New Pope maintains outreach to Islam

Benedict XVI is to visit Turkey in November. A year ago, white smoke wafted from the Sistine Chapel's chimney, signalling the appointment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as successor to Pope John Paul II. But amid much Catholic celebration, commentators internationally indulged in an inordinate amount of speculation on the damage Ratzinger's appointment might do to Catholic-Muslim relations.

On one level, it is absurd that such a significant concern surrounding the appointment of a new Catholic head would be his attitudes towards another faith. But on another, the importance is clear. These are the two largest religious communities on the planet, together constituting about 40 per cent of the world's population. They co-inhabit vast regions, particularly in Europe, Africa and Asia.

As long as religion remains a powerful tool in shaping attitudes and motivating action, it will possess both great constructive and destructive power. The world therefore has an interest in ensuring minimal friction in the Catholic-Muslim interface. Indeed, that had been a central theme in John Paul's pontificate. No other pope in history has done so much to build harmonious bridges to the Muslim world. This was a man who apologised officially for the Crusades and the transgressions of colonialism.

In 1986 he visited Morocco, becoming the first pope to visit a Muslim country, and making conciliatory statements that echoed the Koranic message that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God. In a highly symbolic moment in 2001, he became the first pope to enter and pray in a mosque. The scene was equally symbolic: Damascus' famous Umayyad mosque, which for centuries had functioned as a mosque on Fridays and church on Sundays. Politically, he won many admirers throughout the Muslim world through his opposition to the Iraq war.

Such gestures resonated powerfully with Muslims, which explains the genuine, heartfelt sentiments of sadness and gratitude expressed by Muslim organisations across the world upon John Paul's passing.

But Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI, was widely fancied to bring much of this work undone. Partly this was because, as a cardinal, he had not demonstrated the same passion for outreach to Muslims as other mooted candidates such as Venice's Angelo Scola, Milan's Dionigi Tettamanzi or Nigeria's Francis Arinze. Partly, too, it stemmed from Ratzinger's opposition to Turkey's inclusion in what he called the "Christian-rooted EU".

Principally, however, this popular forecast of interfaith doom was based on Ratzinger's reputation as "God's rottweiler", a dogmatic defender of orthodoxy and the supremacy of Catholicism. Here we were regularly reminded that Ratzinger had been the driving force behind a document entitled Dominus Iesus, published in 2000, which asserted unequivocally that Christianity alone was the truth.

Precisely why anyone thought this should pose a fatal problem is unclear. It is emphatically unremarkable that a cardinal would make an exclusive claim to truth on behalf of Christianity, which by definition implies deficiencies in other theologies. Indeed, as much is claimed by proponents of most great religious traditions.

Yet for the predominantly secular international commentariat, this made conflict inevitable. Such conventional pessimism simply served to demonstrate a comprehensive misunderstanding of the basis for interfaith dialogue. It assumes that fruitful and harmonious interfaith relationships can exist only in a world of post-modern relativism. This presents a false dichotomy: that people either agree or live in hostility.

But even John Paul was never a relativist. His acknowledgment of theological similarities never led him to deny differences or surrender his conviction of the exclusive truth of Christianity. If anything, this only made his interfaith engagement more meaningful.

If any of this needed demonstration, Benedict's first year has provided it. The very day after his installation Mass, in one of his first official acts as Pope, he made history by inviting Muslim leaders to the Vatican, pledging to build "bridges of friendship" between Catholics and Muslims. He even condemned the publication of now infamous cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in European newspapers.

Those searching for signs of antagonism will find little more from Benedict than his comments in response to a large Saudi-funded mosque being built in Rome, noting the absence of reciprocity in constructing churches in Saudi Arabia. Really, more an even-handed observation than vitriolic belligerence.

Few would expect Pope Benedict to match his predecessor's phenomenal efforts in interfaith relations. Even so, with no sign of relativism on the horizon, he has made an impressive start. Perhaps now we can feel comfortable with the fact that the Pope is Catholic.

Waleed Aly, a Melbourne lawyer, is an executive member of the Islamic Council of Victoria


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  • Waleed Aly