Pope Benedict's long mission to confront radical Islam
This is not the first time the pontiff has spoken out on the links between fundamentalism and terrorism

John Hooper in Rome
Sunday September 17, 2006
Four days into his reign, Pope Benedict called the journalists who had been covering his election to what was billed as a press conference.

Addressing the assembled correspondents, photographers, camera operators, sound recordists and producers, he noted that the media were capable of reaching and influencing not only individuals, but whole masses of people - indeed, the whole of humanity.

He thanked us all for our hard work in putting that awesome power at the service of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican for a few days. Then he blessed us - and, just as the reporters present were preparing to stick up their hands to ask questions - he left


It was an eloquent demonstration of the pontiff's view of the media - as a conduit for getting his church's image and message out to the 'masses' of whom he had spoken.

The notion that the media had an intrinsic power of their own to question, reveal and, at times, cause trouble was certainly not apparent then, and has never been apparent since. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, was an outgoing former actor with a natural talent for gauging the effect of his words.

The new pope is a shy ex-professor. Yet he has not so far seen fit to equip himself with an adviser to guide him through the minefield of making public declarations on sensitive, complex issues in a media age.

A savvy confidant, like the previous papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who came from a national daily newspaper, Spain's ABC, might well have prevented the crisis that enveloped the Vatican this week. He would have spotted immediately the danger in the pope quoting someone describing the teachings of Mohammad as 'evil and inhuman' and tried to persuade the pontiff to express his ideas in a rather more tactful fashion. But tact is one thing; substance another.

It is doubtless true, as the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, said yesterday that the Pope had no intention of offending Muslims. However, both yesterday's statement and the Pope's own track record make it quite clear that Benedict XVI sees it as his duty to speak out about the way in which violence in the name of religion seems to be tolerated by some Muslim clerics and actively encouraged by others.

Bertone said the Pope, like the Catholic Church, 'esteems Muslims, who adore the only God'. But it is equally no coincidence that the Vatican yesterday chose to set in a bold type the passage of his statement in which he stressed that the Pope had called for a 'clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come'.

Benedict, as his friend and associate noted, is sincerely committed to dialogue between Christians and Muslims, but he also believes that the link between terrorist violence and its sponsorship by some Muslim clerics is a big obstacle to further progress. His reaction to 11 September gave a first hint of his view. 'It is important not to attribute simplistically what happened to Islam. It would be a great error', he told Vatican Radio. But that did not prevent him from asserting immediately afterwards that 'the history of Islam also contains a tendency to violence'.

There were two strands, he added: the other being a 'real openness to the will of God'. 'It is thus important to help the positive line, which does exist in its history, to prevail and to have sufficient strength to win out over the other tendency.' That is the sort of thing his predecessor would never have said. The overriding preoccupation of John Paul's papacy was communism. For the Vatican, as for the United States until the 1990s, Islam was a potentially valuable ally in the struggle with Marxism.

John Paul became the first pope to visit a mosque, and he made sure that an expert on Islam, Francis Arinze, was appointed to head what became the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, the Vatican's ministry for relations with other faiths.  Benedict, on the other hand, was elevated to the papacy against an international background in which the dominant confrontation was between aggressive Muslim fundamentalism and the West - secular in parts and Christian in others.

Because the Pope did not use words like 'evil' or 'inhuman', it did not get splashed across the world's headlines. But this is not the first time since he became pontiff that Benedict has spoken with concern about the links between Islam and terrorism. In August last year, he went beyond anything his predecessor had dared to say at a meeting with Muslim leaders in Cologne, challenging them to condemn 'any connection between your faith and terrorism'. Unabashedly lecturing his listeners, he added: 'Words are highly influential in the education of the mind. You therefore have a great responsibility for the formation of the younger generation.

There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism.' Under Benedict, the key issue, in Vatican-speak, is not 'dialogue' but 'reciprocity'. Even before his election, there was a growing feeling among Catholic prelates that dialogue with Islam consisted largely of Catholic initiatives.

What is more, endless discussion did not seem to be solving the biggest outstanding problem between the two religions: that while Muslims were free to build mosques, worship and proselytise in the West, Christians were often denied religious freedom in Islamic countries. Some of the smaller states on the Arabian peninsula have begun to allow Christians to practise their faith openly, but Saudi Arabia, for example, still bans all public expression of non-Muslim religions. In several other countries, Islamic law effectively deprived Christians of basic rights.

Benedict has made it clear that he sees freedom of worship as merely a start and that, for there to be full reciprocity, Catholic priests will need to be free to fish for souls in Muslim lands. Last May, he told a Vatican conference on immigration to and from Islamic countries, that while Christians had to respect Muslims, they also had the right to offer them what he called 'the Christian proposal'. The German pope unquestionably respects Islam. But he equally unambiguously intends to stand his ground. The signs have been there ever since his inaugural mass. During the service, prayers were read out asking for God's intercession on behalf of oppressed Christians.

Few noticed, but one was read in Arabic. Palaiologos: the emperor who called Islam evil and inhumane Manuel Palaiologos, 1350-1425, Byzantine emperor (1391-1425), son and successor of John V He isn't exactly a household name. And until Pope Benedict's speech, few will have heard of Manuel II Palaeologus, the medieval Christian ruler and scholar who described Islam as 'evil and inhuman'.

Emperor, poet, theologian and dad - he married the daughter of a Serbian despot and had seven children - Manuel II was probably not the most objective observer of the Muslim world. Born on 27 June 1350, he spent most of his career trying to stop his Byzantine empire from falling into the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Largely, he didn't succeed.

The Ottomans, a Turkish warrior tribe, had begun chipping away at his Byzantine frontiers a century earlier. They sent pirates into the Aegean, and reached Europe in 1308. By the time Manuel II ascended the throne in 1391 the Ottomans had already overrun most of Asia Minor. Muslim colonists had overwhelmed Greek settlements.

Manuel II wrote the unhappy letter quoted by the Pope around 1391, shortly after escaping from the Ottoman court where he had been held prisoner. A few years later the Ottomans turned up on his doorstep, laying siege to his imperial capital, Constantinople. The Ottomans called off their siege only five years later. In 1399 Manuel made an unsuccessful journey to Rome, Paris and London. His aim was to get help in his lifelong struggle against Islam from the Christian West. His best efforts failed although Manuel then enjoyed a brief period of respite before the Ottomans besieged Constantinople again in 1422.

One of his last acts as emperor was to sign a humiliating treaty agreeing to pay tribute to the Ottoman sultan. He died on 21 July 1425. The Turks finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. They went on to engulf much of south-east Europe.
Luke Harding

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