COLOGNE, Germany — In his first address to Muslims, Pope Benedict XVI carefully sought to defuse any antagonism between the historically Christian world and Islam. He focused on deeper common truths that exist between the two faiths, and at the same time, he confronted sensitive issues of concern to the Church.
In particular, the Holy Father strongly spoke against terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, calling it “a perverse and cruel decision which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil society.”
But Pope Benedict, who recently blamed these atrocities on a small group of fanatics rather than Islam itself, reasserted that the terrorists do not act in accordance with the faith they claim to profess.
“Evidently,” he said, “[they] wish to poison our relations, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful, fair and serene life together”.
The Holy Father added, “I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace.”
The life of every human being, he told representatives of the Turkish Islamic Union, “is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims.”
Pope Benedict recalled the bloody history that Christians and Muslims have inherited.
“How many pages of history record battles and even wars that have been waged, with both sides invoking the name of God, as if fighting and killing the enemy could be pleasing to him,” he asked rhetorically. Past wars between Christians and Muslims, he went on, “should fill us with shame,” and “the lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes.”
The Pope's talk, directed towards the whole Islamic world as much as to Muslims in Germany, underlined the friendly dialogue and commonalities that now exist between the two faiths. However, the disparity between upholding the centrality and sacredness of the human person, and the persecution of religious minorities in Muslim countries was not lightly passed over.
“We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other's identity,” the Pope said. He called on Christians and Muslims to avoid the mistakes of the past.
“The defence of religious freedom … is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization,” he added.
The implied criticism here was clear: The rights and freedoms of German Muslims are generally respected by the state; those of Christians in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia are not, and run counter to the sacredness of life that Islam purports to uphold.
Islamic countries, however, can foster a different approach, the Holy Father said, and that is to listen to the “quiet but clear voice of conscience” and recognize the “centrality of the human person.”
In many ways, the speech was a continuation of his address given the day before at Cologne's synagogue. Then, Pope Benedict XVI drew on passages from the Second Vatican Council's declaration Nostra Aetate (The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), 40 years old this year, to encourage dialogue with non-Christian faiths.
It is something he sees not as an option or seasonal trend but as vital work to the Church and, in a world in which there appears to be growing anti-Semitism and hostility towards foreigners and minorities, one that has an even greater urgency.
“It was an invitation to look forward not back”, said Father Justo Lacunza-Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies. “I found it a very touching speech which placed emphasis on humanity, elements of friendship and closeness.”
There were no condemnations, Father Lacunza-Balda noted, but rather statements of solidarity and collaboration with the Muslim community in confronting evil, and an underlying emphasis on the crucial role of education in the formation of young Muslims.
“He was saying to them: ‘You teach your faith, but what do you teach?” the priest added. “Is it about respect for human dignity, or is it about something else?”
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger criticized Islam for its tendency to mix religion and politics too readily. He also upset many Turks when he suggested that Turkey should become part of a greater Islamic community rather than join the European Union.
But he also has a respect for the religious and moral seriousness of Islam, and is convinced that it is not debate over Europe's Christian roots that offend Muslim immigrants, but disrespect for God and religion.
Religion of Peace?
Yet some detractors would argue that he could have been even more direct, and question whether the Koran, with all its references to warfare against the ‘infidel,’ can honestly be called a book of peace.
“There are plenty of verses in the Old Testament that refer to war, too, but that has a wider meaning in the context of the New Testament,” countered Father Lacunza-Balda. “Muslims must likewise look at the wider picture of the Koran, and focus on the many verses not to make war. People use the Koran to hurt others and establish a jihad, but the words compassion and mercy are there.”
Taking leave from Pope Benedict's call for better instruction from religious leaders, Father Lacunza-Balda believes there must be a return to the “principles and guidelines that pulled people together though generations.”
The address was welcomed by the attending Muslims.
Ridvan Cakir, president of the Turkish Islamic Union, said afterward: “We have the same opinion on inter-religious dialogue, and we also share the same line on common action against terrorism.”
Muslims also warmed to the openness and friendliness of Pope Benedict that was also so reminiscent of John Paul II.
“I think Pope Benedict must utilize this and his greatest characteristic: his enormous competence in the field of theology,” Yahya Pallavicini, vice-president of the Italian Islamic Community and imam of the Al Wahid mosque in Milan, told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale.
Pope Benedict made clear after his election his intention to make significant advances in inter-religious dialogue.
This speech, marked by sincerity and sensitivity combined with forthright yet constructive criticism, gives one a good idea of just how he plans to go about it.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.