When Pope Benedict visited Bethlehem, in the West Bank, last week, he was less than 100 km (60 miles) away from Gaza. But for the 4,000 Christians in this crowded Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea , he might as well have been on the moon. Like nearly all Gazans, they are barred from leaving the Gaza Strip by Israeli restrictions. An Israeli embargo on supplying many essential goods to them has left the impoverished area unable to repair buildings destroyed or damaged by an Israeli offensive in January. Added to all that, the tiny Christian minority has been living since June 2007 under the Islamist rule of Hamas. Faced with conditions like that, attending a papal mass is a luxury few would even dream of.
Talk about a picture being worth 1,000 words. There’s more than that behind this picture of Pope Benedict holding hands and singing a song for peace with leaders of other religions in Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation on Thursday. This might seem like an innocent gesture to most people who see it. To some Vatican correspondents following the pope on his Holy Land tour, it was an unprecedented step that spoke volumes about the evolution of his theological thinking.This sing-along started at an interfaith meeting when a rabbi began singing a song with the lyrics “Shalom, Salaam, Lord grant us peace.” At some point, the 11 clerics on the stage stood up and held hands to sing the simple tune together. Never very spontaneous, Benedict looked a little hesitant but then joined in. It was something of a “kumbaya session” — a “religious version of We Are The World,” one colleague quipped — but it was good-natured and well meant. The pope has been preaching interfaith cooperation at every stop on his tour and it seemed appropriate that it culminate in a show of unity among the religions in Galilee.But wait a minute. This is the same Joseph Ratzinger who, when he was a cardinal heading the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, frowned on Pope John Paul’s pray-in with other religions at Assisi in 1986. He even declined to attend what became one of the landmark events of his predecessor’s papacy. Catholics cannot pray together with other religions, he argued, because only Catholicism was the true faith and all others were flawed to greater or lesser extents. Praying together carried the risk of syncretism, or mixing religions.Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger made several critical comments about other religions, especially Buddhism and Islam (although he is changing there as well). He drew a sharp line between Catholics and other Christians in the 2000 document Dominus Iesus that called Protestant denominations deficient and not proper churches. They felt slighted and several said so openly. The only faiths Ratzinger seemed interested in were Orthodox Christianity and Judaism (ironically, given the cool welcome he got in Israel — but that’s another story).Things change when a cardinal becomes a pope. Suddenly, he was no longer just the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, he was the head of the world’s largest church and its smallest country. He was a spiritual leader, a temporal head of state, a major diplomatic figure and one of the most prominent — if not the most prominent — spokesman for religion on the planet. That’s a lot to juggle at the same time.
“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.
At Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, part of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary complex including Islam’s third-holiest mosque Al-Aqsa, Pope Benedict urged Palestinian Muslim leaders to pursue interfaith cooperation by using an argument that other Muslims have been using to engage Christians — including himself — in dialogue. The need for interfaith dialogue is emerging as one of the two most consistent themes of Benedict’s speeches during his current Middle East tour (the other being the link between faith and reason). Appeals like this risk being empty phrases, but he has given some new twists that make them stand out.
Pope 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.
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.”Today 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.”Prince 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.
Pope 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?
When a pope enters a minefield, the most natural reaction for him is to pray. Pope Benedict stressed prayer when he began his tip-toe over the explosive terrain of the Middle East starting his May 8-15 tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories today. From the start, in his remarks during the flight to Amman, he stressed that people should pray for peace. We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process,” he said on the plane. “As believers we are convinced that that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history.” This is theologically sound, of course. It’s also politically clever. It’s the lowest common denominator in the Holy Land, maybe the only option all sides might agree on.
Pope Benedict plans to speak publicly at least 29 times during his May 8-15 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Apart from covering the main points in our news reports, we also plan to post excerpts from his speeches in a FathWorld series called “Papa dixit” (“the pope said”).
Sitting through a media briefing in Amman on Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan starting on Friday, I whiled away the news-free parts trying to decipher the Arabic writing on the official logo (photo at right). I never fully mastered the Arabic alphabet or the Urdu language (which uses it) during my time in Pakistan over 20 years ago. But some hard-won bits of linguistic trivia remain stuck in the brain and come in handy at the most unexpected moments.