FaithWorld

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

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(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.

Berlin campaign for religion lessons unites faiths

Berliners on Sunday voted against introducing compulsory religion lessons in schools. Social Democrat Mayor Klaus Wowereit has welcomed the result as a victory for “togetherness” and common values for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or aetheist children.

Campaign posterFor details on the result, look at the Reuters story.

However, as Pro Reli leader Christoph Lehmann said, the campaign to boost the status of faith-based lessons in the German capital — a city with a long secular tradition — has put the subject firmly on the agenda and made it a talking point.

Celebrities and politicians, even conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel,have joined the call for religion lessons. Perhaps she was trying to make amends with members of her predominantly Catholic Christian Democrats (CDU) who were angry with her for criticising the Pope in the row over a Holocaust-denying bishop.

Religion versus ethics in Berlin

Koran studiesBerlin’s referendum on religion lessons in schools poses fundamental questions about how to foster inter-faith tolerance and the relationship between church and state in Germany, as Reuters reported.

The Pro Reli campaign wants to change the capital’s law to allow pupils to choose between faith-based religion lessons and an ethics course. Berlin, with its long secular tradition, is one of the only German states not to have compulsory religion lessons but a wider ethics course instead.

The main argument is whether children who spend hours at school learning about their own faith have a stronger moral foundation and end up being more tolerant of other religions than children who have a broader education in ethics.

Atheist bus ad campaigns stalling in Germany

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The Atheist Bus Campaign, launched in London by the best-selling biologist Richard Dawkins, has been copied in 10 countries, mostly but not always with success. It seems to have stalled in Germany. The campaign there, which has its own website called www.buskampagne.de, reports that the transit authorities in Berlin, Cologne and Munich have turned down their requests to run the ads. The campaign will continue trying to run the ads in other German cities.

The campaign asked contributors to choose among different suggested ad formats and the one below won. All three say in the first line “There is (almost certainly) no God.” It’s interesting that they add that qualifier,  which literally translates as “with a probability bordering on certainty.” Could it be they’re not that convinced after all?

The second lines vary and they translate as (1) “A fulfilled life doesn’t need faith.” (2) “Values are human — it’s up to us” and (3) “Enlightenment means taking responsibility.”

Pope to bishops: check your mail

pope-pic-1Those of us who thought the pope had said the final word on the Williamson saga will have to think again. It seems to be never-ending.

On Thursday the Vatican officially releases a letter to the world’s bishops in which the pope essentially acknowledges that the Vatican handled the lifting of the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist bishops very badly and that it hurt him personally that things went awry. (Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly audience, 11 March 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

The story started leaking out on Tuesday night in the blog of Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale and a story with partial excerpts was published in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio on Wednesday.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung printed what it said was the full text in German of the pope’s letter. Our story is based on a face-to-face conversation I had with an Italian archbishop who received the letter. We discussed it over a light meal near St Peter’s Square.

Pope meets Devil in Düsseldorf

Pope Benedict met the Devil in Düsseldorf on Monday. To be more precise, a large papier-mâché figure of the German-born pontiff shook hands with another figure depicting the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. The mock encounter was part of the annual carnival parade on Monday, known as Rose Monday in Germany, where the parade floats traditionally poke fun at public figures.

Benedict’s decision to readmit four excommunicated bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) last month sparked off loud protests among Catholics and Jews, especially in the German-speaking countries because Williamson appeared in a Swedish television interview only days before and denied the Nazis used gas chambers or killed six million Jews. The wing on the Williamson figure says “Anti-Semitism” and the brush at the end of his tail says Piusbrüder (Pius Brothers, the German term for the SSPX priests).

Just so there’s no confusion, the Williamson figure sports an armband clearly identifying who Benedict is shaking hands with. Thanks to Ina Fassbender for these shots.

German Turks join the party in pre-Lenten carnival

(Photo: Carnival revelers parade in Düsseldorf, 4 Feb 2008/Ina Fassbender)

Germany’s pre-Lenten carnival festivities got underway on Thursday with an official Turkish carnival association is joining in the fun this year for the first time.

Long sidelined from the usually raucous celebrations, an annual highpoint in Catholic areas such as the Rhineland, Bavaria and Black Forest, residents of Turkish origin in the city of Dortmund have created their own “Guild of Fools”. That means they can have their own float in Monday’s big procession, a troupe of dancers and a symbolic “prince and princess couple”.

“We set up our own association because many Turks in Germany have enjoyed carnival over the years. As an official guild, we want to enable Turks living in Germany to join in,” says the 1st Turkish Guild of Fools Dortmund 09 on their website.

