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Pope, in New Step to End Crisis, Pays Respect to Islam

The pontiff uses a general audience in St. Peter's Square to again reassure Muslims after his words last week provoked their fury.

September 21, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday expressed deep respect for Islam and emphasized the belief in one God that unites Muslims and Christians -- his latest attempt to defuse the crisis swirling around his recent comments on Islam.

At a weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, before thousands of pilgrims and amid tight security, Benedict went further than he has to date, not only reiterating his regret for the fury that his comments provoked, but also pronouncing his high regard for the faith that those words seemed to attack.

"I hope that my profound respect for the great religions and, in particular, for Muslims ... has become clear," the pope said. It is Muslims, he said, "who worship the one God and with whom we promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity."

This language, some of it taken from the landmark Nostra Aetate (In This Age of Ours), the Vatican's 1965 document formally recognizing other religions, is reminiscent of the way Benedict's immediate predecessor, John Paul II, often characterized Muslims and Jews. John Paul was an enthusiastic promoter of interfaith dialogue, especially among the three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Benedict, by contrast, has approached dialogue more cautiously.

Authorities stepped up security at St. Peter's Square, following shadowy threats on the pope's life posted on extremist websites. Uniformed Italian paramilitary police screened pilgrims with metal detectors, while plainclothes agents mingled with the crowd.

Despite the increased alert, the pope, dressed in white vestments, toured the piazza, standing in the back of an open vehicle and waving to the crowd.

It was the pope's citation of a medieval Byzantine emperor who disdained Islam and its founder, the prophet Muhammad, that ignited the furor in parts of the Muslim world.

The emperor Manuel II Paleologus, speaking in the 14th century, said that Islam offered "things only evil and inhuman" and that Muhammad "spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Wednesday was the second time in four days that Benedict had attempted to clarify and soften the remarks, which he insisted had been misinterpreted since he delivered them last week at the University of Regensburg in Germany.

The quote, he said, was "incomprehensibly brusque," but he used it "to introduce to the audience the drama and relevance" of his argument that religion and violence cannot be paired.

"This quotation, unfortunately, was misunderstood," Benedict said. "In no way did I wish to make my own the words of the medieval emperor.

"I trust that, after the initial reaction, my words at Regensburg can constitute an incentive and an encouragement for dialogue that is positive and also self-critical, both between the religions and between modern reason and the Christian faith."

Analysts said Benedict appeared to have evolved in his understanding of why his speech offended and of the urgency with which he needed to confront the fallout.

"It was for him a real lesson," said Marco Politi, Vatican correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "He understood the crisis was serious, especially because moderate Muslims were hurt by this."

Benedict might have failed to anticipate the consequences of his remarks because his closest circle of aides was in transition. The outgoing secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, accompanied Benedict on the German trip but was in the final days of his tenure. The day after the papal entourage returned to Italy, Sodano's successor, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was sworn in. The Moroccan-born Archbishop Dominique Mamberti has been named as the new foreign minister, but he has not yet taken up his position. And veteran spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls retired in July.

Staff or no, Benedict has until now tended to write his own speeches. Before his election as pope last year, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spent a quarter of a century as the Vatican's top theological watchdog, always in the position of judging others and not being judged.

The Regensburg lecture was a complex, scholarly treatise drafted in the tradition of provocative theological debate but without a nod to political or cultural sensitivities, analysts here say.

"There is a tendency in some Catholic circles to decide what Islam is, based on historical texts," said Father Daniel Madigan, head of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. "But the way Muslims understand Islam, in the real world, is varied, as is the way Christians understand Christianity.

"You have to listen," he added. "And the question needs to be asked, not in the 14th century, but now.... The pope is absolutely right to say what is on his mind, but you have to put the questions to real people."

In St. Peter's Square, Carletta Boyd, visiting from Detroit, said she thought the pope's words should put the Regensburg controversy to rest. "He did apologize -- that ought to do it," said Boyd, 54, who works in a steel mill.

"Religion is about forgiving, or it should be."

Her friend Garnetta Stokes agreed. "He spoke from the heart," said Stokes, 54, a human resources employee at a Detroit auto factory.

"What more can you say than sorry?"

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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