Pope Backlash Deals Blow to Interfaith Ties

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The angry response to remarks on Islam has undermined efforts to forge better relations between Christians and Muslims, many say.

ROME — At churches in Baghdad, parishioners hung signs to say they disagreed with the pope.

In Egypt, priests of the Orthodox Coptic Church denounced Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam and said they wished he had considered the reaction before speaking.

In Lebanon, where bloody demonstrations erupted early this year over a Danish newspaper’s caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, a Christian-Muslim dialogue committee asked imams to keep their Friday sermons calm.

The enraged response to the pope’s speech last week, in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who regarded teachings of Muhammad as “evil and inhuman,” has dealt a stinging blow to decades of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church and others to ease tensions and open lines of communication between Muslims and Christians.

An apology by the pope Sunday has only partially quelled the anger.


In Christian communities in predominantly Muslim countries, many believers, leaders and laymen alike, have thought that safety required distancing themselves from the pope and his comments.

In Egypt, where 10% of the population of 79 million is Christian, residents remember days of sectarian fighting that erupted this spring in the normally genteel city of Alexandria, a sign of how volatile Muslim-Christian relations can be.

“Some of my best friends are Muslims, and so far we have adapted to live here as minorities,” said William Harb Jaleel, 59, an employee of the Finance Ministry in Cairo and a Coptic Christian.

“But with the presences of Al Qaeda and its followers here, it really makes us an easy goal for these fanatics to target and kill us,” he said. “So the last thing we need is for the pope to provoke anybody and escalate the already tense situations; we just hate to be the victims of stuff we were never responsible for.”

In Lebanon, where nearly 40% of the population is Christian and where religious differences have long cleaved the country, there have been no calls for demonstrations and no violence associated with the pope’s comments.

“But in the long term,” said Father Samir Khalil Samir, director of an Arab Christian research center at St. Joseph University in Beirut, “there is a fear that Christians in the country and in other Arab states will feel insecure and encouraged to emigrate.”

Building ties between Christians and Muslims was a hallmark of the papacy of the late John Paul II. He was the first pope to enter a mosque, and he often embraced believers of the three major monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — as brothers, all children of Abraham.

His efforts led to widely recognized progress in terms of dialogue, education and cooperation, which many scholars, clerics and ordinary worshipers say is now in jeopardy.

“This could nullify decades of efforts by the church to open up and reach out,” said Paolo Branca, professor of Islamic studies at the Catholic University of Milan. “This is a gaffe that could damage the image of the pope’s church, a church that is always careful and balanced in expressing itself.”

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is a very different pope than his predecessor, with a different approach, especially when it comes to Islam and interfaith dialogue. His priority is to condemn the extremist fundamentalism that he believes has hijacked Islam, part of a wider conviction that religion should not be used to justify violence.

The pope’s supporters contend that the trouble that erupted after his comments proves his point, that some elements of Islam respond with violence before reason. But critics say Benedict’s decision to illustrate that point by quoting was the decision of the theologian and professor that Ratzinger always had been, and not that of a politically savvy world leader.

Many in Rome believe Benedict signaled his diminished interest in interfaith dialogue when he demoted the Vatican office that handles it and dispatched its former president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, to Cairo. Fitzgerald is considered a leading Catholic specialist in Islam, and his expertise is clearly missing in the Vatican today, critics say.

It is rare that prelates in Rome openly criticize the pope. But some, in their way, indicated disagreement with his approach to communicating with those of other faiths and cultures.

“When I have dialogue, I also recount my own story and history, and I know it is very important to take into account that we are being watched,” said Paul Poupard, a French cardinal who succeeded Fitzgerald as head of the Vatican’s department for inter-religious relations.

Poupard was speaking Tuesday after a conference at Rome’s Michelangelo-designed City Hall that brought together Muslim, Catholic and Jewish leaders to urge the public to move past the pope’s statements and revive a dialogue that Poupard said should be “self-critical” and framed in mutual respect.

Others made similar efforts to defuse the anger over the pope’s words.

“We consider this chapter closed,” Abdallah Redouane, secretary general of the Islamic Cultural Center of Rome, said at the conference.

Before the meeting, Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni appeared on Al Jazeera television to project the image of the city, which Islamic extremists have threatened to “conquer,” as a place of tolerance and peace.

In Jerusalem, Grand Mufti Mohammed Hussein called for a more complete apology from the pope but also condemned Palestinian gunmen who set fire to or shot at seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We condemn any attack on churches, because it is an attack on the places of worship of others, protected clearly by Islam,” Hussein told reporters. “The religion is clear, but I hold the Vatican pope responsible for all the anger in the Muslim street.”

Palestinian police stepped up patrols around the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, traditional birthplace of Jesus, but violence there and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories has tapered off.

Two endorsements might help ease the pressure: Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he accepted Benedict’s apology, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he respected the pope and understood that his comments had been misinterpreted.

Vatican officials said they were most concerned about loss of trust of moderate mainstream Muslims, and must try to regain it. It has been suggested that the pope issue a special Ramadan message, and advocates say interfaith dialogue is the only approach — you talk or you fight, as Redouane of Rome’s Islamic Cultural Center put it.

“It is not easy, and there are thorny issues we dance around,” said Father Daniel Madigan, head of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

“But what are we going to do? Give up and build bigger walls, bigger prisons, bigger guns? What choice do we have?”

Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Bethlehem, Louise Roug in Baghdad, Caesar Ahmed in Cairo and Maria De Cristofaro in Rome and special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank; Babak Pirouz in Tehran; and Raed Rafei in Beirut contributed to this report.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Los Angeles Times, USA
Sep. 20, 2006
Tracy Wilkinson
www.latimes.com

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This post was last updated: Sep. 21, 2006