New Dialogue

In the minds of many Muslims, because the Catholic Church is the oldest and was for centuries the leading institution in the West, the church and the pope as its head are identified as representatives of the West. Though Pope Benedict XVI’s address in Regensburg, Germany, on Sept. 12 was devoted to criticism of an alienated Western rationalism, for Muslims his brief citation from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus summoned up memories of the ancient antagonisms extending from the Crusades to Lepanto. In these tense times, the risk involved in even the smallest misstatement was quickly made evident by condemnations, diplomatic démarches, street demonstrations and fire-bombings of churches. The Vatican responded quickly, and the pope addressed the issue himself, saying I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address.

Given the confusion over previous adjustments in Vatican policy toward Islam, other steps should be quickly taken to clarify the church’s program. The cultural dialogue Pope Benedict envisioned in assigning Muslim dialogue to the Pontifical Council for Culture should be advanced by those in his service who are skilled in Islamic relations. Likewise, the church’s charitable and social work among Muslim populations ought to be used as an occasion for genuine dialogue. In addition, the need for reciprocitythat is, equality of treatment of Christians living in Muslim countriesshould be pursued in bilateral and multilateral forums, and constructive work with moderate Muslims to oppose violence publicly in the name of religion should continue. Finally, at every step, church leaders need to take care that observers do not misrepresent the church’s initiatives as part of a war on Islam or a "clash of civilizations."

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