Pope and Dialogue with Islam

The head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue said on March 26, 2006 that the war in Iraq should not be viewed as a “crusade” launched by Christian countries against Muslims, and that “Western” was not synonymous to “Christian”. “Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, never ceases to say this and show it by his acts, such as opposition to armed intervention in Iraq.” He said that the church is not “western”, but “catholic”.[26]

The Pope strongly condemned the Mohammed cartoons, first published by a Danish newspaper and later in other European papers, saying “In the international context we are living at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected”. He also added that this implies that “believers should not be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments.” Benedict XVI noted that “for believers, as for all people of good will, the only path that can lead to peace and fraternity is respect for the convictions and religious practices of others.”[27]

On April 16, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, in his first Easter message, called for a peaceful solution in the nuclear standoff with Iran, saying, “Concerning the international crises linked to nuclear power, may an honorable solution be found for all parties through serious and honest negotiations.” He also called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. He said: “May the international community, which re-affirms Israel’s just right to exist in peace, assist the Palestinian people to overcome the precarious conditions in which they live and to build their future, moving towards the constitution of a state that is truly their own.”[28]

Pope Benedict XVI condemns pre-emptive war. It is the pope’s view that the invasion of Iraq “has no moral justification.” As a cardinal, Benedict was critical about President George W. Bush’s choice of sending an army into the heart of Islam to impose democracy. “The damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save,” he concluded. He also said that “The concept of preventive war does not appear in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.[29]

Pope Benedict XVI has called for Christians “to open their arms and hearts” to Muslim immigrants and “to dialogue” with them on religious issues. The pope told participants that the Catholic Church is “increasingly aware” that “interreligious dialogue is a part of its commitment to the service of humanity in the modern world.” In fact, this “conviction” has become “the daily bread” of those who work with migrants, refugees and itinerant peoples, he said. Pope Benedict described this dialogue between Christians and Muslims as “important and delicate.” Many communities have experienced this, he said, as they worked “to build relations of mutual knowledge and respect with (Muslim) immigrants, which are extremely useful in overcoming prejudices and closed minds.” For this reason, he added, Christians “are called to open their arms and hearts to everyone, whatever their country of origin, leaving the task of formulating appropriate laws for the promotion of healthy existence to the authorities responsible for public life.”[30]

On June 3, 2006, Tony Blair was granted a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican at the end of a week-long trip to Italy. The Pope told the prime minister to pursue diplomatic solutions to problems with states in the Middle East, including Iran. A Vatican spokesman said: “The Pope did stress that diplomacy and not conflict was the best way forward.” The two leaders also discussed how “moderate voices” from the world’s main religions need to work together to tackle extremism and reduce the risk of terrorism.[31]

On June 14, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI urged Israelis and Palestinians in his weekly general audience to return to negotiation after the “increasingly blind” tit-for-tat violence. The Vatican said in a statement that the pope felt close to the innocent victims of such violence and that the Holy Land had become “hostage to those who delude themselves they can solve the ever more dramatic problems of the region by force or unilateral action.” The Vatican appealed to both sides “to show due respect for human life, especially that of unarmed civilians and children.” In its statement, the Vatican urged the resumption “with courage of the path of negotiations, the only one that can lead to the just and lasting peace we all aspire to.” It also urged the international community to “rapidly activate” funds for humanitarian aid to Palestinians.[32]

On June 23, 2006, Pope Benedict called for ’serene and peaceful co-existence’ in the Middle East. Referring to Eastern Catholic Churches in the Holy Land, the Pope said “the serious difficulties it is going though because of profound insecurity, lack of work, innumerable restrictions and consequent growing poverty, are a cause of pain for us all… I invite pastors, faithful, and everyone in positions of responsibility in the civil community, to favour mutual respect between cultures and religions, and to create as soon as possible the conditions for serene and peaceful coexistence throughout the Middle East.”[33]

On July 14, 2006, The Vatican condemned Israel’s strikes on Lebanon, saying they were “an attack” on a sovereign nation. Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Cardinal Sodano said Pope Benedict and his aides were very worried that the developments in the Middle East risked degenerating into “a conflict with international repercussions.” “In particular, the Holy See deplores right now the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation, and assures its closeness to these people who already have suffered so much to defend their independence,” he told Vatican Radio.[34]

