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BENEDICT-DIALOGUE Feb-18-2013 (1,200 words) Analysis. With photo. xxxi
Pope Benedict saw Jews, Muslims as allies in defending belief in God
By Cindy Wooden
Pope Benedict XVI and Mustafa Cagrici, the grand mufti of Istanbul, pray in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in this 2006 file photo. (CNS/pool via Reuters)
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In trying to help people understand how belief in God is a natural part of life and provides grounding for the values that protect human dignity and peaceful coexistence, Pope Benedict XVI saw Jews and Muslims as natural allies.
But in the almost eight years of his pontificate, his relations with the Jewish and Muslim communities were marked by alternating tensions and new initiatives.
During his pontificate, Pope Benedict visited synagogues in three countries and mosques in three others.
However, despite his efforts to promote new forms of dialogue with the followers of Islam, in the field of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, many people remember Pope Benedict primarily for remarks about Mohammed in a 2006 speech.
His relationship with the world's Jewish communities was not always smooth either, primarily because of his decision in 2009 to lift the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
As recently as last October, Pope Benedict affirmed the church's teaching about the importance of dialogue with and respect for Jews, Muslims and members of other religions, but he did so with a caveat.
In an essay published on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict wrote about the ongoing importance of "Nostra Aetate," the declaration on relations with other religions, for Catholics in increasingly multireligious societies.
But he also said, "a weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: It speaks of religion solely in a positive way, and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance," and which explain why Christians for centuries had been mostly critical of other religions.
When some 300 religious leaders joined him in Assisi, Italy, in October 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of Blessed John Paul II's prayer for peace meeting, Pope Benedict said that as more and more people become convinced religion is a major source of tension in the world, religious believers have to be honest about their communities' past and present.
"As a Christian I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature," he told the religious leaders.
At the same, he insisted that history also has shown the danger of denying God's existence because "when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself," he feels free to unleash his fury to obtain what he wants.
During his May 2009 visit to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, prayed at the Western Wall -- Judaism's holiest site -- and met with Israel's chief rabbis and with Jewish leaders from throughout the country.
He used his meeting with leaders of the Jewish community as an occasion to reaffirm the fact that "the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to the path chosen at the Second Vatican Council for a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews."
As "Nostra Aetate" affirmed, "The church continues to value the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews and desires an ever-deeper mutual understanding and respect through biblical and theological studies as well as fraternal dialogues," he said.
Jewish leaders have praised Pope Benedict's record on dialogue in several respects: He explicitly recognizes that a special bond continues to exist between God and the Jewish people; he recognizes that, for centuries, Christians used Jesus' death as an excuse to denigrate -- and even persecute -- the Jews; and he understands that the contempt some Christians had for the Jews helped create an atmosphere that the Nazis easily and progressively manipulated to the point of killing 6 million Jews.
And while his lifting of the excommunication of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier, caused real consternation, Pope Benedict said with gratitude that Jewish leaders were more willing than many Catholics to accept the Vatican's statement that it had not known of the bishop's position on the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict later told the German author Peter Seewald that the incident showed "there are still great fears and tensions and that the dialogue can easily be damaged and is fragile."
Muslim leaders are less clear about where Pope Benedict stands with regard to their faith, although he repeatedly has shown that he wants to keep open lines of communication and promote cooperation on social issues and in social projects of concern to both Catholics and Muslims.
When Pope Benedict stood in silent meditation in Istanbul's Blue Mosque in November 2006, the world took notice.
The fact that the pope had taken off his shoes and was standing with his arms folded in the same manner as the imam praying next to him was read by many Muslims as a sign of deep respect and as a gesture that ran directly counter to a speech he had made two months earlier at the University of Regensburg, Germany.
In the Regensburg speech, the pope had quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor, who said the prophet Mohammed had brought "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the faith by the sword." The pope afterward explained that he was not endorsing the emperor's words, and he expressed regret that some Muslims were hurt by the remarks.
In reaction, 138 Muslim scholars from around the world launched an initiative called "A Common Word," writing to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders asking for a serious dialogue about values Christians and Muslims hold in common: the obligation to love God and to love one another.
Representatives of the 138 scholars met at the Vatican to establish a new Catholic-Muslim Forum in November 2008.
Addressing the participants, the pope said that professing faith in one God, the creator of all humanity, obliges Catholics and Muslims to respect one another and to work together to defend human rights and help those who are suffering. The commandments of love of God and love of neighbor are at "the heart of Islam and Christianity alike," he said.
Pope Benedict's Holy Land trip brought further rapprochement with Muslim leaders as the pope visited a mosque in Jordan, made a major address to Muslim scholars there and visited the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of Islam's holiest sites.
In the 2010 book, "Light of the World," Pope Benedict said Catholics and Muslims have two basic things in common: "We both defend major religious values -- faith in God and obedience to God -- and we both need to situate ourselves correctly in modernity."
As the Catholic Church did at the Second Vatican Council, he said, the world's Muslims now are grappling with questions like "What is tolerance? How are truth and tolerance related? In this context, the question of whether tolerance includes the right to change religions also emerges. It is hard for the Islamic partners to accept this. Their argument is that once someone has come to the truth, he can no longer turn back."
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