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Pope's public skepticism of Islam's role dates back to 1997

Nine years before Pope Benedict XVI delivered implied criticism of Islam in a speech last week and ignited angry Muslim protests worldwide, he expressed skepticism of the religion's commitment to tolerance. Benedict, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told an interviewer in 1997 that Islam is organized in a way „that is opposed to our modern ideas about society.” The German-born pope provoked an inter-faith crisis September 14 when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said, in part, „Show me just what Mohammed 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 he preached.” The result was a round of condemnations and protests in Muslim countries. „One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society,” Ratzinger said in the 1997 interview published by Ignatius Press. The 79-year-old pontiff's words last week attracted criticism not only from groups hostile to the West but also from secular Muslim officials who are normally friendly with Western governments and the Vatican. They demanded an apology.
Many Muslims believe their religion is unfairly tarnished by association with terrorism. Violent groups seized on the opportunity to justify promotion of a do-or-die clash of civilizations. The controversy may make dwindling Christian communities more ill at ease in their Islamic surroundings. In the West Bank Palestinian town of Nablus, vandals threw firebombs at two Catholic and one Anglican churches. In Somalia, gunmen shot and killed a Catholic nun who helped operate a hospital. Self-described adherents of al-Qaeda, the underground network that has launched bomb attacks on civilians across the globe in the name of holy war, threatened to assault Rome. Benedict's outspokenness was a departure from the style of his predecessor as head of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II. The Polish pope, in the view of some Catholic observers, was willing to skirt deep philosophical issues in the name of getting along. Benedict, on the other hand „is not a PC pope,” wrote John Allen, a correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. „He simply does not allow his thinking to be channeled by the taboos and fashions of ordinary public discourse.”
The pope on September 17 expressed regret that his words might have offended Muslims. He said the „medieval text” he quoted did „not in any way express my personal thought.” Vatican spokesmen blamed the media and said the words were taken out of context. Some Muslim leaders and politicians have accepted the apology, others haven't. The diverse responses seemed to affirm Ratzinger's 1997 contention that discourse with Islam is difficult because there is no unanimously accepted mediator. „I think the first thing we must recognize, that Islam is not a uniform thing,” he said in „Salt of the Earth.” „In fact, there is no single authority for all Muslims, and so for this reason, dialogue with Islam is always dialogue with certain groups.” In recent years, the pope reiterated doubts about Islam's compatibility with Western-style modernity. According to an account of a seminar he held in September 2005, Benedict told theology students that Islam can adapt to democracy only if the Koran is radically reinterpreted.
„The absolute nature of the Koran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all,” said Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian-born Jesuit priest and a participant at the meeting. The pope has voiced complaints that church calls for tolerance and the latitude for freedom of worship in the West haven't been reciprocated by governments and religious leaders in Muslim states. In February 2006, the pope addressed Morocco's ambassador to the Vatican, asking for „respect for the convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal manner, the exercise of freely chosen religion is truly assured in all societies.” Benedict's suggestion that Western culture, based on Christian values, differs markedly from Islam underlay his controversial opposition to Turkey's admission to the European Union. In August 2004, he told the France's Le Figaro magazine that Turkey should be excluded because „Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one.” „Turkey, which is considered a secular country but is founded on Islam, could instead attempt to bring a cultural continent together with some neighboring Arab countries,” he proposed. At the same time, Benedict continues to call for dialogue with Islam. Shortly after his election as pope, he addressed Muslim leaders at an inter-religious gathering and said, „I express my appreciation for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians. I assure you that the church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions.” (Bloomberg)