New Pope has Opportunity to Improve Christian-Muslim Relations

Pope Benedict XVI’s suprise announcement on Monday that he plans to resign at the end of this month marks a potential generational change in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor has an opportunity to revive the breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council in promoting inter-religious dialogue, and repairing the Church’s troubled relationship with the Muslim world. Roman Catholics and Muslims live side by side in much of the world, and there are Roman Catholic orders and individuals who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to good relations between the two. One thinks of the White Fathers in Algeria, for instance.

Although he backed down on some of his positions, Pope Benedict roiled those relationships with needlessly provocative and sometimes offensive statements about Islam and Muslims. His Regensburg speech contained inaccuracies and tried to position the European Roman Catholic tradition as the golden mean between the soulless atheism of modern science and the backward fanaticism of Islam. He initially opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union, imagining Europe as essentially Christian, though he later moderated that view a bit. (Europe was settled by human beings some 45,000 years ago; Christianity is only 2000 or so years old and until fairly recently Christians were a minority there. Lots of religions have been practiced by Europeans, and the majority of them nowadays is probably secular unbelievers.) Islam may have arrived a few centuries later than Christianity, but European Islam has a 1300-year history on the continent, and not a minor or inglorious one (the way European history is written and taught often leaves out the Muslims of Iberia and those of the Balkans, giving a truncated view of the continent’s religious diversity).

I wrote at the time:

Pope Gets it Wrong on Islam

Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg University, which mentioned Islam and jihad, has provoked a firestorm of controversy.

The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.

He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur’an 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.

His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or “the city” of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.

In fact, the Qur’an 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 Qur’an), 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; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘

See my comments On the Quran and peace.

The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet’s death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. . . The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.

But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.

In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.

The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.

But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu’tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu’tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash’ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).

As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, “do you not reason?” “do you not understand?” (a fala ta`qilun?)

Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.

Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage from Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. . .
Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.

The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.”

Pope Benedict later said that Byzantine Emperor Manual II’s views of Muhammad and Islam were cited for illustration and were not his own.

I wrote at that time:

Pope: Manuel II’s Views of Muhammad are not My Own
Muslim Brotherhood Optimistic about end of Crisis

Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought only evil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views.

He said,

“I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims . . . These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”

Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts of violence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed to mollify some Muslim leaders.

A Muslim Brotherhood official in Egypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction and sufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, he backed off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn’t actually clearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology. But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis, and that it initially latched on to the Pope’s relatively impenitent remarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down. The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, and I hope they are right about that . . .

Another issue was Benedict’s views on Turkey in the European Union. I argued that Wikileaks showed a dramatic change in his position on this issue over time, toward neutrality and openness to the possibility. I wrote at the time:

The Guardian reports on wikileaks cables regarding the position of the Catholic Church on Europe’s Christian character and its unease with Turkey joining the EU. (the cable is here.)

The problem is that, while the article on this matter is clear and largely accurate, the headline: “Pope wanted Muslim Turkey kept out of EU” is grossly incorrect.

In 2004, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) spoke out against allowing Turkey to join the European Union. This position was not that of the Church as a whole. Indeed, a cable from that year says that “Acting Vatican Foreign Minister equivalent Monsignor Pietro Parolin told Charge August 18 that the Holy See remained open to Turkish EU membership.”

Contrary to what The Guardian implied, then, it seems clear to me that until he became pope, Ratzinger’s views on Turkey were not reflective of Vatican policy, and after he became Pope his stance changed dramatically in Turkey’s favor.

Ratzinger and others were, in 2004, attempting to have the European Union acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe, and they were afraid that Turkey’s accession might make that declaration less likely. (Since so much of European history (including all the Greek philosophers, Jewish thought on social justice, Irish and Norse mythology, the lives of the Roman emperors until the 4th century CE, not to mention the long centuries of Arab Spain and the Muslim-dominated Balkans) happened outside a Christian framework, this position seems to me invidious.

That the Vatican remained “open” to Turkish membership even after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope is clear from a subsequent cable. The remaining reservations expressed by Vatican officials derived, at least as presented by Parolin, not from worries about the ancient Christian character of Europe, but concerns that Turkey’s human rights record needed to be reformed before it was admitted. From the Vatican’s point of view, Turkey’s Christians were badly mistreated, and their condition was just short of open persecution.

On becoming Pope, Benedict appears fairly rapidly to have changed his earlier hard line position, to the point that his nuanced neutrality on the issue of Turkish accession to the EU could be misunderstood by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodogan as wholehearted support. The “pope expressed his hope for ‘ “joint Christian and Muslim action on behalf of human rights” and emphasized his hope that Turkey would be a “bridge of friendship and of fraternal cooperation between the East and West.” ‘ By 2006, as well, the US was hopeful that Pope Benedict could be a positive force for Turkey integration into Europe.

