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December 6, 2006
Column #1,319
Pope Benedict & Islam
by Michael J. McManus

There is a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. But there is also a clash between Sunni and Shiite Muslims who are burning each others mosques.  And there is a fierce debate between Christians on how to deal with Muslim-sparked violence.

Within months, Pope Benedict XVI has been on both sides of the Christian debate.

In September, he quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who accused Islam of embracing violence: "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." Presumably Benedict agreed with the emperor, or he would not have quoted him.

As if to prove him right, Catholic churches were torched on the West Bank and Anglican churches in Nigeria and a nun was shot in the back and killed.  Horrified by the violence his words touched off, the pope apologized several times, an unprecedented step. Yet he never acknowledged that it was Christians who sparked violence against Muslims during the Crusades.

American evangelicals agreed with the pope's initial comments. They argue that Islam is inherently evil.  As evidence, they quote the Qur'an, Sura 9, verse 5 in which Muhammad told the people of Mecca that he would give them four months to convert to Islam or die:

"But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful."

Based on the pope's September comments, the week before he first visited a Muslim county, TIME published a cover story in which it predicted "he is unlikely to cloak himself in a downy banner of brotherhood," as did Pope John Paul II.

Wrong. At one point the Pope stood beside Mustafa Cagrici, Istabul's top religious leader, in one of the world's most important shrines, under the ornate domes of the Blue Mosque, facing Mecca.  At the suggestion of his host, both men, wearing white robes, prayed silently  with Benedict praying twice as long.

It was only the second time in 2,000 years that a pope is known to have visited a mosque. Ironically, the two men exchanged virtually identical gifts, paintings of doves - a sign of peace.  Benedict told Cagrici, "With the help of God, we must find the way of peace together, for the good of humanity."

Cagrici could not have been more pleased, replying, "Spring will not arrive by a single swallow. But more swallows will arrive, and we're going to enjoy spring in the world all together."

Before that event, the pope met with Ali Bardakoglu, Turkey's top Muslim leader, who greeted him by denouncing those who did not understand the "vast tolerance of Islam," a tolerance that wears dangerously thin when people attempt to "demonstrate the superiority of their own beliefs" with claims that Islam "was spread over the world by swords." He even labeled such an attitude as "Islamophobia."

In response to his inflammatory words, the pope diplomatically replied that Christians and Muslims are brothers who "believe and confess to one God, even if in different ways."  He quoted John Paul II on the need of Christians and Muslims to "develop the spiritual bonds that unite them."

Benedict also made an important political statement. Upon landing in Turkey, he told the Turkish Prime Minister that he supported Turkey's goal to join the European Union, though he had expressed skepticism about it as a Cardinal.

Was this a total flip-flop?  No.

He did not back down on substance. He and Bartholomew, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople asserted in a joint statement,  "Above all, we wish to affirm that killing innocent people in God's name is an offense against Him and against human dignity."

However, his gestures, such as visiting a mosque and praying there, seemed to touch many Muslims and even tough newspaper editors. A typical headline in a Turkish newspaper was "Pope Visit Eclipses Image of Anti-Turk Islamophobe."

The question is how should responsible leaders manage the clash?

We Christians regard ourselves as peaceful. We do not burn mosques. However, U.S. armed forces have killed perhaps 50,000 Muslims in Iraq. That  has recruited waves of Islamic fighters we call terrorists.

In this uncertain atmosphere, Pope Benedict's attempts to encourage Christians and Muslims to see the angels in each other's nature is very welcome indeed.

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