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.
“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…”
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. (Photo: Pope at Dome of the Rock, 12 May 2009/Israeli govt. handout)
In his speech to Muslim leaders this morning, the pope said reason shows us the shared nature and common destiny of all people. He then said: “Undivided love for the One God and charity towards ones neighbour thus become the fulcrum around which all else turns.” Readers of this blog may recognise that message in a slightly different form — it echoes the “Common Word” appeal by Muslim scholars to a Christian-Muslim dialogue based on the two shared principles of love of God and love of neighbour. Since we’ve reported extensively about that initiative, readers may also remember that the Vatican was initially quite cautious about it. Up until the Catholic-Muslim forum in Rome last November, the line from the Vatican was that Christians and Muslims couldn’t really discuss theology because their views of God were so different. Vatican officials sounded different after three days of talks and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is in charge of interfaith relations, said the Common Word group could even become a “privileged channel” for discussions in future. And now Benedict uses their argument to other Muslims.
Another new element — Benedict has begun using core Islamic terms to build bridges to his Muslim audience. Speaking at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, he referred to God as “merciful and compassionate.” Today, he spoke of a shared belief “that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy.” He even expressed the hope that Muslim-Christian dialogue explores “how the Oneness of God is inextricably tied to the unity of the human family.” The Trinity is one of the biggest stumbling blocks between Christianity and Islam. Muslims see it as belief in three separate Gods, unlike the three persons in one God as Christians understand it. Centuries of Muslim anti-Christian rhetoric is built on the idea that Christianity is not really monotheistic like Islam (and Judaism, by the way). If the detailed theological discussions the Common Word group has launched lead to a better understanding of this issue, even if no agreement is possible, that would still be major progress.
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. (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.”
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?
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).
Jordanian 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.
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. (Photo: Workers hang banner welcoming Benedict in Amman, 7 May 2009/Muhammad Hamed)
Another theme evident in comments by the pope and King Abdullah is their joint effort to boost Benedict’s image in the Muslim world. His 2006 Regensburg speech hinting that Islam was violent and irrational has not been forgotten in this region. But Jordan, a Muslim country that strongly supports interfaith dialogue initiatives such as the Common Word declaration, wants to redirect attention towards cooperation between the world’s two largest faiths. King Abdullah took the first step in that direction. Speaking at the airport after the pope’s arrival today, he said:
“We welcome your commitment to dispel the misconceptions and divisions that have harmed relations between Christians and Muslims. You have warmly received the visits of Muslim scholars and others. In turn, your historic visit this week to the King Hussein Mosque … your meeting with Muslim religious scholars … is welcomed by all Jordanians. It is my hope that together, we can expand the dialogue we have opened – a dialogue that accepts our unique religious identities; a dialogue that is unafraid of the light of truth; a dialogue that, rightly, celebrates our deep, common values and ties.”
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”). (Photo: Pope Benedict leaves Rome for Amman, 8 May 2009/Max Rossi)
Following are comments from the first day, on the plane and in Amman. The pope spoke Italian on the plane but will deliver all his speeches here in English.
COMMENTS ON THE PLANE (Reuters translation from Italian):
MIDEAST PEACE: “Certainly I will try to make a contribution to peace, not as an individual but in the name of the Catholic Church , of the Holy See. 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 … 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 and I think that if millions of believers pray it really is a force that has influence and can make a contribution to moving ahead with peace.”
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.
With some effort on my part, that arc of Arabic calligraphy up top revealed itself as saying al-haj al-babawi. The haj of baba … hmmm… Arabic has no “p,” so that could be the haj of papa. The Italians call him papa, so it must be talking about the pope and saying the pope’s haj. Huh? The pope’s haj?
Of course, the word haj simply means “pilgrimage” in Arabic. Western languages have taken it over as the specific term for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But the pope has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to get there. Haj means pilgrimage, no more and no less, and it describes the pope’s visit just the same way as he does in the words of the many western languages he speaks.
Multicultural Malaysia, whose official religion is Islam but which has sizeable numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, has been struggling of late to ensure religious freedoms for its minorities, without offending the sensibilities of majority Muslims.
In the latest case, a Malaysian court granted permission to a Christian to challenge the authorities for seizing religious materials that used the word “Allah”. The government has banned the use of the Arabic word to describe God by all except for Muslims, saying it might confuse Muslims or offend their sensisibilities. (Photo: A Hindu pilgrim outside Kuala Lumpur, 8 Feb 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)
The Catholic Herald, Malaysia’s main Catholic newspaper, has been fighting the government for months over the right to use the word “Allah”. Herald Editor Rev. Lawrence Andrew argues that Malaysian Christians have used “Allah” as their term for God for centuries. In a recent edition, the Herald slammed a new locally produced Bible, which further muddied these troubled waters by using the Hebrew word “Elohim” instead of “Allah” (or God for that matter) for the Almighty.