Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pope Backlash Deals Blow to Interfaith Ties

The angry response to remarks on Islam has undermined efforts to forge better relations between Christians and Muslims, many say.

The L. A. Times reported today that:

ROME — At churches in Baghdad, parishioners hung signs to say they disagreed with the pope.

In Egypt, priests of the Orthodox Coptic Church denounced Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about Islam and said they wished he had considered the reaction before speaking.

In Lebanon, where bloody demonstrations erupted early this year over a Danish newspaper's caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, a Christian-Muslim dialogue committee asked imams to keep their Friday sermons calm.

The enraged response to the pope's speech last week, in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who regarded teachings of Muhammad as "evil and inhuman," has dealt a stinging blow to decades of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church and others to ease tensions and open lines of communication between Muslims and Christians.

An apology by the pope Sunday has only partially quelled the anger.

In Christian communities in predominantly Muslim countries, many believers, leaders and laymen alike, have thought that safety required distancing themselves from the pope and his comments.

In Egypt, where 10% of the population of 79 million is Christian, residents remember days of sectarian fighting that erupted this spring in the normally genteel city of Alexandria, a sign of how volatile Muslim-Christian relations can be.

"Some of my best friends are Muslims, and so far we have adapted to live here as minorities," said William Harb Jaleel, 59, an employee of the Finance Ministry in Cairo and a Coptic Christian.

"But with the presences of Al Qaeda and its followers here, it really makes us an easy goal for these fanatics to target and kill us," he said. "So the last thing we need is for the pope to provoke anybody and escalate the already tense situations; we just hate to be the victims of stuff we were never responsible for."

In Lebanon, where nearly 40% of the population is Christian and where religious differences have long cleaved the country, there have been no calls for demonstrations and no violence associated with the pope's comments.

"But in the long term," said Father Samir Khalil Samir, director of an Arab Christian research center at St. Joseph University in Beirut, "there is a fear that Christians in the country and in other Arab states will feel insecure and encouraged to emigrate."

Building ties between Christians and Muslims was a hallmark of the papacy of the late John Paul II. He was the first pope to enter a mosque, and he often embraced believers of the three major monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — as brothers, all children of Abraham.

His efforts led to widely recognized progress in terms of dialogue, education and cooperation, which many scholars, clerics and ordinary worshipers say is now in jeopardy.

"This could nullify decades of efforts by the church to open up and reach out," said Paolo Branca, professor of Islamic studies at the Catholic University of Milan. "This is a gaffe that could damage the image of the pope's church, a church that is always careful and balanced in expressing itself."

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is a very different pope than his predecessor, with a different approach, especially when it comes to Islam and interfaith dialogue. His priority is to condemn the extremist fundamentalism that he believes has hijacked Islam, part of a wider conviction that religion should not be used to justify violence.

The pope's supporters contend that the trouble that erupted after his comments proves his point, that some elements of Islam respond with violence before reason. But critics say Benedict's decision to illustrate that point by quoting was the decision of the theologian and professor that Ratzinger always had been, and not that of a politically savvy world leader.

Many in Rome believe Benedict signaled his diminished interest in interfaith dialogue when he demoted the Vatican office that handles it and dispatched its former president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, to Cairo. Fitzgerald is considered a leading Catholic specialist in Islam, and his expertise is clearly missing in the Vatican today, critics say.

The complete story may be found here:,1,370541.story?track=crosspromo&coll=la-headlines-world&ctrack=1&cset=true


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