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September 20, 2006
Column #1,308
Advance for Sept. 23, 2006
Pope Benedict & the Muslims
by Michael J. McManus

The Vatican's newspaper ran a remarkable Page One apology Monday by Pope Benedict XVI for his speech critical of Muhammad in bold type in Arabic, French, English and Italian.

No one could ever remember any pope apologizing for anything he had said.  And here was a contrition published in the language of those whom he offended.

The apology was for what Benedict said in a speech at a university where he once taught. He opened with a famous verse in the Koran, Sura (Chapter) 2, v. 256: "There should be no compulsion of religion." He then cited a dialogue between a 14th century Byzantine emperor and an educated Islamic Persian.  Benedict quoted Manuel II: "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 seemed to forget that he was no longer an academic but leader of a billion Catholics (outnumbering all Protestants), the lead spokesman for world Christianity.

Within days the Pakistani Parliament voted to condemn him. The leading Shiite cleric in Lebanon asked for a personal apology. "He is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini," said Salih Kapusuz, the deputy director of the governing party of Turkey where the pope plans to visit in a few months.

A Catholic nun was killed in Somalia and five churches in Israel were firebombed. Demonstrations erupted in most Islamic countries. Some Muslims threatened to kill him.

The Vatican issued a statement Saturday that Benedict's thesis was this sentence: "A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."

However, one who wants to enter a dialogue can not insult those he wants to talk to. When that became clear to Benedict, he made a personal apology on Sunday before a crowd: "I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address...which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. Those in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in anyway express my personal thought."

He added that the true "meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect. This is the meaning of the discourse."  These were the words of apology published Monday in Arabic and other languages.

How did the pope offend Muslims in his original remarks? On the PBS NewsHour, Nihad Awad, director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, denied that Muhammad  commanded his followers "to spread the faith by the sword." In fact, Muhammad wrote that "there should be no compulsion in religion." Awad added, "That's a direct command from the Koran that you cannot spread faith with force, and it has to be on conviction and reason."

He also took issue with Benedict's translation of "jihad" as meaning "holy war."

In response, George Weigel, who has written landmark books on Benedict and John Paul,  noted on PBS that Manuel II's comments "took place while Constantinople was being besieged by an Islamic army, to which it subsequently fell some 30 years later. He knew the history by which Islam had burst out of the Arabian peninsula and within 80 years, had conquered North Africa, the net result of which was the destruction of Christian communities...The emperor was trying to raise the question of the relationship between reason and holy war."

Awad responded that in the post-9/11 world, "Muslims feel under siege, that their faith has been defamed and smeared by sometimes learned people."

What could Benedict have done?  He might have spoken like Pope John Paul II in 1985 before 80,000 young Muslims in Morocco, who built bridges between the faiths by saying his first thoughts were of God, "because it is in him that we, Muslims and Catholics believe." Therefore, both faiths prayed to God, "for man cannot live without praying."

Then John Paul asserted that "obedience to God and love for man ought to lead us to respect human rights...particularly religious liberty."  Therefore Muslims and Christians should build a more "fraternal world," to "tear down barriers which are sometimes caused by pride."

This conciliatory approach persuaded two Muslim countries, Qatar and Bahrain, to permit Christian churches to open there.

However, Benedict believes Christians and Muslims don't pray to the same God. Nor is there an equal respect for human rights by a faith that subordinates women.

He won't achieve the same results.

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