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Verbal attacks on Islam by a Pope Benedict XVI

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Catholic beliefs about other faith groups:

In 2000-August, Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation forthe Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, published Dominus Iesus. It describes the church's position that:

bullet The Roman Catholic Church was established by Jesus Christ: "he himself is in the Church and the Church is in him...."
bullet Eastern Orthodoxy consists of "true particular Churches" in which the Church of Christ is "present and operative."
bullet The remaining Christian denominations are not "churches in the proper sense."
bullet Muslims and members of other religions are "gravely deficient" relative to Catholics who already have "the fullness of the means of salvation." Rituals of other religions which "depend on superstitions or other errors... constitute an obstacle to salvation."

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Attack by Pope Benedict XVI (2006):

On 2006-SEP-12, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg before 1,500 students and faculty. It was titled: "Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections." The main topic of the talk was an attack on secularism and Atheism -- specifically how western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith. He said:

"... the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from the divine, from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. ..."

"Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God’s image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe. Only this can free us from being afraid of God — which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism. Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life." 1

Most strong Atheists -- those who reject the existence of God -- will probably disagree with the pope's statement. Very few Atheists fear a supernatural entity in which they do not believe.

As part of the speech he briefly quoted from a book which recorded a 14th century debate on Christianity and Islam. He said:

"I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 [CE] in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. ...

"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war. He said, I quote, '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 emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. 'God', he says, 'is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably ... is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death." 2

[The passage that has caused so much negative reaction among Muslims is highlighted in brown above.]

It is important to note that Benedict said "I quote" twice before reading the passages in order to emphasize that he was reciting a document written centuries ago. He neither agreed with nor rejected the thoughts in the passage that he quoted.

Also, during his speech, he equated holy war with Jihad. This association is common within the violent Fundamentalist wing of in Islam, but is foreign to the bleiefs of most Muslims. The latter generally consider Jihad to mean one's personal struggle towards spiritual improvement.

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Reactions to Pope Benedict's speech in the west:

A number of religious and secular experts quickly commented on the speech:

bullet Renzo Guolo, professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Padua referred to the pope's suggestion that Islam is distant from reason:

"This is maybe the strongest criticism because he doesn’t speak of fundamentalist Islam but of Islam generally. Not all Islam, thank God, is fundamentalist."

bullet The Rev. Daniel A. Madigan, rector of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome said that the main focus of the speech was that:

"If we are really going into a serious dialogue with Muslims we need to take faith seriously."

Referring to quote from the emperor, he said:

"You clearly take a risk using an example like that."

bullet Marco Politi, reporter from the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said:

"The text reveals his deep mistrust regarding the aggressive side of Islam. Certainly 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." 2

bullet Diaa Rashwan, an analyst in Cairo said:

"What we have right now are public reactions to the pope's comments from political and religious figures, but I'm not optimistic concerning the reaction from the general public, especially since we have no correction from the Vatican."

bullet The Rev. Robert Taft, a specialist in Islamic affairs at Rome's Pontifical Oriental Institute, said that it was unlikely that the pope miscalculated how some Muslims would receive his speech. Taft said:

"The message he is sending is very, very clear, Violence in the name of faith is never acceptable in any religion and that (the pope) considers it his duty to challenge Islam and anyone else on this."

bullet German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the German-born pope, saying his message had been misunderstood. "It is an invitation to dialogue between religions and the pope has explicitly urged this dialogue, which I also endorse and see as urgently necessary," she said Friday.
bullet Russian President Vladimir Putin said:

"We understand perfectly how sensitive this sphere is. I think it would be right if we call for responsibility and restraint from the leaders of all world faiths." 2

bullet According to USA Today:

"Vatican officials insisted the pope did not intend to be offensive and expressed regret over any hurt caused to Muslims."

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Reaction in the Muslim world:

bullet There were "scattered protests" which were peaceful.
bullet Five churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were firebombed and sprayed with bullets on SEP-16.
bullet Two churches -- one Greek Orthodox and the other Anglican -- in the West Bank city of Nablus of occupied Palestine were hit by firebombs on SEP-17. One had its interior destroyed; another was partially burned. The "Lions of Monotheism" claimed responsibility.
bullet A Roman Catholic nun was shot in the back by two gunmen at a hospital in Somolia on SEP-17. Her bodyguard and a hospital worker were also killed. Some commentatiors have associated this with the pope's speech.
bullet The Pakistani parliament, the top Shiite cleric in Lebanon, and the secular opposition party in Turkey said that the pope should apologize.
bullet Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia, who is chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is quoted as saying:

"The pope must not take lightly the spread of outrage that has been created. ... It is unfortunate that such an eminent figure like the pope has not shown leadership in promoting good relations between religions." 3

bullet USA Today reported that:

"Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of the Islamic militant group Hamas, said the pope had offended Muslims everywhere. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Saturday the pope made 'a big mistake' and 'contradicted his own leadership of a divine religion.' On Friday, Pakistan's parliament adopted a resolution condemning Benedict for making what it called 'derogatory' comments about Islam, and seeking an apology. Hours later, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry summoned the Vatican's ambassador to express regret over the pope's remarks Tuesday. Notably, the strongest denunciations came from Turkey — a moderate democracy seeking European Union membership where Benedict is scheduled to visit in November as his first trip as pope to a Muslim country." 3

bullet Salih Kapusuz, deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party, said Benedict's remarks were either

