VATICAN CITY (CNS) – In trying to help people understand how belief in God is a natural part of life and provides grounding for the values that protect human dignity and peaceful coexistence, the late Pope Benedict XVI saw Jews and Muslims as natural allies.
But in the almost eight years of his pontificate, his relations with the Jewish and Muslim communities were marked by alternating tensions and new initiatives.
During his pontificate, Pope Benedict visited synagogues in three countries and mosques in three others.
However, despite his efforts to promote new forms of dialogue with the followers of Islam, in the field of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, many people remember Pope Benedict primarily for remarks about the prophet Muhammad in a 2006 speech.
His relationship with the world’s Jewish communities was not always smooth either, primarily because of his decision in 2009 to lift the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
When some 300 religious leaders joined him in Assisi, Italy, in October 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s prayer for peace meeting, Pope Benedict said that as more and more people become convinced religion is a major source of tension in the world, religious believers have to be honest about their communities’ past and present.
“As a Christian I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature,” he told the religious leaders.
At the same time, he insisted that history also has shown the danger of denying God’s existence, because “when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself,” he feels free to unleash his fury to obtain what he wants.
Jewish leaders praised Pope Benedict’s record on dialogue in several respects: He explicitly recognized that a special bond continues to exist between God and the Jewish people; he recognized that, for centuries, Christians used Jesus’ death as an excuse to denigrate — and even persecute — the Jews; and he understood that the contempt some Christians had for the Jews helped create an atmosphere that the Nazis easily and progressively manipulated to the point of killing 6 million Jews.
And while his lifting of the excommunication of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier, caused real consternation, Pope Benedict said with gratitude that Jewish leaders were more willing than many Catholics to accept the Vatican’s statement that it had not known of the bishop’s position on the Holocaust.
Muslim leaders were less clear about where Pope Benedict stood with regard to their faith, although he repeatedly reached out to open lines of communication and promote cooperation on social issues of concern to both Catholics and Muslims.
When Pope Benedict visited Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in 2006, he took off his shoes and stood in silent meditation with his arms folded in the same manner as the imam praying next to him. This was read by many Muslims as a sign of deep respect and as a gesture that ran directly counter to a speech he had made two months earlier at the University of Regensburg, Germany.
In the Regensburg speech, the pope had quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor, who said Muhammad had brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the faith by the sword.” The pope afterward explained that he was not endorsing the emperor’s words, and he expressed regret that some Muslims were hurt by the remarks.
In reaction, 138 Muslim scholars from around the world launched an initiative called “A Common Word,” writing to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders asking for a serious dialogue about values Christians and Muslims hold in common: the obligation to love God and to love one another.
Representatives of the 138 scholars met at the Vatican to establish the Catholic-Muslim Forum in 2008.
In the 2010 book, “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict said Catholics and Muslims have two basic things in common: “We both defend major religious values — faith in God and obedience to God — and we both need to situate ourselves correctly in modernity.”