- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

Imam Hassan Qazwini, a Shi’ite scholar from Detroit, has several suggestions for Pope Benedict XVI, who will have several encounters with leaders from other churches and other religions during his six-day visit here.

“He should visit Iraq,” the imam said, “specifically Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf. The security situation is much better there, and a visit could be easily arranged.”

The pope needs to take other bold and creative steps, he added, such as setting up a permanent dialogue between Muslims and Catholics.

“We want to see something tangible from his visit,” he said. “Together, the Muslims and the Catholics make up half the world’s population. If we’re talking, isn’t that better for the rest of the world?” The imam is one of three Muslim leaders who will personally greet Pope Benedict during his Thursday meeting with interfaith leaders at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Northeast.

Pope Benedict had not been in office 24 hours when he gave an April 20, 2005, speech in the Sistine Chapel that included a greeting to non-Christians.

“I address myself to everyone, even to those who follow other religions or who are simply seeking an answer to the fundamental questions of life and have not yet found it,” he said. “I address everyone with simplicity and affection, to assure them that the church wants to continue to build an open and sincere dialogue with them, in a search for the true good of humankind and of society.”

His baptism of fire came on Sept. 12, 2006, when, during a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor on what Christians at the time thought of Muslims.

“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,” is how the quote went.

Muslims around the world, however, thought the pope was repeating this statement as a matter of opinion.

Despite a statement from the pope himself on Sept. 17 trying to clarify what he meant, Muslim street protests erupted around the world. That same day, Somali gunmen shot and killed a 65-year-old Italian nun in Mogadishu, purportedly in retribution. Two Christians were later stabbed and killed in Baghdad, several churches there were bombed and an Assyrian Catholic priest was beheaded in Mosul.

Things have quieted down greatly since then, helped by the pope’s visit to Turkey that November. Widely circulated footage of him praying or meditating in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque won over many of his Muslim critics.

However, Pope Benedict sent some mixed signals last month when, on the day before Easter, he personally baptized Magdi Allam, an Italian Muslim journalist who was converting to Catholicism. According the March 22 National Catholic Reporter, Yahya Pallavicini, a spokesperson for Italy’s Muslim community, said that he “respects the free choice” made by Mr. Allam, but voiced “perplexity” about the timing of the baptism and its being showcased.

“That was something Muslim leaders were not happy about,” Mr. Qazwini agreed.

The Regensburg affair ended up producing some unexpected fruit. In October 2007, a group of 138 Muslim scholars wrote the pope, asking for a theological dialogue. A planning group met at the Vatican last month and announced a Nov. 4-6 seminar in Rome, with 24 scholars from each side taking part, to discuss common spiritual and theological principles.

The Rev. James V. Schall, author of the book “The Regensburg Lecture,” says the pope realizes such dialogues are essential. The Catholic Church is most numerous within the limits of the old Roman Empire — whose area was halved by Islamic conquests in the seventh century — and Europe’s colonial extensions in the Americas, Australia, the Philippines and Africa.

North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Indonesia are largely untouched by the church.

“As it shows its own aggressive dynamism, this whole Muslim world — to which the pope pays increasing attention — is pretty much a mysteriously closed political/religious world island,” wrote Father Schall, a Georgetown University professor, in August on www.ignatiusinsight.com. “Little real encounter with it occurs.

“Yet, there can be no doubt that Benedict has thought deeply on the steps to be taken to address each of these often closed and different worlds of Islam, China, India and the Buddhist nations. The Roman Church is actively thinking about what its presence means on a world scale in the light of its mandate to go forth to all nations.”

At Thursday’s gathering in the District, the pope will give a 20-minute address. Five young people from different faiths will present the pope with gifts, and then 10 religious leaders will be presented to the pope and allowed to exchange the briefest of greetings. A choir will sing a prayer of peace attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and then the pope will spend a few minutes alone with some 50 Jewish leaders.

“I am sure he sees eye to eye with us on any matter of issues: such as combating religious extremism and matters of social justice,” said David J. Michaels, director of Intercommunal Affairs at B’nai B’rith International, who will attend the event. “This meeting signifies his interest and commitment on interreligious issues.”

Catholic-Jewish dialogue has not gotten near the press that Catholic-Muslim dialogue has gotten during Pope Benedict’s brief pontificate. Some Jewish leaders were angered earlier this year when the pontiff approved a prayer in the Tridentine Mass, on which Pope Benedict had recently eased restrictions, that calls for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

“The Tridentine Mass has been a difficult discussion for us,” Mr. Michaels admitted. “In light of 40 years of historic progress, we’ve been taken aback by the pope’s decision over the last two months.”

However, there may be limits to asking Catholics to change an ancient liturgy, he admitted, and, on the whole, American Jews “have a lot of optimism in his leadership and relationship with us. We are the most significant Jewish community outside Israel.”

The pope will also briefly visit Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side late Friday afternoon to deliver Passover greetings to America’s Jews. A delegation of several dozen Jewish leaders, lead by the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Arthur Schneier, will meet with the pope for 20 minutes.

The pontiff will then depart for an ecumenical service at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church 20 blocks away. He will take part in an abbreviated vespers service with about 300 guests from various Protestant and Orthodox traditions, give a speech and be presented to 15 preselected religious leaders for brief “personal moments” before exiting the church.

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