The new pope could hardly have gotten off to a rockier start with the Muslim world.
It was September 2006. Regensburg, Germany. Pope Benedict XVI was giving a speech about the need for balance between faith and reason, a talk that would likely have attracted little worldwide attention.
But the pope slipped in a quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said that Islam’s Prophet Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
And the international protests began.
Since then, though, the pope has quietly rebounded from the sudden controversy to embrace a new dialogue with Muslims. As he prepares to visit the United States, in fact, local Muslim leaders are curious and hopeful about what he might say.
“That speech was a big minus from the Muslim point of view,” said Shafi Bezar, chairman of the Westchester Muslim Center in Mount Vernon. “The feelings of Muslims were very strong. Later on, the pope tried to reconcile, and right now his attitude is very positive. He is Catholic, but a leader of the whole world.”
Days after the speech, Benedict said that he was “very upset” that he inadvertently offended Muslims and stressed his respect for the faithfulness of Islam.
A few weeks later, Benedict visited Turkey and prayed with an Islamic cleric under Istanbul’s most famous mosque – a powerful image in the Muslim world.
The Vatican also responded quickly and enthusiastically to an open letter from 138 Muslim leaders to worldwide Christiandom, requesting a new dialogue. In November, two dozen Catholic and Muslim leaders will meet in Rome, and the pope will receive the participants.
Additionally, three national Muslim leaders will be among 15 people who will greet the pope at an interreligious meeting in Washington on Thursday.
“The pope has spoken in favor of the recent initiative of Muslim leaders around the world to engage with Catholics and other Christians,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. “We hope he will build on that in this country. He has said that he wants to reach out to people of other faiths in America and build better relations. We’ll hope for the best.” (MORE)