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International Journalists Discuss Pope Benedict the XVI's Emphasis on Interfaith Dialogue.

The former German cardinal Josef Ratzinger, now known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI, has surprised many veteran Vatican watchers with his emphasis in recent days on interfaith dialogue.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, the Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the initial reaction in Germany to Cardinal Ratzinger’s election was “mixed.”

According to Matthias Rueb, most Germans have problems with the new pope’s conservative policies while simultaneously welcoming the election of the first German pontiff in almost five centuries. Mr. Rueb said the consensus in the media is that Pope Benedict XVI is likely to follow in the steps of Pope John Paul II and will be a guardian of the unity of the Catholic Church while adhering to his predecessor’s opposition to abortion, birth control, divorce, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women.

Paolo Sotero is Washington correspondent for O Estado de Sao Paulo, a daily newspaper in Brazil, which has the world’s largest Catholic population. Mr. Sotero said the press has tended to be more negative than positive regarding Pope Benedict XVI because he is identified as the enforcer of the tough position that Pope John Paul II took against liberation theology, which strives to incorporate principles of social justice. In contrast, Paolo Sotero explained, the Brazilian cardinal from Sao Paolo, Claudio Hummes – who was also mentioned as a possible candidate for the papacy – has been a champion of the poor and is strongly identified with the struggle against social and economic inequality that is rampant in Latin America and particularly in Brazil. Paolo Sotero said that the Church in Brazil is losing active members because of its tough stance on contraception, a view that modern-day Catholics find very difficult to live by. Furthermore, Catholicism has been losing ground to the Protestants, especially the evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Like Latin America, Africa is home to millions of Roman Catholics. The continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, also boasts a large Muslim population. Nigerian journalist Folu Ogundimu and professor at Michigan State University said he thought initially that the Catholic Church had missed a great opportunity in not selecting a pope with a reputation for interfaith dialogue.

But he said he found encouraging Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in recent days about the importance of dialogue between Christians and Muslims, whatever his beliefs might have been when he was a cardinal. Regarding the new pope’s conservative position on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the AIDS pandemic in places like Africa, Mr. Ogundimu said he thinks some of the criticism of the Catholic Church is misplaced because it does in fact pay attention to the AIDS crisis. It’s just that its strategy emphasizes the promotion of abstinence rather than the distribution of condoms.

A common theme in the reactions of the press in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia has been that the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI may continue to surprise observers as he seeks to combine conservative theological doctrine with an interfaith outreach.

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