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Pope Benedict wins over German Muslims in first meeting since Regensburg speech

September 23, 2011

Pope Benedict XVI (2nd L) talks with professor of Islamic theology Ali Dere (R), during a meeting with representatives of the Muslim community at the Papal Nuncio in Berlin September 23, 2011. The Bavarian-born pontiff is on a four-day visit to Germany, his third visit to his homeland since he took over as head of the Catholic church. REUTERS/Wolfgang Radtke

Pope Benedict told German Muslims in Berlin on Friday they can expect cooperation and support from Roman Catholics as long as they respect Germany’s constitution and the limits it sets on pluralism. Meeting representatives of the country’s four million Muslims, he said the constitution drawn up in post-war West Germany was solid enough to adapt to a pluralistic society in a globalised world and make room for new religions as well.

It sounded like the Bavarian-born pontiff was making a veiled reference to a debate in Germany over the past year over Muslim integration in Germany and whether  Muslims wanted sharia here, an issue discussed mostly on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Muslims last year that Islamic law had no place in Germany. “What applies here is the constitution, not sharia,” she declared. When he took office in March, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said the idea that “Islam belongs to Germany” — first mentioned by President Christian Wulff last year — “is not substantiated by history at any point.” A recent book “Richter ohne Gesetz” (Judges without Law) argues that Muslims are setting up a “parallel legal system” that is undermining German justice.

Muslim leaders didn’t hear it that way.  They  praised the pope for confirming through the meeting that Islam was now a part of German society and pointing towards new and expanded cooperation between Catholics and Muslims. But they said their loyalty to the constitution, a main point in his speech, was never in question. “As Muslims in Germany, we have always said that we see the German constitution as a good basis for peaceful life together,” Bekir Alboga, head of interreligious dialogue for the Turkish mosque association DITIB, told Reuters after meeting the pope.

“He was stressing that the constitution guarantees religious freedom and this applies to all,” said Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic studies at Münster University. “The Muslims who say they want sharia here are a very small minority and nobody takes them seriously. That is not our concern. ”

Alboga said the pope’s short address also represented a change from his controversial 2006 speech in Regensburg, where his use of a medieval emperor’s quote about Islam being violent and irrational sparked heated protests across the Muslim world. “The pope has now chosen a new approach in his meeting with Muslims,” he said. “I think one must look to the future and see where the possibilities for good cooperation are.”

(Pope Benedict XVI (2nd L) meets with representatives of the Muslim community at the Papal Nuncio in Berlin September 23, 2011S/Wolfgang Radtke)

Here is how Benedict presented his ideas about the constitution:

Many Muslims attribute great importance to the religious dimension of life. At times this is thought provocative in a society that tends to marginalize religion or at most to assign it a place among the individual’s personal choices.

The Catholic Church firmly advocates that due recognition be given to the public dimension of religious adherence. In an overwhelmingly pluralist society, this demand is not unimportant. Care must be taken to guarantee that others are always treated with respect. Mutual respect grows only on the basis of agreement on certain inalienable values that are proper to human nature, in particular the inviolable dignity of every single person.Such agreement does not limit the expression of individual religions; on the contrary, it allows each person to bear witness explicitly to what he believes, not avoiding comparison with others.

In Germany – as in many other countries, not only Western ones – this common frame of reference is articulated by the Constitution, whose juridical content is binding on every citizen, whether he belongs to a faith community or not.

Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, told reporters after the meeting: “My impression was that the pope wants to launch a new era of dialogue with Muslims. He made it clear that what Christians and Muslims have in common is greater than what separates us. Our mission now as Catholics, as Muslims is to give new stimulus to inter-faith dialogue in Germany, our country.”

During the meeting, Professor Khorchide delivered the Muslim address to the pope. He noted that the Vatican had founded a Catholic-Muslim Forum in 2008 with signatories of the Common Word manifesto on dialogue between the world’s two largest religions. “The Catholic-Muslim Forum, launched in 2008, stresses love of God and of one’s fellows as the central binding link between Islam and Christianity,” he said. “Expressed in Christian terms as love, and in Islamic terms as mercy, God therefore reveals Himself in love and mercy experienced and lived here and now in this world.” After quoting the Evangelist John and the Prophet Mohammed, he said to Benedict: “I wish to see Muslims and Christians growing in mutual understanding and in God’s love and mercy, and I would like to wish to you, Your Holiness, God’s blessing on this path.”

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