Sunday, September 24, 2006

Is the Papal Apology Acceptable?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Half an apology is better than none. Finally the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of one billion Catholics saw that what he uttered during the speech at Regensburg University in Germany was insulting and offensive enough to endanger the vulnerable relations between Christians and Muslims. Personally, I accept the apology even though I still have many unanswered questions regarding this episode and past stands of the man, the school of thought he represents and the extremist conservative group he leads.

"I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address," the pope told pilgrims at the summer papal palace, Castel Gandolfo, last Sunday, "which were considered offensive." So far, he is expressing sorrow for the reactions and is not admitting that his statements were "offensive". Being considered so could be a mistake of the other, but not necessarily yours!

Then comes the half-satisfying explanation that "These were in fact quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. The true meaning of my address in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect."

If you don't agree with a quote, why would you introduce it without registering your disagreement? Would it be acceptable for a Muslim religious leader to quote German theologian and religious reformer Martin Luther's views of the Vatican, and the insulting remark that the pope was "a donkey," without comments?

Anyway the pontiff apologized; now the question is: Was that enough? We were told that this was an extraordinary apology. The pope is supposedly someone who cannot make mistakes. Apologizing is not an option because it hurts his holiness and credibility.

That's why popes refrain or should refrain from saying or doing controversial things. They have lots of smart consultants, experts and speechwriters to help them say and do the right thing. So what went wrong?

According to Vatican insiders, there is a new group, a kind of neocons, who are worried about the growing number of Muslim immigrants to Europe, and the rapid growth of Islam in the world. Islam, in their view, is not a religion to be treated on the same footing as Christianity. Therefore, they are against any civilization dialogue that would treat Islam as equal to Christianity that in their view is anyway superior.

The late pope, like his predecessor, was a believer in peaceful coexistence among religions and peoples. The dialogue with Muslims reached a historical level in the last decade. His popularity in the Islamic world reached similarly high peaks.

Pope Benedict, on the other hand, belongs to the other camp. He campaigned against the membership of Muslim Turkey in the European Union. Since taking over, he demoted the office responsible for dialogue with Muslims to a clerical level. His view of how Islam does not equal Christianity is well known. Is it any surprise then he would quote a medieval text that agrees with his line of thought without distancing himself or contradicting these views?

I would say: Yes, it is surprising. A pope is not just a religious leader; he is also a political figure. While he is entitled to his personal stands and views, he should act his position and carefully weigh his actions and statements.

Any politician should know that saying what he said about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and Islam right after Bush coined the term "Islamic fascists" and Christian cartoonists drew the Prophet as a terrorist would be very bad timing, to say the least. Extremists and conspiracy theorists among us were warning Muslims of the hostile intentions and scheming of the neo-crusaders. Now, who would furnish a better proof for such allegations than the successor of the popes who incited and rallied the Crusaders to kill Muslims, destroy Islam and spread the Christian faith by the sword in the Holy Land for centuries?

At a time when a billion and a half Muslims feel besieged by the "war on terror," here comes yet another attack on their faith and Prophet. What purpose would that insult serve, I wonder?

Hopefully, the pope and his conservative consultants now realize that the best way to serve God and save His children is to build bridges of dialogue and foster understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

This can be achieved by continuing the same path as his predecessors followed, and building on the strong bases they worked so hard to establish. It is not too late to say and do the right thing, Your Holiness!


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