Those hopes were not realized. Pope Benedict declared the Vatican officially neutral on the Turkey issue, since the Vatican is not an EU member state. The State Department cable speculated that “The Vatican might prefer to see Turkey develop a special relationship short of membership with the EU.” But if the Vatican was declining to push for this point of view and was actively neutral, this private wish is irrelevant in the world of diplomacy. If your official stance is neutrality, then that is your public position and others cannot abrogate it for you.

I see these cables as the evolution of Cardinal Ratzinger from a key Vatican official concerned with ideology to a pope aware of his global responsibilities, who backed off opposition to Turkey joining Europe and declared a studied neutrality on the issue even while admitting pros (Turkey could be an interlocutor for largely Christian Europe with the Muslim world) and cons (for Turkey to join without implementing religious freedom would endanger this key value for all EU states).

That is, my reading of the documents and the evolution of the Ratzinger position leads me to a conclusion precisely the opposite of the one implied by the Guardian’s headline. In fact, you only wish the Christian Right in the US was as capable of mature reflection on such issues and as willing to be pragmatic as this Pope.”

On the other hand, most Muslims should appreciate that the pope opposed the Bush administration’s attack on and occupation of Iraq.

Pope Benedict clearly learned a great deal over time and moderated some of his initial, provocative stances. He thus established a trajectory toward, if not better, then less turbulent Roman Catholic-Muslim relations. His successor could usefully go further, back to the Vatican II spirit:

” The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

I don’t think Pope Benedict began by agreeing with very much of the above, but over time he seems to have grudgingly accepted the wisdom of some of it. It is a passage that had a profound impact on me in my youth, and I hope the new pope revives this tradition of reformist theology. It is how the one billion Roman Catholics and 1.5 billion Muslims can hope to go forward together in the 21st century.

15 Responses

  1. It is not he business of the Americans to tell the Europeans whether Turkey should be a member of the EU or not. Most of the European opinions are against the adhesion of Turkey. It has not much to do with Turkey being a Muslim country, but more with the fact that Turkey is still an emerging country when it comes to the economy. The EU has enough problems with Greece and other Mediterranean countries without integrating a country which would need important regional help. Plus the Turkish political system doesn’t yet correspond to the Western democratic standards (ie the Kurdish question). There are many reasons why the Turks don’t really fit into the EU equation, their religion being probably among the least important. The US and their Brittish lackeys are pushing toward the integration of Turkey, because that fits their NATO goals and will weaken the EU. Widening the EU to weaken it is a constant goal of the Americans (and of the Britts who only wants a loose economic union). It was written black on white in the neocons American Enterprise project.

    As for the pope, who really cares ? They have been more and more reactionary after the timid pushes to reform initiated by Jean XXIII and the second Vatican Concile; it is now a lost cause : they are all dinausores in the Vatican and the cardinals chosen by reactionary popes will elect one of them, not a progressive for sure. Yes, it would be better if the future pope is open to all religions and works toward a better understanding between different religions, of course, but I don’t hold my breath.

    • “It is not he business of the Americans to tell the Europeans whether Turkey should be a member of the EU or not. Most of the European opinions are against the adhesion of Turkey. It has not much to do with Turkey being a Muslim country, but more with the fact that Turkey is still an emerging country when it comes to the economy.”

      The Americans are not telling the Europeans whether or not Turkey should be a member of the European Union. The United States supports the inclusion of Turkey in the EU, but realizes that it is up to the Europeans to decide that issue for themselves.

      In fact, the EU reluctance to admit Turkey into the European Union has a lot to do with Turkey being a Muslim country. Europeans don’t like to admit it because it is considered politically incorrect, but there is a strong bias against admitting Turkey for that reason. Of course, Turkey’s economic condition and the migration of labor from Turkey to Northern EU countries that would occur if Turkey became a member contributes to the EU position as well.

    • Did you pay no attention to the growing conflict between Israel and Turkey over Gaza? The neocons hate everyone who criticizes Israel in any way, and try to isolate and destroy them. In fact, Turkey’s resistance to the US and Israel is dangerous to them because it might inspire other NATO countries to be more independent.

      • “Did you pay no attention to the growing conflict between Israel and Turkey over Gaza? The neocons hate everyone who criticizes Israel in any way, and try to isolate and destroy them.”

        The Neocons are not in charge of US foreign policy. The Obama Administration is. In fact, the United States, under both the Bush and Obama Administrations, has consistently favored Turkey’s admission into the European Union.