On July 16, 2006, Pope Benedict prayed that God grant “the fundamental gift of harmony, bringing political leaders back on the path of reason and opening new possibilities for dialogue and understanding.” “In these days, the news from the Holy Land are all cause for new, grave worry, in particular, the widening of belligerent actions even in Lebanon, and for the numerous victims among the civilian population. At the origin of these merciless conflicts are, unfortunately, objective situations of violation of rights and of justice. But neither terrorist acts nor retaliation, above all when there are tragic consequences for the civilian population, can be justified, going down such roads – bitter experience has shown – does not bring positive results.”[35]

On July 21, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said Friday that he does not plan to intervene diplomatically in the Middle East fighting, but called on people of all religions to join Sunday’s worldwide day of prayers for peace. “I think it is best to leave that to the diplomats, because we don’t enter politics. But we do everything for peace. Our goal is simply peace, and we will do everything to help attain peace,” Benedict told reporters as he returned from an hour-long hike in the Italian Alps. The pope has set aside Sunday as a worldwide day of prayers for peace, hoping the prayers will bring a halt to the fighting. Benedict invited everyone to pray, “especially Muslims and Jews.” Benedict said he had heard from Catholic communities in Lebanon and Israel, “…especially from Lebanon, who implored us, as they have implored the Italian government, to help. We will help with our prayers and with the people we have in … in Lebanon.”[36]

Also on July 21, 2006, Benedict XVI has appealed to a convent of cloistered nuns to pray for the conversion of terrorists. According to Sister Maria, one of the 10 Carmelites of the community, the Holy Father said, “Pray also for the terrorists, as they do not know that not only do they harm their neighbor, but above all they harm themselves.” Concerned about what is happening in the Holy Land, Benedict XVI added: “Now we experience a worsening of the conflict in Lebanon, but also in many other parts of the world there are people suffering because of hunger and violence. Contemplative life, rich in charity opens heaven to humanity, which so needs it, as today in the world it is as if God did not exist. And where God is not, there is violence and terrorism.”[37]

Pope Benedict XVI appealed Sunday on July 30, 2006, for an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East, hours after the deadliest attack in nearly three weeks of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah . “In the name of God, I appeal to all those responsible for this spiral of violence, so that they immediately put down their arms on all sides. Immediately. I appeal to governing leaders and to international institutions not to spare any effort to obtain this necessary cessation of hostilities. In this moment I cannot help but think of the situation, ever more grave and more tragic, that the Middle East is going through: hundreds of dead, so many wounded, a huge number of the homeless and refugees, houses, cities and infrastructure destroyed. These facts demonstrate clearly that you cannot re-establish justice, create a new order and build authentic peace when you resort to instruments of violence.” [38]

With the war in Lebanon, the Vatican’s Middle East policies under Pope Benedict XVI have come into clearer focus. Pope Benedict’s pleas to stop the carnage, particularly after an Israeli air raid killed many civilians in Qana, have echoed the dramatic appeals of Pope John Paul during times of Mideast conflict. In private talks, Vatican officials have asked that the U.S. government use its influence with Israel to bring an immediate halt to hostilities. To the Israelis, the Vatican has made it clear that it views its military offensive in Lebanon as a disproportionate use of force.

When Benedict was elected, critics described him as tougher on terrorism and more wary of radical Islam than his predecessor. The pope’s own statements, however, have strongly supported those of outgoing secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and his deputy, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Vatican foreign minister. “There seems to be a surprising degree of unanimity and outspokenness, so far at least, on this issue,” said one diplomat in Rome. “In other words, if the pope really wasn’t quite comfortable with (Cardinal) Sodano and (Archbishop) Lajolo as some suggest, he’s giving them a lot of room. And his own public comments for the most part seem to echo theirs.”[39]

On August 7, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI renewed his appeal for peace in the Middle East and said he was deeply disappointed that calls for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon had been ignored. “Faced with the bitter fact that up to now the calls for an immediate cease-fire in that martyred region have been disregarded, I feel impelled to renew my pressing appeal to that effect, asking everyone to offer their real contribution to the construction of a just and lasting peace.” Pope Benedict donated two ambulances and emergency medical supplies to Caritas in Lebanon.

