The Pope's Apology, and Religious Fervor

Pope Benedict has apologized for the controversy surrounding his comments on Islam, which commentator Joe Loconte says proves that it's possible to make the right point in the wrong way. A more generous approach to the issue of religious freedom, he says, is to describe how both Islam and Christianity have succumbed to irrationality.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There is some disagreement in the Muslim world over a speech the Pope gave last week and his subsequent apology. The Pope was arguing that spreading faith through violence is wrong. In part of the speech the Pope was clear that he was quoting someone else, a Byzantine emperor of the 14th Century. Here is the quote.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

"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 that he preached."

BLOCK: On Sunday the Pope said he was sorry for the angry reaction his speech provoked among Muslims. That apology was enough for many Muslim leaders, including Imams in Indonesia and Great Britain and the president of Iran. But other Muslim leaders think the Pope should issue a fuller apology.

Commentator Joe Loconte also thinks there's more for the Pope to say on this subject to reach out to Muslims.

JOE LOCONTE: Pope Benedict defended Christianity as a rational religion because it respects the individual's right to reason properly before coming to faith. To make his case however, he quoted a 14th Century ruler who condemned Islam for its use of violence to win converts.

The pontiff was on the right track. Christianity is a great ally to freedom of conscience, but it took time. For centuries the Church was an adversary of reasonable religion. Medieval Europe with its Catholic establishment was not exactly a golden age of religious toleration. The machinery of the Inquisition fueled by a theology of persecution was in high gear.

Bishops were authorized to ferret out heretics and deliver them to secular authorities for either repentance or punishment, which they gladly did. In France, Great Britain, Spain and Italy, religious dissenters were excommunicated, arrested and executed. Many were burned alive.

By the Pope's own definition of a capricious and coercive religion, the Church was a hot bed of violent irrationality. Protestant dissenters challenged this doctrine of persecution, though Protestant leaders often fell into the same trap once in power.

Nonetheless, Protestants such as William Penn and enlightenment figures such as John Locke laid the foundation for a theology of religious freedom. No one could love his neighbor they argued and deny him the same right to believe that he claimed for himself. Eventually the Catholic Church endorsed the rights of conscience as the cornerstone of a just society.

Now we're counting the struggle within the Christian Church to recognize these ideals can help build a bridge to moderate Muslims, for in much of the Muslim world talk of freedom of belief is a sham. Instead of being viewed as a fundamental human right, it is treated as a threat to the political order. In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, a theology of persecution is alive and well. The monarchy and the mosque work hand in glove to criminalize expressions of religious belief outside of Islam.

Christians learn through blood and tears the folly of this idea. Leaders in most Islamic states have yet to reach the same conclusion. The Pope speaks a hard truth by drawing attention to these facts. The next step is to remind Muslims of his own Church's history. By doing so, this pontiff could gain many friends among the followers of Muhammad.

BLOCK: Joe Loconte is a distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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