Known for his toughness on matters of Catholic doctrine, Pope Benedict XVI gives no quarter when it comes to questions about Islam.
Unlike his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Benedict has never drawn flak for saying that Muslims and Christians pray to the same God or been accused of waffling on whether Christianity is superior to the religion of prophet Muhammad.
Still, he has dialogued with Muslims for years and, just after his installation as pope 17 months ago, specifically mentioned them in an address to members of other religions.
But, during a lecture Sept. 12 in Regensburg, Germany, he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologos, as saying, “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”
Even though the pope described the quote as “marginal” and “brusque,” Muslims around the world have called for the pontiff’s death, churches in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were firebombed over the weekend, and a nun was killed Sunday in Somalia, in an apparently related attack.
Still, “challenging Islam is not Benedict’s priority,” says David Gibson, author of the just-released book “The Rule of Benedict.” “He doesn’t want to see this as a debate between equals. There’s no theological parity between the two. He’s not there to compromise on that.
“One of the reasons he was elected last year was the cardinals felt he’d be much more confrontational with Islam. Benedict has voiced real doubts about Islam’s ability to reform itself.”
Benedict has studied Islam extensively and, in a 1997 interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, dealt generously with the religion.
“There is a noble Islam, embodied, for example, by the King of Morocco, and there is also the extremist, terrorist Islam, which, again, one must not identify with Islam as a whole, which would do it an injustice,” the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said.
Still, he added, Islam does not fit in with Western civilization.
“Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything,” he said. “There is a very marked subordination of woman to man; there is a very tightly knit criminal law, indeed, a law regulating all areas of life, that is opposed to our modern ideas about society. One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.”
He has refused to alter his conviction that Islam’s propensity to live by the power of the sword must be moderated.
“Certainly, it has elements that favor peace, as it has other elements,” he told Italian journalists in July 2005. “We always have to seek to find the best elements that help.”
Unlike John Paul, who visited a mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 2001, Benedict is loath to mix religions. Last year, while in Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day, he turned down a request by Muslim leaders to visit a mosque there, in a city known as a European base for the radical Muslim Brotherhood.
But he did meet with Muslim leaders, who he said are viewed “with respect” by Catholics.
“We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other’s identity,” he added. “The defense of religious freedom, in this sense, is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization.”
In March, the pope summoned 179 cardinals to Rome to discuss Islam, said John L. Allen Jr., author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.” At issue was increasing persecution of Christians in Islamic countries, he said in an interview
“He feels that if we have dialogue, we need to talk about things,” Mr. Allen said of the pope, “and not just be nice to each other. When he said on Sunday that he wants a ‘frank and sincere dialogue,’ he meant that we have to put actual issues on the table.
“The great challenge is if he can find the vocabulary to raise these issues. And can he find a conversation partner? Are there credible forces within Islam who can engage in a discussion based on reason?”