Germans fall out of love with their pope

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the head of the Roman Catholicism in 2005, the best-selling daily Bild caught the national mood with a frontpage headline crowing Wir sind Papst! (We’re Pope!). Now, Germans are falling out of love with their pope for readmitting to the Church an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust. For the vast majority of Germans, denying the Holocaust is beyond the pale. Shunning anyone who does deny the Holocaust is considered a civic virtue. So seeing the world’s most prominent German rehabilitate a Holocaust denier is quite distressing for a upstanding, post-war German democrat. How could he do it? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 2 Feb 2009/Alessandro Bianchi)

The Vatican and Catholic bishops around the world have been defending the pope, saying the lifting of the excommunications for the controversial Bishop Richard Williamson and three other bishops was an internal Church issue unrelated to his political views. They say repeatedly that this is not a rehabilitation, but simply a readmission to allow discussions on rehabilitation to start. After botching the initial announcement, the Vatican has had a tough time trying to convince public opinion in other countries. In Germany, where many understandably think Holocaust deniers deserve no sympathy whatsoever, this task is proving to be doubly difficult.

From Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Foreign Minister to leading Catholic thinkers, Jewish groups and editorial writers in top-selling newspapers — they’re all criticising the pope’s controversial decision to welcome Williamson back. Here is our news story from Berlin wrapping up the reaction. In Rome, another German, Cardinal Walter Kasper, bluntly told Vatican Radio: “There wasn’t enough talking with each other in the Vatican and there are no longer checks to see where problems could arise.”

Vatican/SSPX — the fallout continues

The fallout from the SSPX issue continues to rain down on the Vatican. Several items over the weekend showed how messy it can get when the Vatican botches its presentation of a potentially controversial decision.

    A demonstration against Williamson at the Vatican nunciature in Paris by several dozen Jewish protesters on Sunday. The Reuters photo below by Mal Langsdon shows a man holding a cartoon from the Paris daily Le Monde in which two SSPX bishops say in mock Latin “The gas chamber doesn’t exist.” Pope Benedict holds up a cloak which says “Down with Vatican II” and comments: “As long as they don’t say it in Hebrew, I’m not saying anything.” Will there be more of these elsewhere?

    Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of the four SSPX bishops whose excommunications Pope Benedict lifted last week, told the Italian daily La Stampa (here in English) that the rebel prelates have no intention of changing their traditionalist views when they negotiate their reinstatement in the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican officials.” No, absolutely not,” he said. “We do not change our positions, but we have the intention of converting Rome, that is, to lead Rome towards our positions.” This is the man who in 2005 told the traditionalist U.S. weekly The Remnant “I will say, one day the Church should erase this Council.  She will not speak of it anymore.  She must forget it.  The Church will be wise if she forgets this council.” Until now, most attention has focused on SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay and the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. Fellay is considered the most moderate of the group and statements from the others are likely to take a tougher stand against any concessions to the Vatican. (Photo: Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, May 2008/SSPX) Several news outlets such as The Times and the BBC have picked up a story from Austria that the pope had approved the appointment of a new auxiliary bishop of Linz, Gerhard Wagner, who once described Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for sin and sexual excess in New Orleans and denounced the Harry Potter books for “spreading Satanism.” In a new interview with the Austrian Catholic agency Kath.net, he says “Islam is really a danger.” How much would you bet this would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been other negative news about the Vatican?

New statements and comments are popping up all over. A few trends emerge:

German-speaking bishops insist SSPX accepts opening to Jews

Catholic bishops in the German-speaking countries have been especially outspoken in demanding the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), whose four excommunicated bishops were welcomed back into the Church on Saturday, must explicitly accept Second Vatican Council documents assuring respect for the Jews. The Vatican had been demanding full acceptance of Council documents for years, including in a compromise it offered last June but the SSPX rejected it. As far as is known, it was not part of the deal that has now led to the bans being lifted. The issue has hit the headlines because one of the four, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, openly denied the Holocaust in an interview on Swedish television broadcast last week. (Photo: St. Peter’s Basilica, 5 Feb 2005/Tom Heneghan)

The German Bishops Conference noted the four bishops, whose dissent against Rome mostly concerned its rejection of the Council reforms including a modern liturgy and recognition for Judaism and other religions, must now discuss their future status in the Church with Vatican officials. “We have the clear expectation and make the urgent request that the four bishops and the Society announce unmistakably and credibly their loyalty to the Second Vatican Council and especially the declaration ‘ostra Aetate,’ said a statement by Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff, its main official for relations with Jews. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, is the cornerstone of the post-Council opening to Jews, Muslims and other religions.

Munich’s Archbishop Reinhard Marx said Williamson’s comments were “unspeakable, unacceptable…” and added “Every denial of the Holocaust must be punished harshly.” In a statement, he noted the Vatican would now negotiate the conditions of the four bishops’ return into the Church. “There is no doubt that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council are binding for that.”