Scholars say pontiff's trip can make amends

Some Muslims still angry over his remarks

November 29, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

Past comments of Pope Benedict XVI about Islam have hurt his standing among Muslims worldwide, but his conciliatory visit to Turkey, and support of the nation's membership in the European Union, should help repair the damage, scholars say.

"The stakes are somewhat high, but I don't think the deck is necessarily stacked against him," said Chester Gillis, chairman of Georgetown University's theology department.

Some scholars say that the pope's visit is more important than it had been before his comments in September at Germany's University of Regensberg.

In that speech, which sparked protests by Muslims around the world, he included a quote from a 14th-century text that referred to some teachings of the prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhumane."

"There's still some residual anger on the part of some Muslims," said Gillis, adding that Muslim scholars seem to have better understood the nuances of Pope Benedict's September speech.

"I think people exaggerate the importance of singular events," said Gillis, adding that more important is how the relationship between Muslim leaders and the pope develops over time.

However, Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said he's not sure that the pope's visit "was really meant to repair relations. It was more a sidebar."

The four-day trip was planned long before the pope's comments in Germany and was mainly arranged so that the pope could meet with Orthodox Christian leaders, Al-Marayati said.

He called the pope's support for Turkey's admittance into the European Union a "positive step forward" but said, "It doesn't replace a serious, open discussion dealing with Islamophobia."

Papal observers are quick to point out that Pope Benedict is more scholarly and less charismatic than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict has a more "muscular" view toward Islam, said James A. Donahue, president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

"He's trying to build bridges between Christians and Muslims, but he doesn't want to gloss over differences," said Donahue. "And he wants to make sure Christians stand their ground."

The pope planned to visit a mosque and meet with Turkey's president, in addition to other religious leaders. And yesterday, Pope Benedict reversed his position on Turkey joining the European Union and said he supported membership for the country.

"I think he's trying to repair damage, particularly with his statements about the European Union," said Amir Hussain, associate professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and author of Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God.

As a cardinal, Pope Benedict had not supported membership for Turkey in the European Union.

But, Gillis said, "He's insisting on the right to religious freedom."

That right is particularly important to Christians in Turkey, Gillis said. The Rev. Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit priest, adviser to Catholic bishops on international affairs and editor in chief of America magazine, said the pontiff's plans to visit the Blue Mosque are also important.

"It's an indication of his desire to overcome the alienation that's affected the Church and Islam and the Church and Turkey," said Christiansen.

Yesterday, Pope Benedict met with Ali Bardakoglu, who heads religious affairs in Turkey.

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