“War is the worst solution for everyone,” he has said. “It brings nothing of good for anyone, not even for the apparent victors. We know this well in Europe, after the two world wars. What everyone needs is peace. There are moral forces ready to help people understand that the only solution is that we must live together.” He said the Vatican’s actions and his own appeals were designed to mobilize all the potential forces of peace.[40]

Pope Benedict will send a special envoy to Lebanon to lead prayers for peace, the Vatican said on Friday. The Pope has asked Roger Etchegaray, a French Cardinal who was often the late Pope John Paul’s special envoy to trouble spots, “to transmit to the suffering population … his spiritual proximity and real solidarity.” While the French cardinal’s mission is “essentially religious” to try to celebrate Mass on Sunday with the patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite church, the Vatican says he may also meet President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Etchegaray, 83-year-old president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was sent by Pope John Paul to Iraq in early 2003 to meet Saddam Hussein and try to avert war.[41]

On August 28, 2006, German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the Middle East and Iran with Pope Benedict in a private audience. She came out of her hour-long audience saying it was a “very impressive” experience. “We had a very intense exchange on world politics, especially on the Middle East, but also on how the international community should deal with Iran.” Pope Benedict has been contacted by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Tehran faces international isolation for its nuclear program.[42]

On September 11, 2006, The leaders of Muslim communities in Italy endorsed on Monday statements by pope Benedict XVI who warned that Africa and Asia feel threatened by the West’s materialism and secularism. “We agree with the pope,” said Roberto Piccardo, the spokesman of Italy’s largest Muslim group UCOII. “It is true that Muslims are puzzled by a West which is hostage to a materialistic system.” Mario Scialoja, the former president of the World Muslim League, also expressed support for the pope’s words, saying that the “West’s exclusion of God leads to the wrong life models.”[43]

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict invited Muslims on Tuesday to join a dialogue of cultures that agrees the concept of Islamic “holy war” is unreasonable and against God’s nature.The 79-year-old Pontiff avoided making a direct criticism of Islam, packaging his comments in a highly complex academic lecture with references ranging from ancient Jewish and Greek thinking to Protestant theology and modern atheism. Benedict several times quoted the argument by Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos that spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable and that acting without reason — “logos” in the original Greek — was against God’s nature.At the end of his lecture, the Pope again quoted Manuel and said: “It is to this great ’logos’, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”Abbot Notker Wolf, head of the worldwide Benedictine order, said the Pope used Manuel’s dialogue with a Persian to make an indirect reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”I have heard he plans to write a letter to the Pope,” Wolf added. “I think this would be a good opportunity to take up the gauntlet, so to speak, and really discuss things.” The Pope also quoted the words, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”; although he made clear that they were Manuel II’s, and not his own which made his intent further questionable. The head of the powerful Religious Affairs Directorate in Ankara, Turkey, Ali Bardakoglu, has reacted the same day with sorrow to the statements endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI, saying “These were statements which were extraordinarily worrying, very unfortunate, both in the name of Christianity, and in the name of shared humanity.” Noting Pope Benedict’s endorsements with “horror”, he noted that if the Pope’s action “reflected any anger, enmity, or hatred in the Pope’s inner world,” the situation was worse than anyone could imagine. The nation’s religious director also called on Pope Benedict to either retract or apologize for his conduct.He noted with regret that the Western world seemed to approach the Islamic world and its prophets with much pre-judgement and lack of knowledge. “The church and the Western public, because they saw Islam as the enemy, went on crusades. They occupied Istanbul, they killed thousands of people. Orthodox Christians and Jews were killed and tortured,” he said. The Christians “saw war against those outside the Christian world as a holy duty,” Bardakoglu said, also quoting ” the South American religious wars”, “the Nazi agression”, “inqusition and witch-hunting” and “the suppression of science” in Europe’s history . “That’s why the Western clerics always have in the back of their minds a crusade mentality and the idea of holy war. If there’s a religious antagonism in the West, it’s the responsibility of the logic-ignoring Christian church,” he added, further hinting the emergence of serious reservations on the benefits of Pope’s anticipated visit to Turkey.


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