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COMMENTARY/NEWS ANALYSIS: The Catholic Church and Islam: Repairing the breach

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks brought a renewed focus not only on that day’s devastation seven years ago but on the nation’s efforts to combat radical Islam while engaging the wider Muslim world. Friday marks a related milestone: It has been two years since Pope Benedict XVI […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks brought a renewed focus not only on that day’s devastation seven years ago but on the nation’s efforts to combat radical Islam while engaging the wider Muslim world.

Friday marks a related milestone: It has been two years since Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on faith and reason that sparked a conflagration of Muslim anger at Christians so fierce it was dubbed the Catholic Church’s “9/12.”

The pontiff’s lecture on Sept. 12, 2006, seemed as academic and innocuous as the setting _ the classroom at the University of Regensburg where the German priest then known as Joseph Ratzinger spent some of his happiest years as a professor of theology. That was before he started his ascent through the church hierarchy, culminating in his election as pope in April 2005.

But the old professor was as direct as a pope as he was as a theologian. He used an obscure, centuries-old harangue about the Prophet Muhammad by a Byzantine emperor to make a point about the perils of a religion uninformed by reason and given to fanaticism _ namely, Islam.

The remarks shocked many. To others, the violent reaction in some Muslim communities seemed to undergird Benedict’s argument. A priest was beheaded in Iraq, a nun was shot dead in Somalia and the pontiff himself was burnt in effigy.

The date 9/12, like 9/11, became a symbol of a chasm of anger so wide it looked as though it could never be bridged.

Two years later, there are signs of progress and even hopes for a rapprochement that could foster wider harmony between Islam and the West.

In July, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah sponsored an international conference on religious liberty. It had to be held in Spain, as Saudi Arabia would not permit interfaith discussions, but it did emerge from a landmark meeting in Mecca in early June at which Islamic scholars affirmed the need and willingness to engage in dialogue with other religions. And it followed Abdullah’s meeting at the Vatican a few months before that _ the first reigning Saudi monarch to hold talks with a Roman pontiff.

These developments came on the heels of Benedict’s own rehabilitation visit to Turkey a few months after Regensburg and the announcement that in November, the pope plans to host the first meeting of a new Catholic-Muslim forum. The talks are grew out of a letter sent to Benedict after Regensburg by 138 Muslim scholars who wanted to use the crisis to create an avenue of dialogue rather than recrimination.

But while this represents progress, it’s hardly an end to this chapter in relations between the church and Islam.

First of all, Abdullah’s conference, warily welcomed by the West, was blasted by radical Islamists as a sign of weakness and dismissed by Muslim moderates as a publicity stunt. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Geneive Abdo said the House of Saud “has a great interest in downplaying the divide between Muslim and Western societies.”

“Interfaith discussion,” she added, “distracts from uncomfortable but necessary questions and should be considered a hindrance to concrete and effective foreign-policy approaches to counter extremism.”

On the Catholic side, the Vatican can’t seem to get out of the Regensburg foot-in-mouth mode, nor is it clear it wants to.

Last Easter, during a globally televised Mass in St. Peter’s, Benedict baptized an Egyptian-born Italian Muslim, Magdi Allam, who has been one of the West’s most virulent critics of Islam. Even fans of the pontiff agreed that the pope pretty much stuck it to Islam with this action.

Also, after initial efforts to allay concerns, the Vatican is now defending the Regensburg speech, and the pope’s closest aide even called for the protection of Europe’s Christian identity against a campaign of “Islamification” by the Arab world.

Meanwhile, Benedict’s chief liaison to Islam, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, said the church is “being held hostage by Islam a little bit” _ probably not the best choice of words _ and said the Vatican does not want to get “obsessed with Islam.”

Such doubts reveal another basic problem _ exactly what the goal of the dialogue should be.

Neither the pope nor most Muslim leaders see theological dialogue per se as having much use, except to reassert the truth of their respective beliefs. The meeting this November is set to explore the shared principle of “Love thy neighbor,” but already the Vatican has indicated that such a conversation must be premised on accepting principles of religious freedom and reciprocity.

For his part, Cardinal Tauran thinks the two communities are on the right path. After a ribbon-cutting visit to Qatar in May, the cardinal said none of his Muslim hosts brought up Regensburg, and they seemed ready to let bygones be bygones.

“What is important,” he said, “is to create a good atmosphere of respect and mutual confidence. In such an atmosphere, we can listen to the other and make a path towards coexistence. And towards God also. It’s a journey.”

Perhaps, but on a road that is still under construction.

(David Gibson, author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World,” wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

KRE/JM END GIBSON

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A photo of David Gibson is available via https://religionnews.com.