Apr 272008

Perhaps in the months and years to come, Pope Benedict will make the kind of grand gesture of amity, goodwill and understanding towards Muslims that his predecessor did, as that alone will wipe out the unpleasant memories his name still triggers

No king, emperor or potentate, much less the leader of a democratic state, can possibly hope to receive the kind of American welcome given to Pope Benedict XVI, who came, conquered and left.

He landed in an Alitalia plane from Rome at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, a facility where only visiting heads of state and governments on official visits arrive. They are greeted by senior officials, and only rarely by a member of the President’s cabinet (which unlike our expanding cabinet numbers just around a dozen). The Pope was received by President Bush and Mrs Bush, who had been joined by one of their daughters, with the women elegantly dressed in black.

In the three or four days the Pope stayed, first in Washington then in New York, the press could not have enough of him. The Washington Post, which for the last many years has not been known for what one might call sound editorial and news judgement, devoted its front page and several inside pages, profusely garnished with pictures, to the pontiff. Other newspapers did not allow themselves to fall too far behind either. As for television channels, some were more effusive than others, but effusive they all were. This is not a Catholic country, although the Catholics are a majority among Christians.

Pope Benedict has stepped into the shoes of a man who had come to be both respected and loved around the world, a man who had the greatness of spirit to forgive the young Turk who tried to kill him. His would have been a hard act to follow for anyone, much less the former Cardinal Ratzinger.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, writing on NYTimes.com on Sunday, quoted Pope Benedict as telling Catholic educators in New York “Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct and even betray the university’s identity and mission.” She suggested that the Pope’s words should be put in the context of his former post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition). “During the 25 years when he headed this office (1981-2005), he cracked down on progressive Catholic thought, closed down seminaries dedicated to educating priests in the context of the issues of poverty and injustice, and, again and again, progressive bishops were replaced with conservative ones.”

Various scholars and theologians say, according to a report in The Washington Post, that in the first days of his papacy, Benedict did appear to downgrade interfaith dialogue, removing Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an Arabic speaker and noted Muslim scholar, from his role as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and sending him to Egypt as nuncio, or the Vatican ambassador. The Catholic Church under its current leader is certainly going to become much more conservative in opposing liberal trends.

Ruether pointed out that this clampdown on progressive Catholic thought and on the openness to debate on controversial issues has included the most creative and respected Catholic theologians of the last half-century. Was it then Pope Benedict’s conservatism that endeared him to Washington’s first family?

In New York, Pope Benedict visited a synagogue. Perhaps he needs to draw inspiration from his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who became the first Pope in history to visit a mosque when he stepped inside one in Damascus in May 2001. On that trip, he also asked for a joint act of contrition “for all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another.” It was a grand gesture of reconciliation that did more for better inter-faith understanding than any comparable gesture from any other quarter.

The Pope’s castigation of Islam has not been forgotten by Muslims, although he has tried to mend fences since he spoke those unfortunate words about Islam. He has said that he wants to reach the Muslims through dialogue. His meeting in Washington with religious leaders included some Muslim invitees, but some others who were approached during the planning stage declined. One of them said that he would have been the first to go were the meeting with the pontiff in the form of a dialogue with people of other faiths. But it was nothing of the sort. There was no dialogue, no exchange. Pope Benedict alone spoke, though his subject was inter-faith harmony.

The Washington Post recalled the Pope’s negative remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, in 2006. The newspaper pointed out that although the Pope has repeated several times that he regretted the offence his speech caused, and that he has deep respect for Islam, the remarks have caused lingering damage, according to Muslims and some Catholic scholars.

“I don’t think he did enough to apologise,” said Omar T Mohammedi, a member of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Wael Mousfar, a Brooklyn Muslim community leader, told the newspaper, “For a person of his stature to come out and say this about Islam, it amazes me, it’s sad. Islam is the target of everyone nowadays; he just jumped on the bandwagon and joined the crowd.”

In New York, the Pope visited Ground Zero, which could only have brought to the surface the memory that those who staged the 9/11 attacks were Muslims, although Muslims who had been misled into believing that by sacrificing their lives and causing thousands to lose theirs, they were glorifying Islam.

Perhaps in the months and years to come, Pope Benedict will make the kind of grand gesture of amity, goodwill and understanding towards Muslims that his predecessor did, as that alone will wipe out the unpleasant memories his name still triggers.

Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is khasan2@cox.net
Source: daily times, 27/4/2008

 Posted by at 9:49 am

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