in its entirety and meditate on it," Cardinal Poupard told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. "It will be clear that this can in no way be considered an attack on Islam but is rather an outstretched hand, because it defends the value of humanity's religious cultures, including Islam."
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Gerald Korson is the editor of Our Sunday Visitor.
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Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.
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