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The Pope and Islam

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: September 18, 2006


Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI drew intense criticism from Muslim leaders, Islamic communities, and others for remarks at Regensburg University in Germany (Vatican Web Site) last week taken by many as a slight on Islam and its founder, the Prophet Mohammed. In the course of a long, intricate address in which he ponders the relationship between faith and reason, the pope quotes the fourteenth-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, who challenged a Muslim correspondent to name anything not "evil and inhuman" (al-Jazeera) spawned by the Prophet Mohammed.

The full quote, "Show me just what Mohammed 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," was part of an historic dialogue between the emperor, whose throne in Constantinople was then under siege by a Muslim army, and a Persian intellectual. On September 12, the pope presented the quote to theological students in an address that otherwise had little to do with Islam. It was, in his words, a "starting point for my reflections on" the issue of faith and reason.

Yet some question the wisdom of his decision to use a besieged emperor's depiction of Islam as a faith which condones "acting unreasonably," even if it was simply meant to jump-start a discussion of the relationship between Christian doctrine and Greek (Byzantine) philosophy. A statement by the Vatican insisting the pope would never insult Islam did little to appease Muslims (BBC). On Sunday, the pope offered his apologies during his weekly Angelus blessing, saying he was "deeply sorry" (LAT) that Muslims were offended by his address. But many Islamic groups want a more extensive apology. In India (IBN), one Islamic scholar deemed the remarks "more derogatory than the Danish cartoonist's blasphemous sketches on the Prophet." Pakistan's national assembly demanded a retraction, and its Foreign Office called in the Vatican's ambassador (Dawn). Others took a more radical approach. In Egypt and in Kashmir, India's only Muslim majority region, protests spilled into the streets and effigies were burned (AP).

Reviews in Christendom were not much better. "The Free West," the blog of the conservative German weekly Die Welt, says it would be disrespectful of this intellectual pope to imagine he didn't know how controversial the Islam reference would be: "Benedict XVI borrowed Manuel II's remarks for his opening because he happened to be reading Theodore Khoury's edition of the text. But surely he must have known what a hornet's nest he was stirring up." Die Welt and others, including the blog of American Middle East scholar Juan Cole, also believe the quote misinterpreted the meaning of the Koran. "In fact, the [Koran] at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions: '[2:62] Those who believe (in the [Koran]), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord.'"

Outside the fear of a backlash akin to the one that followed publication of the infamous Danish cartoons, Vatican officials fear the furor could jeopardize the pope's planned trip to Turkey in November, his first visit to a Muslim state (LAT). Turkey's leading cleric denounced the remark (Turkish Daily News), and a deputy leader of Turkey's ruling party said Benedict is "going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini" (AP). This Backgrounder looks at some of the surprises of Benedict's first year as pontiff and this Backgrounder examines Vatican foreign policy and U.S.-Vatican relations.

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