In an unexpected about-face, Pope Benedict XVI will restore power and prestige to the Vatican department that oversees dialogue with Islam a year after he controversially downgraded it.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in an interview last weekend with La Stampa newspaper that the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue would again be “a separate department.”

Vatican sources said on Monday Bertone’s comments meant the department would soon get its own head again.

In March 2006, Benedict downgraded the office by putting it under joint presidency with the Vatican’s culture ministry and removing its president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald.

Catholics and Muslims involved in interfaith dialogue criticized the move, with many saying it sent a negative signal to the Islamic world.

In a speech last September, Benedict appeared to equate Islam with violence. Speaking in Regensburg, Germany, the pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying Islam had only brought evil to the world and that it was spread by the sword. The pope later said he regretted any misunderstanding the speech caused among Muslims, after protests that included attacks on churches in the Middle East and the killing of a nun in Somalia.

But as late as this month, the Regensburg speech was still having repercussions on Catholic-Islam dialogue. When former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami met the pope on May 4 he said wounds between Christians and Muslims were still “very deep” as a result of the Regensburg speech.

Some observers saw the Regensburg issue as a direct consequence of the Pope’s downgrading of the office and the removal of Fitzgerald, since the Vatican no longer had a world-class expert on Islam to advise the pope.


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