At the time of his election to the papacy, many thought that Pope Benedict XVI’s approach toward Islam would be, by and large, no different from that of his predecessor, the late John Paul II. But Benedict’s now-famous speech at the University of Regensburg and the ensuing reactions in the Islamic world have shown that this will not be the case, for the very simple reason that John Paul II seemed incapable of quoting anything that would so clearly expose what many (including Srdja Trifkovic and Robert Spencer) have described as the real nature of Islam. Subsequently, Benedict apologized for having unintentionally and unwittingly offended the “sensitiveness of Muslim faithful,” adding that the quotation did not reflect his opinion and that his speech “in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”
For those unfamiliar with the details, in a lecture to 1,500 university professors and students in Regensburg on September 12, Benedict cited Manuel II Paleologus (Byzantine emperor from 1391 to 1425), who, in a dialogue with a Persian Muslim, said, “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.”
Some Muslim leaders believed that Benedict’s apology was sufficient to defuse the row; others thought it did not go far enough. None of them answered the basic question: Was the emperor cited by the Pope telling the truth? Moreover, how could Benedict retract words that were not his own?
The Regensburg speech shows a primary difference of approach between John Paul and Benedict. While the former’s pastoral action was heavily influenced by his emotional and charismatic temper, the latter is a theologian by formation, a man given to making principled arguments and drawing logical conclusions. Some might think that this is just my personal opinion, so let us turn to facts and apply the good old Latin dictum contra factum non valet argumentum (arguments don’t hold against facts).
On May 14, 1999, at the Vatican, John Paul was presented with a copy of the Koran as a gift. First, he bowed as “a sign of respect,” and, when the book was placed into his hands, he kissed it. Besides being the first pope to kiss the Koran and the first ever to enter a mosque, John Paul encouraged dialogue between the two faiths, in particular with visits to Muslim-dominated Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. He also ignored criticism from Israel and international Jewish groups and agreed to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Small wonder, then, that leading Muslim theologian Mohammed Amine Smaili, a professor of Islamic dogma at the University of Rabat in Morocco, hailed John Paul II as “the light of inter-religious dialogue” at the recent international meeting of world religions in Assisi. Such accolades are unlikely to be applied to Pope Benedict in the foreseeable future, given his more cautious approach. In fact, in the Regensburg speech, the Holy Father indicates that the differences between Islamic and Christian concepts of God make dialogue difficult—not impossible, per se, but difficult—because the way we understand God’s nature has everything to do with how we interpret reality and the duty we owe Him. This point, according to some commentators, was often downplayed by Benedict’s predecessor.
Benedict is not a darling of the media, given his unwillingness to use politically (or, better, “Koranically”) correct language. When Cardinal Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was already noted for his conservative stances with regard to religious pluralism and liberation theology, and, once you are labeled conservative, you remain conservative for the rest of your life—in the eyes of the media, at least.
Therefore, from the early stages of his pontificate, the media have sought to continue depicting him as a conservative, especially since dialogue with Muslims clearly was not one of his priorities, as his books and speeches were primarily focused on the need to support the Christian West. His stated belief that Europe is having an identity crisis was seen in his opposition to Turkey joining the European Union and in his removal of Archbishop Michael Louis Fitzgerald, a pioneer of Islamic-Christian dialogue, from his position as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Benedict is also folding the council into the Pontifical Council for Culture. Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir described this shift in emphasis from religious dialogue to cultural engagement as a reflection of Benedict’s desire to concentrate on the concrete aspects of culture and human rights.
Thus, the impression is that Benedict is emphasizing reciprocity and religious freedom more often and with a greater vigor than his predecessor. For example, when he met with Ali Achour, Morocco’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Benedict stressed the importance of respect and consideration for the religious beliefs and practices of different peoples. Peace can only be assured, in Benedict’s words, by “respect for the religious convictions and practices of others, in a reciprocal way in all societies.” Senior prelates are toeing the new line. “If we tell our people they have no right to offend, we have to tell the others they have no right to destroy us,” said Angelo Cardinal Sodano, who was the Vatican’s secretary of state during the Danish-cartoons row. “We must always stress our demand for reciprocity in political contacts with authorities in Islamic countries and, even more, in cultural contacts,” Foreign Minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo told Corriere della Sera. Allowing Christian minorities the same rights that Muslims generally enjoy in Western countries—building houses of worship, practicing their religion freely—appears to be the heart of current Vatican diplomatic efforts toward Muslim states.
