Putting the Pope's Remarks on Islam in Context

The fallout continues from Pope Benedict XVI's recent speech addressing Islam, and the Pope's subsequent apology. The Pope's approach to Islam is rooted both in the history of the church, and in the world's modern realities. Lynn Neary talks to author James Reston and reporter John Allen about the Pope's remarks.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Supreme Leader of Iran is calling for more protests against the leader of the world's Catholics. Pope Benedict made a speech last week that was seen as critical of Islam. The same speech led al-Qaida leaders in Iraq to promise a war against worshippers of the cross, as they put it. The pope says he is sorry to offend Muslims, which has not stopped demands that he formally apologize for his statements.

LYNN NEARY, host:

The Vatican has insisted that the pope's statement does not reflect his personal beliefs, and that his words were meant as a rejection of religious violence.

Joining us now to discuss what the pope meant and where the quote was taken from are John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, and James Reston, author on several books on the Crusades.

Let me start with you, Mr. Reston. And I'd like to begin by reading the statement that the pope quoted. It reads: 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.

Now, this is a quote from a Byzantine emperor. First of all, who was he?

Mr. JAMES RESTON (Author/Expert on the Crusades): The Byzantine emperor was Manuel II Paleologos, who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries at the very end of the Byzantine Empire. So he was a man on the way out, as his empire was on the way out. He finished reigning in 1425. And, of course, in 1453 - another 28 years later - there's the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. So it rather makes sense that this Byzantine emperor would be against anybody using the sword to promote their faith.

NEARY: Now, John Allen, the pope quoted the emperor in an academic setting. First of all, who was he addressing and why?

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): He was addressing students and faculty at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he actually taught from 1969 to 1977. This was billed as a meeting with representatives of the world of science. And Benedict was attempting to make an argument that religion and Western reason need one another.

NEARY: Why would the pope choose a quote like this - a quote that could be viewed as offensive to Islam to begin such an address?

Mr. ALLEN: From a diplomatic and communications point of view, I think, with the benefit of hindsight, we would say that probably he could have found another way to get started. But seen within the logic of his argument, he actually didn't stop his quote from the emperor there. The emperor goes on to talk about the essential nature of rational reflection within reason, that when religious people don't behave rationally, they can end up doing extreme and violent things. And I think within the context of the pope's argument, the fact that this was a reference to Islam was almost irrelevant. He could just as easily have been talking about Zoroastrianism or the Aztecs.

If he was attacking anyone in this speech, to be honest with you, it wasn't Muslims. It was Western intellectuals who he feels don't take religion and don't take philosophy seriously enough.

NEARY: James Reston, are there historical parallels here between the time in which these words were first written and now?

Mr. RESTON: Well, it's a totally astonishing statement. With all due respect, I mean, all that abstraction about reason and faith and violence and so forth -in the context of a war in Iraq and a clash of civilizations East and West and a perceived clash of religions between Christianity and Islam - for the head of the Christian Roman Church to make a statement like this, it's just a - it's a terrible faux pas.

NEARY: John Allen, up until now, what has the pope's position on Islam been? And what is the effect of these words going to be in the future, do you think?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think this is one of the few areas of clear substantive contrast between Benedict and John Paul. Benedict does clearly have a tougher line in Islam, especially around the issues of terrorism, religious violence, and also what the Vatican calls reciprocity, meaning the demand that Muslim governments ought to show the same respect for religious freedom as Western governments do.

Ironically, I think in the short-term, this is going to make it much more difficult for him to advance those arguments.

NEARY: Mr. Reston, what do you think is going to be the lasting affect of this controversy on Christian-Muslim relations?

Mr. RESTON: This only keeps this clash of civilizations boiling and roiling. It's not a dialogue of religions, but it's a clash of religions when you say insulting things like this. And a pope should know better.

Mr. ALLEN: When - if I may just say, I think that there is a perfectly legitimate critique to be made of choice of the pope's words. But one thing I would urge is that people read the speech in its entirety, because I think seen in its context, the words perhaps still seem ill-advised, but certainly do not seem to be the kind of anti-Islamic broadside that they've been characterized as.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks to both of you for joining us this morning.

Mr. ALLEN: You're welcome.

NEARY: John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. James Reston, Jr.'s last historical book, Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors, has just been published in paperback.

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