"... the result of pitiful ignorance [about Islam and its prophet or, worse, a deliberate distortion.] ... He has a dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages. It looks like an effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades... He is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as [Adolf] Hitler and [Benito] Mussolini."

bullet Haluk Koc, deputy head of the secular Republican People's Party, said:

"The pope has thrown gasoline onto the fire ... in a world where the risk of a clash between religions is high." 4

bullet Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's most senior Shiite cleric, said:

"We do not accept the apology through Vatican channels ... and ask him [Benedict] to offer a personal apology — not through his officials."

bullet Shiite cleric Sheik Abdul-Kareem al-Ghazi said:

"The pope and Vatican proved to be Zionists and that they are far from Christianity, which does not differ from Islam. Both religions call for forgiveness, love and brotherhood." 3

bullet The Muslim Public Affairs Council, (MPAC) is a Muslim group with headquarters in Washington, DC. They urged "... a dialogue between Catholic and Muslim leaders." They stressed the need for the Vatican and Catholic leaders to clarify and explain the pope's remarks. They stated:

"In this spirit of dialogue and understanding that we continue to further, we would like to call for a meeting and dialogue regarding the recent comments made by Pope Benedict XVI. We do not want to allow for those individuals who call for divisiveness at such volatile times to speak on behalf of our communities. We pray that our continued dialogue will bear fruit and that this issue will be clarified in the most appropriate manner."

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Pope Benedict XVI offers sincere regrets, but no apology:

On 2006-SEP-17, Pope Benedict XVI expressed regrets that Muslims were offended. However, he did not deliver an apology as requested by many Muslim leaders. :

"At this time I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.... [They] were in fact a quotation from a medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought."

Reaction by Muslim leaders was mostly negative:

bullet Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque said:

"It is not enough. He should apologize because he insulted the beliefs of Islam. He must apologize in a frank way and say he made a mistake."

bullet Mohammed al-Nujeimi, a professor at the Institute of Judicial and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said:

"The pope does not want to apologize. He is evading apology and what he said today is a repetition of his previous statement,"

bullet Mohammed Mahdi Akef, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, said:

"While anger over the Pope's remarks is necessary, it shouldn't last for long. While he is the head of the Catholic Church in the world, many Europeans are not following (the church) so what he said won't influence them. Our relations with Christians should remain good, civilized and cooperative." 7

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Attack by William F. Buckley (2001):

Buckley has claimed that the wave of international terrorism was not due to radical, extreme Fundamentalist Muslims. Rather, he blames "well-known atheists who live un-Muslim lives and have persecuted unto death the Muslim movements in their countries." 8 He included, as Atheists:

bullet Yasser Arafat, chairperson of the Palestine Liberation Organization,
bullet Saddam Hussein, former dictator of Iraq, and
bullet The Assad family, controllers of Syria.

Buckley claims that "The principal sponsors of the terrorists are not religious fanatics," as believed by many individuals and groups worldwide. They are actually Atheists.

AANEWS commented that an " 'atheist' is a term used in Middle Eastern discourse to often refer to those who believe in religions other than the peculiar and discreet faith of the individual making the accusation.  A Shi'ite may use the term against a Christian or Jew (and perhaps even vice versa!).  Regimes that do not reflect a 'correct' theocratic bent, or have secular components -- such as women not being required in Iraq to wear a burqa -- can lead to misuse of the term.  In the Middle East alphabet soup of labels and descriptions, 'atheist' means different things to different speakers.  A 'secularist' -- or an individual accused of being one -- can easily be branded an 'atheist' without much need for further explanation..."

"AANEWS concludes: "A 'secularist' or individual who embraces a different religion, especially one who navigates the treacherous political waters of the Middle East though, is not automatically an 'atheist.'  If anything, the shabby charge serves to divert us from a blatant truth -- that the violence of September 11 was the result, in part, of religious fervor, and the designs of those who would transform the earth into a theocracy." 9

Assigning the term "Atheist" to persons of another religion has a long history. The Pagans accused the Christians during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE of being Atheists because they believed in only one God.

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References used:

  1. Pope Benedict XVI, "Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections," Vatican, 2006-SEP-12, at: On 2006-SEP-17, the report included a note: "The Holy Father intends to supply a subsequent version of this text, complete with footnotes. The present text must therefore be considered provisional."
  2. "Pope Assails Secularism, Adding Note on Jihad," New York Times, 2006-SEP-13, at: http://www.nytimes,com
  3. "Muslim anger over papal comments grows," Associated Press, 2006-SEP-16, at:
  4. Suzan Fraser, "Pope angers Islamic community," Associated Press, 2006-SEP-15.
  5. Pier Paolo City, "Pope sorry for reaction to his remarks," Associated Press, 2006-SEP-17, at:
  6. Ibid, page 2.
  7. "MPAC condemns murder of nun, welcomes pope's apology," Muslim Public Affairs Council, 2006-SEP-17, news release.
  8. W.F. Buckley, "It's the Regime, Stupid," A Way to Go column, National Review magazine, 2001-DEC-14.
  9. "Buckley puts blame on 'atheists' for being behind international terrorism!," AANEWS, American Atheists, 2001-DEC-20 newsletter.

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-SEP-17
Latest update: 2006-SEP-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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