Before offering one of his weekly Angelus prayers in St. Peter’s Square, Benedict expressed his solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world as Afghanistan’s Abdul Rahman was facing a possible death sentence for having converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago. In a letter to Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai, Cardinal Sodano, in Benedict’s name, asked for the case to be dropped. The parish priest of Kabul, Msgr. Giuseppe Moretti, who celebrates Mass in a small chapel in the Italian embassy, told Il Giornale that this letter played a crucial part in Abdul Rahman’s release. After being freed, he was transferred under protective custody to Italy, where he manifested his heartfelt gratitude to the Holy Father.
Regrettably, despite Benedict’s plea for clemency, a similar result was not achieved in the case of three Indonesian Catholics who were executed on September 22, 2006, for allegedly masterminding a massacre of Muslims. Fabianus Tibo, Marinus Riwu, and Dominggus da Silva were convicted of organizing an assault on Muslims during the months of religious violence that caused 2,000 deaths in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi. Both Church officials and human-rights activists had denounced their trial, noting that the defendants were not allowed to present exculpatory evidence. Moreover, the proceedings took place under heavy pressure from Islamic radicals, and no Muslim has been convicted in connection with the religious clashes in Sulawesi. Prison officials even refused to grant a priest’s request to be allowed to hear the men’s confessions and celebrate a final Mass with them.
Former Spanish premier José María Aznar spoke openly of a double standard in relations between Islam and the West. During a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., he asked: “What is the reason . . . we, the West, always should be apologiz[ing] and they never should . . . apologize?” “It’s absurd! They occupied Spain for eight centuries!”
The president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Karl Cardinal Lehman, bashed the media for its double standard regarding Christianity and Islam. “At times one has the impression that artists, journalists and intellectuals, who have no qualms over confronting Christianity and don’t shy away from ridiculing it, treat Islam with much care and even trepidation,” he told the weekly Focus. “Mutual tolerance is the necessary foundation of a society that is proud of its freedom of expression in the arts and in the media.”
The Western media’s one-sided reportage on Benedict’s Regensburg speech poured petrol on the Muslim fire and only served to hinder the Pope’s humanitarian efforts. The violent reactions throughout the Islamic world, in Europe, and in America, with churches torched in the Holy Land, an Italian nun shot and killed in Somalia (though the shooting was reported as not being unequivocally related to the Pope’s words), and death threats to the Pope and Christians were the direct consequences of the Western media’s pro-Muslim, anti-Catholic bias. This, in turn, gave Al Jazeera the spark it needed to set alight the Muslim world. In particular, the New York Times appeared to be in the forefront of this offensive, making good use of criticisms leveled by emissaries of the liberal-progressive sectors of the Catholic Church, in particular certain well-known Italian Vaticanisti (journalists specializing in Vatican affairs). In the Vatican itself, an anonymous monsignor told Inside the Vatican that, “Under John Paul II, this would not have happened.”
These powerful liberal-progressive sectors of the Church act as a Fifth Column in the West, playing into the hands of her mortal enemies—the Islamic forces, such as Al Qaeda, who have not minced words in declaring, “We will smash the cross,” and, “Prophet Mohammed promised Muslims they would conquer Rome as they conquered Constantinople.” For his part, the day after the Regensburg speech, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that Islam “is the best religion for humanity,” to which senior theologian Msgr. Nicola Bux replied that, if “he really thinks so, then he should accept a debate on various issues, for example on the idea of man, woman, liberty, participation in society etc, to assess whether it’s actually so. This comparison will tell us which is the best, since, as aptly said by the Pope, faith must always relate itself to reason.”
An assistant professor of international relations from Koc University in Istanbul wrote, in a letter to the editor published in the Economist (October 7, 2006), that the Pope “seemed to be saying that one religion in particular (guess which one) sits well with reason, while others, such as Islam, do not.” Such an argument is untenable, the academic argued, “because, among other things, Muslims were the first to learn from and build on Greek philosophy before passing the learning on to Europe during the Middle Ages.” It seems that, in this age of complete historical ignorance, such statements go unchallenged and are accepted as fact. Apparently, those who have always believed, as Pope Benedict stated at Regensburg, that a “critically purified Greek heritage” formed “an integral part of Christian faith” are sorely mistaken.