Pope’s Visit to Turkey Turns Corner on Muslim-Catholic Relations

Dec 07

Following the death of Pope John Paul II, much of the world, including the Muslim world, anxiously awaited the naming of the next Pope. Such anticipation among non-Catholics was a tribute to John Paul’s legacy of outreach and reconciliation with people of other

As the world waited to hear the name of the new Pope, I was invited to participate in a “virtual conclave” by Beliefnet.com in which Catholics and people of other faiths discussed who they would like to see leading the Church.

When Pope Benedict XVI began his first visit to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, I went back to the conclave archives to find out what aspirations the participants had about the
Muslim-Catholic relationship.

One prominent Catholic participant posed the question, “To what extent should concerns about Muslim-Christian relations guide the choice of a pope?”

Mary Louise Hartman of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church replied, “The new Pope will have to be skilled in diplomacy and sensitive in his approach to our sisters and brothers in Islam.”

Russell Shaw of the National Conference of Catholic Bishop’s wrote, “the relationship with Islam is one of the big three issues the next pope will have to address…But what to do? It’s all very well to say Catholics should dialogue with Muslims and encourage the moderates
among them. But I do not think the people who flew airliners into the World Trade Center were very open to dialogue.”

The desire to build a solid relationship was clashing with fears about extremism.

John Esposito of Georgetown University injected a dose of reality, “Inter-religious dialogue is between the mainstream majorities – their leaders, scholars, followers. Therefore, Catholicism’s dialogue with Islam/Muslims is not with the extremist minority no more than
its dialogue would be with Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists, etc.”

By visiting Turkey, Pope Benedict chose the path of engagement. His visit could help undo the damage resulting from his quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor who had said that Islam was “spread by the sword.”

While the reprehensible violence by a tiny minority of Muslims reacting to the Pope’s remarks received wide publicity, calls for dialogue by mainstream Islamic groups went virtually unnoticed.

A recent survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that among Muslims in America, 84 percent agreed that they should strongly emphasize shared values with People of the Book (i.e. Christians and Jews).

More than three-quarters of American Muslims are native born. They are part of mainstream America and are here to stay. Yet some are bent on marginalizing this voice of moderation.

Take for example some recent incidents that expose a nasty strain of bigotry in our society.

Washington, D.C., radio host, Jerry Klein in an attempt to ridicule and expose anti-Muslim bigotry, made a suggestion on-air that all Muslims in the United States should wear “identifying markers” such as a crescent-shape tattoo or a distinctive arm band. Rather than be repulsed by this outlandish Nazi-like proposal, the phone lines lit-up with callers who spoke in agreement.

CNN talk-show host Glen Beck recently questioned the patriotism of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. He told Ellison: “[W]hat I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’”

But perhaps the most disturbing opinion was recently expressed by talk-show host Dennis Prager when he argued that Keith Ellison should not be allowed to take his oath of office on the Quran. “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book (the Christian Bible),”
Prager tells Ellison, “don’t serve in Congress.”

Pope Benedict’s visit to Turkey may help turn a corner in recent Muslim-Christian relations. His concluding plea, “I hope that this dialogue continues,” will reverberate louder than his earlier faux pas. Muslims also have responded with optimism. Turkey’s influential Milliyet newspaper declared the visit as “The Istanbul Peace.”

The Pope made history by being only the second pontiff to set foot inside a mosque and being the first to join Muslims in prayer. Mustafa Cagrici, head cleric in Istanbul, described this gesture as sign of a new beginning for the world.

People of conscience in all faiths must use the opening resulting from the Pope’s visit to Turkey to come together and create a new La Convivencia (“the Coexistence”), when Spanish Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace and managed to develop a golden era progress in science and culture.

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