Pope Benedict holds tougher line in Catholic Church dialogue with Islam
From Our Sunday Visitor (www.osv.com)
HUNTINGTON, Ind.. Jul. 5, 2006 (www.catholic.org) – While visiting with a delegation of Iraqi Muslims in 1999, Pope John Paul II surprised his guests and the world when he reverently placed his lips on the Islamic holy book of the Quran.
It was a gesture typical of the pope – demonstrative, dramatic and eminently photographable. It was also one of the most controversial gestures of his papacy. And it is a gesture few Vatican watchers think his successor is likely to repeat.
"Anyone who knows Rome will tell you that today a more hawkish position is in ascendancy," said John Allen, Vatican correspondent and author of The Rise of Benedict XVI (Doubleday, $19.95).
"Not that Pope Benedict doesn't want good relations with Muslims or that he wants to launch some kind of cultural crusade. Quite the contrary. He wants dialogue, but dialogue that has the self-confidence to be honest," Allen told Our Sunday Visitor.
And indeed, beginning with his address to Muslims in Cologne, Germany, last August during World Youth Day, in which he said no culture that denies its people freedom of conscience is worthy of the name "civilization," the pope has been much less ambiguous than his predecessor about the differences that divide Muslims and Christians and much more vocal about the dangers of militant Islam.
According to Allen, those differences exist, at least in part, because of Pope Benedict's background as a theologian. That background leads him to think more deeply about the theological and scriptural challenges of Islam and enables him to bring a greater degree of theological precision to the dialogue.
Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, professor of Islamic Studies at the Université St. Joseph in Beirut and the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, seconded Allen's assessment.
He also noted that while Pope John Paul was given to making gestures intended to show respect for Muslims – such as kissing the Quran or visiting a mosque – he was not always sensitive to the way people perceived those gestures.
"The pope kissing the Quran was a shock for many Christians in the Middle East. They thought it meant that the Quran is divine, which is of course not what he meant at all," said Father Samir.