FaithWorld

Pope Benedict slowly learns how to dialogue with Muslims

pope-in-dome (Photo: Pope Benedict with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)

“Branded an implacable foe of Islam after his landmark Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Benedict has shown during his current Holy Land tour that he is slowly learning how to dialogue with Muslims.

“While media attention has focussed on Jewish criticism of his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Benedict’s speeches to Muslims have used classic Islamic terms and new arguments that resonate with Muslims and ease the quest for common ground.

“This new tone may not erase the memory of the Regensburg speech many Muslims took as an insult, because it implied Islam was violent and irrational. But Islamic, Jewish and Catholic clerics told Reuters it marked a shift in his thinking that could help the world’s two largest faiths get along better…”

My analysis for the Reuters wire (read the whole article here) will sound familiar to readers of the blog because I already flagged the ideas here in the posts At Dome of Rock, Benedict uses Muslims’ argument to Muslims and Benedict’s “anti-Regensburg” speech in Amman mosque. But turning these reporters’ observations into an analysis for Reuters requires more than just my observations. So I spent a few hours yesterday calling interfaith dialogue experts to hear their reactions to Benedict’s speeches.

There were a few interesting observations I couldn’t squeeze into the wire story because of the strict length limitations we have there. For example, Fr. Roucou felt that Benedict’s speech at the Dome of the Rock was “a bit too philosophical” because it didn’t have anything specifically Christian in it. “It’s too bad in the speeches to the Muslims that there were no references to Jesus and the Gospels,” he said. “It’s all about the Creator God. That’s fine — I don’t want to get the Gospels in there at any price. But in his speeches to Jews, Benedict quoted the Psalms.”

PAPA DIXIT: Sermon at Amman Mass, at Jesus baptism site

Sunday was a lighter program, with Pope Benedict celebrating an open-air Mass at Amman’s International Stadium in the morning and then visiting the Bethany beyond the Jordan site where Jesus was said to have been baptised. Here are excerpts from his speeches.

SERMON AT MASS IN AMMAN:

pope-jordanians-mass (Photo: Jordanian Catholics at pope’s Mass in Amman, 10 May 2009/Jamal Saidi)

MEETING JORDANIAN CATHOLICS: “As the Successor of Saint Peter, …I have long awaited this opportunity to stand before you as a witness to the Risen Savior, and to encourage you to persevere in faith, hope and love, in fidelity to the ancient traditions and the distinguished history of Christian witness which you trace back to the age of the Apostles. The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect all the people of the Middle East. May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the Church throughout the world!”

CHRISTIAN FAMILIES: “May every Christian family grow in fidelity to its lofty vocation to be a true school of prayer, where children learn a sincere love of God, where they mature in selfdiscipline and concern for the needs of others, and where, shaped by the wisdom born of faith, they contribute to the building of an ever more just and fraternal society. The strong Christian families of these lands are a great legacy handed down from earlier generations. May today’s families be faithful to that impressive heritage, and never lack the material and moral assistance they need to carry out their irreplaceable role in service to society.”

PAPA DIXIT:Pope’s words at mosque, Moses mount, Madaba

pope-ghaziPope Benedict’s long-awaited address to Muslims at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque topped the day’s list of speeches. It dominated our news coverage today. He also spoke at Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and at a ceremony to bless the cornerstone of a Catholic university being built in Madaba. The mosque and Madaba speeches were classic Ratzinger, with some of his trademark theological and philosophical arguments. If he had delivered the mosque speech at Regensburg, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” Benedict ended the day with a short sermon at vespers in the Greek-Melkite Cathedral of Saint George. (Photo: Pope Benedict and Prince Ghazi tour the mosque, 9 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

Here are excerpts from today’s speeches.

THE MOSQUE SPEECH

UNITE TO DEFEND RELIGION: “We cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better. Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society? In the face of this situation, where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly. Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”

Benedict’s “anti-Regensburg” speech in Amman mosque

pope-speech
(Photo: Benedict speaks at King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

