REVIEW: Article

The Pope and Islam

When Pope John Paul II was shot by Aga Mehmet, a Turkish Muslim, shocked and angry Catholics did not take to the streets and burn down mosques or otherwise take revenge by killing innocent Muslims. When the Holy Father recovered from his near fatal wounds, one of his first excursions was to visit his would-be assassin in his prison cell. The two men prayed, the Pope offered his forgiveness and Mehmet wept. Tolerance and forgiveness could not have a better example.

Recently, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, in an address at Regensburg University in his native Germany, quoted a medieval 14th century Byzantine Emperor who denigrated the teachings of Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman” and further downgraded his ministry to one that was conquered by the “power of the sword.”

Pope Benedict XVI has subsequently expressed his regrets and remorse several times. Unfortunately, the Muslim reaction was quick, violent and predictable. Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a 65 year old devoted nun who was helping starving and sick Africans was gunned down in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Several churches were burnt in Gaza. Desecration of the papal effigy became commonplace in the Muslim world. Iran and Morocco recalled their ambassadors. About 1,000 Muslim clerics and religious scholars in Pakistan demanded the ‘removal’ of the Pope. Al-Qaeda in Iraq issued a fatwa asking for the death of the Holy Father. Intolerance and absence of forgiveness could not have a better example.

In the backdrop of the Danish cartoons caricaturing Prophet Muhammad; torture pictures from Abu Ghraib; indefinite detentions of Muslims at Guantanamo; the war, massacre and occupation in Iraq; the plight of the Palestinians and the Bush administration’s unqualified support of Israel in the recent Lebanese crisis, the timing of the Pope’s “conversations” were ill-advised and undiplomatic.

Pope Benedict XVI could usefully make reference to another famous quote from his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made soon after September 11, 2001: “And given that Islam and Christianity worship one God, Creator of heaven and earth, there is ample room for agreement and cooperation between them; a clash ensues only when Islam or Christianity is misconstrued or manipulated for political or ideological ends.”

But it is now time to move forward. Pope Benedict has demonstrated in word and deed his desire to do just that. Muslims must now show their respect for Catholics and other Christians.

Reciprocity is in order, as the Pope alluded to in his comments to diplomats from 22 Muslim nations and representatives of Italy’s Muslim community gathered at his Castel Gandolfo summer retreat. He said a “more authentic reciprocal knowledge” is required between the faiths.

By that he means that Muslims must show the same respect toward Christianity, and must allow Christians living in Muslim nations the same rights, that they demand for themselves from Christians and Christian-led nations.

Why should it be any other way?

Why is it that Saudi Arabia—which was unrepresented at the Castel Gandolfo meeting because the Kingdom chooses not to maintain a formal diplomatic relationship with the Vatican—can contribute $50 million for the construction of Rome’s Islamic Center of Italy but forbids even a modest church to open in Saudi Arabia?

Why are Muslims in the West free to seek converts openly as are members of any legitimate religion but Muslims in Afghanistan and other Islamic nations are subject to capital punishment should they embrace Christianity?

Why is it that Muslims bemoan the fact that all of Islam is wrongly accused of encouraging violence when Muslim terrorists strike and yet, many Muslims excuse the violence that breaks out whenever Islam’s more fanatical adherents deem themselves wronged by the Christian West?

None of this inequality of relationship is lost on non-Muslims. Yet Muslims wonder why an ever-growing number of Christians are getting impatient with them.

Catholic writers from both the right and left have noted during the current episode that it was no accident that Pope Benedict referred to a 14th century Byzantine emperor who claimed that Prophet Muhammad was responsible for “things only evil and inhuman.” The Pope, they explained, was seeking to express Vatican concerns about an Islam that feels it is entitled to spread across Europe while at the same time seeks to prevent Christianity from spreading further in Asia and Africa.

As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, he has the right to speak up on behalf of his faith and flock. Muslims must understand that this is his duty and belief. And that rather than seeking to force the Pope to keep apologizing until the Church is somehow made diminished, they must meet him halfway, because that is where genuine religious dialogue occurs.

Pope Benedict has gone out of his way to make amends and also to make clear that he wants honest dialogue. The world riles too easily. A catastrophic collision between Christianity and Islam is a possibility. Frank discussion over time is the best, and perhaps the only, antidote.

It is time for Muslims to show Islam’s generosity of spirit not only toward Pope Benedict XVI, but toward Christendom as a whole. As the Koran notes, Allah made us different so that we might get to know each other.

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