FaithWorld

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.

We don’t know if the Vatican knew Allam would publish such an outspoken article on Sunday. Several Church sources have said off the record they were surprised and put off by its polemical tone and said it effectively drowned out the weak Vatican efforts to play down the baptism. Whether it was planned or not, Allam’s article became part of the whole story. As will his subsequent comments, as in an interview in today’s Il Giornale.

That was evident in the response that Aref Ali Nayed of the “Common Word” initiative gave to the Allam story on Monday. Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said he consulted several other signatories of the dialogue appeal before issuing the statement. One of the first things to note is that he treats Allam’s conversion as a personal decision and says “It is God who will judge him.” I didn’t expect “Common Word” signatories to denounce Allam as an apostate deserving death, but it’s worth noting the absence of any such comment because that traditionalist view is the one that’s probably best known to non-Muslims.

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

German soccer team shies away from cross on jersey

German soccer blogs are not a place I usually go to for a story about religion, but an interesting one has popped up on the forum of the Eintracht Frankfurt team. The team let its fans vote over the Internet late last year to pick a 2008/2009 season jersey among 16 proposed models. Despite the fans’ enthusiasm for this innovation, Eintracht has ignored the result and chosen to use the runner-up design. As the team explained on its website:

The Eintracht “cross” jerseyAfter a close examination, we have decided that the winning jersey with the cross unfortunately cannot be used because the symbol on the front has a religious background. Inter Milan, an Italian club with a long tradition, has appeared in the current Champions League competition in a similar jersey and been strongly criticised for it. So after careful consideration, Eintracht Frankfurt has gone back and chosen the second jersey, which came in a close second in the vote.

The Eintracht “eagle” jerseyThe runner-up that came out on top has what Eintracht calls “hints of eagle claws on the front and a stylised eagle on the shoulder”. The city’s coat-of-arms has a red eagle that also figures on the Eintracht team logo.

Pope breaks “silence” on Tibet with carefully worded appeal

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessings at the end of his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the VaticanAs readers of this blog will have noticed, I posted a note yesterday about calls by Italian intellectuals for Pope Benedict to break his supposed silence over Tibet. On Wednesday he did so at his weekly general audience, making a carefully worded appeal (here in Italian) for an end to the suffering of the people there.

Given the delicate nature of relations between the Vatican and China, the appeal seemed to strike a balance between his concern for the people and Vatican diplomacy. He mentioned the violence without mentioning China.

In fairness to the Pope, the accusations of “silence” made by some in Italy were perhaps, as was noted by his defenders in yesterday’s blog, a bit premature. Unless he is saying a Mass on a Church holy day or a similar occasion, the Pope only has set days in which he can make a public appeal that the Vatican believes is most effective — Sunday at the Angelus prayer from his window and Wednesday at the general audience.

Italians ask how long Pope can remain silent on Tibet

A demonstrator holds a placard against the Olympic Games in Beijing in front of the IOC headquarters in LausannePope Benedict is just about the only world leader not to have said anything about the events in Tibet. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in Italy, where some commentators have been urging him to speak out — and others have been defending him for not doing so.

A story in the March 18 edition of Corriere della Sera quoted Antonio Socci, a Catholic writer and intellectual, as calling the Pope’s silence “the latest error by the Secretariat of State headed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone“. In the same article, Giorgio Tonini, a member of the centre-left Democratic Party, said he was at first surprised that the Pope had not spoken out against the violence in Tibet during his Palm Sunday Mass. He said he later remembered reading a book by the the late Cardianl Agostino Casaroli, who was secretary of state for much of the reign of the late Pope John Paul. In the book, Casaroli spoke of the “martyrdom of patience” he had to go through when dealing with the communist countries of the former Soviet Bloc.

Not all commentators were critical. Andrea Riccardi, one of the founders of the Sant’ Egidio Community, said no one should expect the Vatican to “behave like a news agency” and react to every international crisis.Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during a Palm Sunday mass in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican Gian Maria Vian, editor-in-chief of the Vatican newspaper l’Osservatore Romano, defended the Vatican’s prudence and said it was “premature” to start a polemic. The Pope could speak out about Tibet in the coming days, perhaps at Wednesday’s general audience or one of the events during Holy Week, Vian said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Liberal.

When top Catholic bishop speaks, Italy listens

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 26 March 2007/Max RossiWhen the head of the Catholic bishops’ conference in most countries speaks, he expects the specialist Church media to report on him and considers himself lucky if he makes it into the religion pages of the mainstream press. When the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) speaks, Italian media sit up and listen.

So when Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (left) delivered his opening address to a regular meeting of the CEI’s permanent council last Monday, his speech (here in Italian) was all over the television and radio that night and in all mainstream newspapers the next morning.

Bagnasco, following up on recent economic surveys, opinion polls and media stories, said Italy was effectively in a state of malaise, if not outright decline. He said Italy appeared like a “frayed” country and at times seemed as torn apart as “confetti.” He cited a recent report by the social research organisation Censis that said Italy was suffering from “deep inertia” and seemed “incapable of building a common future”. A “dangerous lack of confidence” was widespread, he said.