If Pope Benedict had delivered today’s speech on Christian-Muslim cooperation back in Regensburg two years ago, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” The name of the tranquil Bavarian university town where Benedict once taught theology has become shorthand for how a man as intelligent as the pope can commit an enormous interfaith gaffe. His long-awaited address today in the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, Jordan’s magestic state mosque on a hilltop in western Amman, was an eloquent call for Christians and Muslims to work together to defend the role of faith in modern life. Rather than hinting that Islam was irrational, as Muslims understood him to say in Regensburg, he called human reason “God’s gift” to all. Christians and Muslims should work together using their faith and reason to promote the common good in their societies, he said, and oppose political manipulation of any faith.The speech clearly sought common ground with its Muslim audience. It started off linking the massive pale limestone mosque to other places of worship that “stand out like jewels across the earth’s surface” and “through the centuries … have drawn men and women into their sacred space to pause, to pray, to acknowledge the presence of the Almighty, and to recognize that we are all his creatures.”Benedict described the increasingly frequent argument that religion caused tensions and division in the world as worrying both to Christian and to Muslim believers. “The need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly,” he said in the speech in English. “Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshipers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”After praising Jordan’s work promoting interfaith dialogue, he said the greater reciprocal knowledge both sides had gained through dialogue “should prompt Christians and Muslims to probe even more deeply the essential relationship between God and his world so that together we may strive to ensure that society resonates in harmony with the divine order.”pope-minaretToday I wish to refer to a task which … I firmly believe Christians and Muslims can embrace… That task is the challenge to cultivate for the good, in the context of faith and truth, the vast potential of human reason… As believers in the one God, we know that human reason is itself God’s gift and that it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God’s truth. In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather, it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations. In this way, human reason is emboldened to pursue its noble purpose of serving mankind, giving expression to our deepest common aspirations and extending, rather than manipulating or confining, public debate.”
(Photo: Benedict with Prince Ghazi (in robes) outside the mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

So has Benedict “made up for Regensburg” or managed to trump it with this speech? His critics here naturally didn’t think so. Sheikh Hamza Mansour, a leading Islamist scholar and politician, told my colleague Suleiman al-Khalidi that the pope had “not sent any message to Muslims that expresses his respect for Islam or its religious symbols starting with the Prophet.” Benedict had spoken on Friday about his deep respect for Muslims, but not specifically for Islam.“I wouldn’t want to read too much into selecting a particular word or not,” Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish Islamic scholar and spokesman for the Common Word group of Muslim intellectuals promoting dialogue with Christians, told me by phone from Ankara. The speech was “very positive,” he said. “He said many other things in this speech. He said Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. That’s an expression of enormous commonality. I would go by the context of what hes saying. It’s a long way from Regensburg speech.”Kalin, who also teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, said this speech couldn’t “make up for Regensburg” but it did represent an evolution in the pope’s thinking about Islam. “He’s made substantial changes (in his thinking) but he’s not coming out and saying ‘I atone for my sin at Regensburg.’ Kalin said. He’s not saying that and he’s not going to say that. But reading between the lines, it’s happened gradually.”pope-insidePrince Ghazi bin Muhammed bin Talal, a leading Common Word signatory who was the pope’s host at the mosque today, brought up the Regensburg speech in his address. But he did this in the context of thanking Benedict for expressing his regrets “for the hurt caused by this lecture to Muslims.”
(Photo: Benedict inside the mosque, 9 May 2009/Ahmed Jadallah)

Benedict’s Amman speech has gone a long way to putting Regensburg into context, and dialogue proponents like the Common Word group are helping him do it. But it’s a wild card that can still be drawn against him, especially by Islamists opposed to cooperation with Christians. “My guess is that he’ll give three, four or five more speeches like this to try to make people forget the Regensburg speech,” Kalin commented.

Sole-searching questions after Benedict visit to mosque

pope-shoes1Pope Benedict has the reputation of being something of a “foot-in-mouth” pontiff when it comes to talking about Muslims. He didn’t have that problem today. His long- awaited speech at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman won praise for hitting all the right notes about Christian-Muslim cooperation. But there was some sole-searching talk at the press centre here of a potential “shoe-on-foot” problem when it turned out he didn’t take off his red loafers during the visit to the prayer hall. Was this an affront to Islam?

Compare our photos of him visiting the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque in Amman today (left) in full footgear and walking shoeless in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul on 30 November 2006 (below).

pope-socksJordanian officials said the tan carpets rolled out for him to walk on protected the mosque’s normal carpeting, on which Muslims pray, from any shoe dirt. He therefore did not have to follow the traditional practice of leaving his shoes at the door, they explained. One said that Benedict’s hosts, who also opted to trod while shod, made the exception in deference to the 82-year-old pope’s age. Jordanians are proud of their traditional Arab hospitality and that might explain their readiness to accommodate their guest.