New Pope Approaches Islam with Caution

Pope Benedict XVI has not strayed much from the policies and ideas of his predecessor, John Paul II. But when it comes to Islam, Benedict takes a much less conciliatory approach.

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Pope John Paul II died one year ago this week. Many Catholic commentators have noted that his successor, Benedict XVI seems to be following most of John Paul's policies and ideas. But on at least one subject, the approach of the two Popes is very different; it's the Vatican's attitude toward Islam.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

At his inauguration ceremony as Pope last April, Benedict XVI had never mentioned Muslims or Islam. On July 7th, immediately after suicide bombings by Muslim extremists in London, Benedict called the attacks, anti-human and anti-Christian. That comment was later left out of the Vatican's official website.

It was only in August that the Pope made his first in-depth remarks on Islam at World Youth Day in Cologne. Meeting representatives of Turkish Muslims in Germany, Benedict acknowledged that dialogue between Christians and Muslims is a vital necessity on which our future depends. He used unusually tough language to tackle the issue of terrorism directly. There was no mention of oppression and poverty as possible causes. Rather, he described terrorism as a perverse and cruel decision, which shows contempt for the sacred right of life and undermines the very foundations of all civil society. He urged Muslims to teach against hatred and violence.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Through translator) Teaching is the vehicle though which ideas and convictions are transmitted. Words are highly influential in the education of the mind. You, therefore, have a great responsibility for the formation of the younger generation.

POGGIOLI: In his papacy, John Paul II met with Muslims more than 60 times. He believed in reaching out to Muslim moderates, and avoided confrontation. But on this issue, Benedict is considered a hawk. He never hid his dislike for the inter-religious meetings John Paul promoted, fearing the faithful would get the impression that Catholicism and Islam are on an equal footing.

Several analysts say the Eurocentric Benedict sees Europe's growing Muslim immigrant population as a threat to Christian values. John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Vatican Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): He sees a kind of loss of historical and cultural memory in Europe that could be fueled by this transition to a multi-cultural, multi-religious, pluralistic environment in which Christianity is simply one option on the religious smorgasbord.

POGGIOLI: When Benedict was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he publicly opposed Turkish membership in the European Union, saying Muslim Turkey belongs to a different continent, always in contrast with Christian Europe.

Sandro Magister, the Vatican correspondent for the Italian weekly L'Espresso, says Benedict's position has evolved since he became Pope.

Mr. SANDRO MAGISTER (Vatican correspondent, L'Espresso): (Through translator) Benedict is interested in having a political and cultural discussion with Muslims rather than a religious dialogue. This is why he's more positive toward Turkey now.

POGGIOLI: In fact, Benedict will make an official trip to Turkey in November. The visit will take on particular importance in light of recent anti-Christian attacks in the Islamic world; the slaying of an Italian priest in Turkey, and the case of an Afghan man who had faced the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity. And at the top of the agenda is a word the Pope has been using more and more of late: Reciprocity. John Allen says this means religious freedom for Christians in majority Muslim countries.

Mr. ALLEN: For example, it has always stuck in the craw of many in Rome that the Saudi Arabian government could spend $65 million dollars putting up the largest mosque in Europe, and yet in Saudi Arabia not only can the Catholic Church not build churches, it can't even import bibles.

POGGIOLI: But many European analysts, inside and outside the Vatican, say Pope Benedict has not yet given a clear signal of exactly what strategy he intends to follow. They say that dialogue with the Turkish government will not be sufficient to face the challenges posed by the growing presence of Islam in Europe.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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