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Pope Benedict’s fresh assault on Islam

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali


AMP Comment - March 27, 2008


In a replay of September 2006 attack on Islam, Pope Benedict has sent a new strong anti-Islam message to the Muslims. In 2006, the pope used remarks of a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II, to launch an anti-Islam tirade. This year, he seized the March 22 Easter service to make a coded but fierce attack on Islam when the pontiff chose to baptize at St Peter's Basilica a pro-Israeli Muslim, Magdi Allam, 55, who received first communion at the age of 14.

Who is Allam? An Italian citizen, Egyptian-born Allam is a deputy editor of Corriere della Sera newspaper. He has built his career attacking what he calls the “inherent” violence in Islam and support of Israeli violence against Palestinians while denouncing Palestinian resistance. Tellingly, two years ago, Allam co-shared the Tel Aviv University-based Dan David Prize worth one million dollars. He recently published a book under a provocative name: "Long Live Israel - From the Ideology of Death to the Civilization of Life: My Story." Allam, who often indulges in fear mongering by raising the specter of “Islamization” of the Italian society, supports a ban on building mosques in Italy.

Not surprisingly, Allam’s high profile baptizing is interpreted by Muslims as patronization of Allam's anti-Islam views by the Vatican. Here conversion is not an issue since there is no compulsion in religion in Islam. The Quran says clearly: "Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Verse 2:256) Obviously, the high profile conversion is used for anti-Islam and anti-Muslim propaganda.

To borrow Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, “the whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam.” Aref Ali Nayed, a key figure in a group of Muslim scholars launching discussion forums with Christian groups, says Pope’s actions came "at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities".

Nayed was one of 138 Muslim scholars from 43 countries who last October issued an unprecedented appeal entitled "A Common Word" that urged a serious dialogue between Christians and Muslims on the basis of the shared values of love of God and neighbor. Dozens more scholars have since signed the appeal. Protestant churches have mostly reacted in a positive way, but the Roman Catholic Church -- which accounts for more than half of the world's Christians -- has been hesitant and agreed to dialogue only after a long delay. Interestingly, Allam has refused to endorse the open letter.

The day after his baptism Allam published a long letter in Corriere della Sera in which he again branded Islam as intrinsically violent: "Beyond...the phenomenon of extremists and Islamist terrorism at the global level, the root of evil is inherent to a physiologically violent and historically conflictual Islam," he wrote.

It can be argued that his letter gives the very message of the Byzantine emperor quoted by the pope in his infamous Regensburg speech. Not surprisingly, Allam defended the pope in 2006 when the pontiff’s Regensburg speech that was perceived by Muslims as depicting Islam as a violent faith.

In September 2006, Pope Benedict indirectly hit out at Islam during a theological lecture to the staff and students at the University of Regensburg, where he taught theology in the 1970s. Using the words, "jihad" and "holy war", the Pope quoted criticisms of the prophet Mohammed by a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II, during a debate with a learned Persian. "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," Benedict quoted the emperor as saying.

Despite massive protests in the Muslim world, the Pope did not backed away from his comments but only said that he was misunderstood.

As a cardinal in the Holy See, he was known to be skeptical of John Paul II's pursuit of conversation with Muslims. One of his earliest decisions as pope was to move Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, one of the Catholic Church's leading experts on Islam, and head of its council on inter-religious dialogue, away from the centre of influence in Rome, and send him to Egypt as papal nuncio.

According to Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for the Italian daily La Repubblica, with his Regensburg speech he closes the door to an idea which was very dear to John Paul II - the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God."

Unlike late Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict does not approve of joint prayers with Muslims. He is also skeptical of the value of inter-religious dialogue. In the summer of 2005, Pope Benedict (when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) devoted an annual weekend of study with former graduate students to Islam. During the meeting, he has expressed skepticism about Islam's openness to change given the conviction that the Noble Quran is the unchangeable word of God.

Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict’s coded attack on Islam drew sharp reaction from Muslims around the world.

Dr. Zafarul-Islam Khan, President, All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat and Mr. Navaid Hamid, Secretary, South Asian Council for Minorities, said that the high profile baptism of Allam negates Vatican's recent announcement that it sincerely wishes to engage Muslims in dialogue. “The incident provokes genuine questions about the motives behind this high-profile ceremony and the future plans of the Vatican vis-a-vis other faiths. This action would create distrust and obstacles in the face of peaceful co-existence and inter-faith dialogue.”

London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi said of the conversion: "The pope provokes the indignation of Muslims by baptizing an Egyptian journalist who attacks Islam and defends Israel."

Mohamed Yatim, commentator for the Moroccan daily Attajdid, called the high-profile baptism "a new provocation for the Islamic world and part of a trend that has intensified in recent years with the caricatures of the Prophet."

Rev. Christophe Roucou, the French Catholic Church's top official for relations with Islam, while questioning the publicity surrounding Allam's conversion said: "I don't understand why he wasn't baptized in his hometown by his local bishop."

"What amazes me is the high profile the Vatican has given this conversion," Yaha Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, vice-president of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, said. "Why could he have not done this in his local parish?"

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