The papal speech not heard around the world

Students accuse Pope Benedict of homophobia, 15 Jan 2008/Dario Pignatelli For the first time since Pope Benedict’s election in 2005, the Vatican has issued a speech he did not read. The Pope was to have visited Rome’s La Sapienza University on January 17 but student demonstrations (the kind that would have made anyone who was alive in the 1960s nostalgic) forced him to change his plans.

A small number of students and professors accused the Pope of being against science, citing a speech he made in 1990 when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The students and professors argued that that speech showed he would have supported the church’s heresy trial against the astronomer Galileo in the 17th century. The speech did not, in fact, state that and the Vatican promptly said the protesters had misunderstood it.

As pictures from the university showed, the protest appeared to be more against a man accused by some Italians of interfering in politics with his positions against gay marriage and abortion, and his opposition to proposed legislation that would give unmarried couples more rights. While many Italian students do not like Benedict, Italian media reports said most believed he had a right to speak, even if he would be booed. A large group of students turned up at the Pope’s weekly audience on Students hold up banners supporting Pope Benedict, 16 Jan 2008/Dario PignatelliWednesday with banners saying “If Benedict doesn’t come to La Sapienza, La Sapienza will come to Benedict” and “Students with the Pope.” One held up an Italian flag with the slogan “Viva il Papa.”

Pope Benedict stumbles again over someone else’s quote

Students protest against Pope Benedict at La Sapienza University in Rome, 15 Jan 2008/Dario PignatelliPope Benedict’s decision to scrap his planned speech to Rome’s La Sapienza University after protests by professors and students there is the second time he has stumbled publicly because of his old professor’s habit of enlivening lectures with quotes from other sources that function as rhetorical straw men to be knocked down.

In this case, the protesters branded Benedict as anti-science because of comments he made in 1990 about Galileo. Discussing the famous case, he quoted a passage in which the unconventional philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend defended the Church for forcing the legendary Italian scientist to recant his view that Earth circled the sun. Benedict described Feyerabend as “agnostic-sceptic” (certainly not a compliment from the Vatican’s former doctrinal watchdog!). He characterised Feyerabend’s stand as “much more drastic” than another defence of the Church’s view offered by the “Romantic MarxistErnst Bloch. In fact, Benedict said he cited these two views to illustrate “the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology”.

Pope Benedict lectures at the University of Regensburg, 21 Sept 2006In his ill-fated speech in September 2006 at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425) as saying that Islam was a violent and irrational religion that had been spread by the sword. In this case, he did not make clear right away whether he agreed with these words or not. Many Muslims assumed he did and rioting — sometimes bloody — broke out in the Islamic world. The Pope later distanced himself from the quote, without apologising for using it.

Italian far-right uses pig to “desecrate” future mosque site

A pigItaly’s far-right Northern League has come up with some provocative ways to protest against the construction of mosques. One of its members, Senator Roberto Calderoli, has called for a “Pig Day” to demonstrate against a planned mosque in Bologna. In December 2006, protesters left a severed pig’s head outside a mosque being built in Tuscany. Their latest idea was to parade a pig around the site of a planned mosque in Padua last weekend to “desecrate” the property.

Italy’s Sky TV has the video here. It’s in Italian but you’ll get the point.

The woman leading the protesters is former deputy Education Minister Mariella Mazzetto, a Northern League member. She told the journalist: “We have blessed the ground that the city of Padua wants to transfer for the mosque … It is a question of defending Italian identity.” Muslims and non-Muslims joined in denouncing the protest.

Bioethical dilemmas know no boundaries

Bioethical dilemmas know no boundaries. France found that out this weekend when the daily Libération revealed that a French couple that had used a surrogate mother in the United States had won a long legal battle to be recognised as the parents of the twin girls who resulted from the arrangement. Surrogacy is illegal in France. French officials refused to register the twins as the couple’s daughters, leaving them in a legal limbo for seven years. But an appeals court finally granted their wish, arguing it was in the children’s best interests to recognise the U.S. birth certificates that listed Dominique and Sylvie (their surname was not published) as the parents.

an expectant mother France banned surrogacy in 1994 in the hope of preventing a “rent-a-womb” market from developing. But this option is expressly banned by law only in France, Germany and Italy, according to the association CLARA which campaigns to change the French law. It is legal in other places, including Britain, Canada, Greece, New Zealand and some U.S. states. According to the twins’ father Dominique, between 20 to 40 French couples cross the Atlantic every year to have a child with a surrogate American mother.

Since Sylvie and Dominique were recognised as the twins’ parents in a state where surrogacy is legal, they could not be brought to court for breaking the law there. French courts tried to try them for aiding and abetting a case of surrogacy or violating the civil status of the children, but neither charge led to a conviction, Le Monde reported.