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Mideast Responds to Obama

06/05/2009 Comment

Obama speaks yesterday in Cairo. (CNS/Reuters)

Tomorrow’s edition of L’Osservatore Romano reports on reactions from some Middle East Church leaders to President Barack Obama’s speech yesterday to the Muslim world. 

Summing up their reaction as “an important speech, but these are words, not deeds,” the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper says the reaction has mainly been one of appreciation for the president’s openness to dialogue, but coupled with a wish to make the words concrete.

The paper begins by quoting Bishop Youssef Ibrahim Sarraf, the Chaldean bishop of Cairo: “It is the speech we have wanted for so long,” Bishop Sarraf said. “The president has had the courage to make it, choosing Egypt for its location and role in the Islamic world.”

Bishop Sarraf added: “The strong message it gives is to work together to find solutions to an agenda of issues, from democracy to terrorism, from freedom of religion to human rights, from the dignity of women to globalization — issues which are the focus of debate in the Arab world between moderates and fundamentalists.”

Bishop Sarraf stressed the hope that “Islam and the Arab world know how to take his words in hand — start a new process, a new era. Obama wants to really change the image of the United States in a way that will bring benefits.”

More cautious remarks came from Archbishop Paul Dahdah, apostolic vicar of Beirut. “The hope is that this discourse doesn’t serve just to change the image of the U.S.A., disfigured through choosing war, but gives momentum to firm political activity aimed at resolving what is the real root of all the problems here in the region, [or] the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Archbishop Dahdah said if this isn’t addressed, “reaching out won’t lead to any results.” The references made by the American president to the defense of law and justice are fundamental, he added, but if you really want to mark “a new beginning,” then “concrete actions should follow the words.”

Striking a similar tone, L’Osservatore reports, was the custos of the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa. He said “a speech is not enough” to improve the nation’s image in the Arab world, but what is required are “concrete actions.” 

However, Father Pizzaballa added that Obama has been “sincere, determined, clear and very balanced,” reaffirming “the relationship with Israel but at the same time assuming a new position with the Arab world, one which marks a new beginning, a change of strategy and relationships that will provide further impetus to the search for a solution to the principal problem, that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Now the two sides “should rethink their positions and demands,” Father Pizzaballa said, but added that what is “new and important” is that Obama “has turned to asking Hamas for de facto recognition of Israel.”

Meanwhile, in Italy, SIR, the press agency of the Italian bishops’ conference, likened Obama’s address to that of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that gave impetus to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Obama’s dream of a “new start,” the agency said, “is comparable to that of another great black American, the Reverend Martin Luther King, who predicted an end to the segregation of black Americans, nonviolence and a new society.”

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About Edward Pentin

Edward Pentin
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Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Follow on Twitter @edwardpentin