Pope Benedict and the Muslim world

This week’s New Yorker has a lengthy feature about the Roman Catholic Church’s long and difficult relationship with Islam and how Pope Benedict XVI may or may not alter the course of history.

It’s a tough but generally positive portrayal of Benedict (less so of John Paul II) that also deals squarely with the steep challenge of communicating with the Muslim World. Jane Kramer, who writes the magazine’s Letter from Europe, describes the wildly diverse reactions of Muslims to everything from basic interfaith relations to Benedict’s speech last September at the University of Regensburg.

Of course, that was the speech that inflamed the Muslim world by quoting a Byzantine emperor who really did not like the prophet Muhammad.

Kramer includes a very interesting passage about journalists who cover Benedict receiving copies of the speech at 6 a.m. on the day he gave it. Supposedly, the reporters gathered at 10 and told Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi that the passage was going to be incendiary.

Kramer quotes Marco Politi of La Republica saying: “The point is that at 10 a.m. somebody got the message that the text was explosive.”

If that’s how things played out, the passage may not have been an oversight in an otherwise academic speech, as many have assumed.

The article is not available on line and I can’t summarize the whole gracefully written piece. But Kramer makes the case that one of Benedict’s two main goals for his papacy is “reciprocity” with Islam, meaning “to restore to Christian minorities in Muslim countries the same freedom of religion that most Muslims enjoy in the West.” She writes that reciprocity is Benedict’s pre-condition for relations with the Muslim world.

“He clearly thinks,” she writes, “that the Judeo-Christian West has been self-destructively shortsighted in its concessions to the Islamic diaspora, when few, if any, concessions are made to Christians and Jews in most of the Middle East.”

Finally, an interesting comment comes from Feisal Abdul Rauf, a widely respect NYC imam who is doing as much as any Muslim in America to find common ground with other faiths. He says that Benedict is primarily concerned about the decline of faith in the West (a point that the pope has made again and again).

“And he sees that in Islam religion is not only at the table; it’s in some ways at the head of the table,” Rauf says. “He’s jealous.”

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.