        • My point, Bill, is that Christiane is delusional that the US is pushing Turkey into the EU as part of a conspiracy to destroy the latter. Turkey wants in, so it must be a benefit to be in, and there are still plenty of Bush stay-behinds in the foreign policy establishment who will oppose anything Turkey wants just because they’re neocon bastards. Hegel needs to wield a mighty meat-cleaver when he gets to the Pentagon to clean out these moles, but there’s no willingness to accept that GOP presidents play these games with personnel.

          Besides, Turkey’s economy looks a hell of a lot better right now than the “Christian” Mediterranean.

  2. Very good post Juan: It sounds like the pope’s main reservation about Islam is that they need a pope. He probably would have loved to condemn exploitation of women and young boys but that would have been awkward.

  3. Not to worry…”until fairly recently Christians were a minority there”

    They still are, increasingly, once one leaves Bavaria, Austria and the Rhineland…


  4. Excellent post on about the right wing in charge of the administration of the Catholic and how they are having big problems with the legal system from the child sexual abuse, and being on the wrong side of same sex marriage and abortion in the USA and other parts of the world.

    Looks like a power structure ready to collapse.

    The author has written a book on the Roman Catholic Church and their need to reform.

    The title of her article is “Opus Di In Charge for Now”

    Here is the link:

    link to

    • The Catholic Church makes lots of mistakes. But it has a process for self-correction.
      That’s not the case for the competing religion of secular humanism.

      if you had actual science to bring to bear on the issues of abortion and homosexual marriage, I think you would have done so already. Instead, your argument boils down to,
      “my religious beliefs that I accept on faith are better/ more valid than your religious beliefs that you accept on faith.”

      • The Catholic Church’s process for self-correction doesn’t work. Some of the Cardinals who will be selecting the new Pope took part in covering up abuse of children by priests.

      • Secular humanism was simply the freeing of humans from the monstrous beliefs and superstitions of Medieval Europe (witchhunting, Crusades, the Inquisition). Meaning that since then people’s beliefs have changed many times on many issues, not held in place by a monolithic, self-interested clergy that claims inerrancy.

        And if your faith requires that women and gays be treated as subhuman non-citizens, and mine doesn’t, human rights says our faiths are not morally equivalent. So be honest and denounce human rights as “secular humanism”, and see whom you will be in bed with.

  5. I don’t think Ratzinger would quit unless he had a plan to get a younger, more vigorous far-right pig to replace him, a Pope Scalia if you will.

    I have very limited knowledge of Catholic politics, but something strange has been going on for a couple of years now, documented by articles in, where the Ratzinger acolytes in the high US church leadership are aggressively embracing all far-right GOP views. Before that time, these clergymen focused on two big bugaboos, abortion/contraception and total submission to their authority. But then not long before the stage-managed rise of Paul Ryan, Santorum, et al, they went all Tea Party, attacking the very legitimacy of Federal power, becoming capitalist sycophants, and of course dropping the fig leaf of pacifism. Ryan’s last-second “conversion” from Ayn Rand to Opus Dei was so transparent that it was as if the whole gang was signalling that Rand’s vicious Darwinism was now the doctrine of the inner church.

    What was that all about? Were Ratzinger’s boys preparing for the Orwellian rewriting of Catholic doctrine to be carried out by the next Pope? Were they trying to compete with the extremist evangelical/Tea Party movement, or were they signalling their surrender to it, giving it the valuable disguise of “diversity” in exchange for a protected status of junior partner in the incoming capitalist theocracy?

  6. The Catholic Church withheld diplomatic recognition of Israel until 1993 until Israel negotiated the Oslo accords.

    The Catholic Church in Jerusalem has been concerned about the welfare of Christian flock in the Holy Land. The #1 New York Times best seller “By Way of Deception” alluded to this concern and even the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has made many formal pronouncements regarding the root causes of the Jewish/Arab conflict and the need to resolve it.

    In Israel and the Occupied Territories, most Christians are either Eastern Rite Orthodox or Catholic. Politically, they are relatively united in their opposition to Israeli policies and the occupation with Islamic adherents in the region. Pope John Paul II in his visit to Jerusalem emphasized the human rights of the Palestinians and also prayed at the Wailing Wall and requesting forgiveness for the history of Christian persecution of Jews over the centuries.

    The Catholic Church enjoys a significant following in many Arab counties – such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. These are nations where the roots of Jewish and Christian religions are historically found.

    • Palestinian Christian opposition to Zionist colonization goes way back. In 1911 , Isa al-Isa and his cousin Yusef started the newspaper “Filistin” which adressed its readers as Palestinians and warned them about the consequences of Zionist colonization. Before becoming focused on that issue, Isa’s first cause was to get the Greek Orthodox churches in Palestine to conduct services in Arabic. The al-Isas were Orthodox Christians.

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