When Pope Benedict XVI made his first papal visit to the United States last week, he had several goals in mind – among them to reinforce the traditional faith of American Catholics, to address the sex-abuse scandals that have exhausted American Catholics in recent years, and to promote interfaith dialogue and reconciliation. The German-born Pope came to the United States primarily to visit his flock, the 67 million Roman Catholics who represent 22 percent of the total U.S. population. But he also met with leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain faith communities.
Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, was among those journalists who covered the papal visit.
He says it was important in both “substance and symbol.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Rueb says it was “crucial” in both ways because Muslims in Europe are less well integrated into their respective societies than in the United States, and there is consequently less dialogue. He recalls the considerable “uproar” in the Muslim world when Pope Benedict – during a 2006 university lecture – quoted a 14th century Byzantine ruler who had warned against an Islamic teaching that allowed “spreading faith through violence.” To show he harbors no disrespect for the Islamic world, Mr. Rueb says, the Pope during his recent U.S. visit was “really trying to reach out to Muslims.”
Former Pakistani journalist and former ambassador to Britain Akbar Ahmed, who is now Ibn Khaldoun Chair of Islamic Studies at The American University in Washington, DC, calls the Pope’s visit “historic” on several levels. Despite the disappointment voiced by some Muslim leaders that there was no opportunity for a verbal exchange during last week’s meeting with the Pope, Professor Ahmed says he sees the interfaith session as a very positive step. And he particularly welcomes the suggestion of one Muslim scholar (namely, the president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute) who proposed that the dialogue between Catholics and Muslims “start with the ideas of scholars like Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and his student Thomas Aquinas rather than with the demagoguery of political figures like Emperors or Sultans.” Professor Ahmed notes that the purpose of this dialogue should be to bring the “two worlds” of Christianity and Islam – which combined “form one half of the world population” – together in “harmony and peace.”
Last Friday evening Pope Benedict also became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit a Jewish place of worship in the United States. The Pope’s historic gesture was made more extraordinary by his German roots. His host at New York’s Park East Synagogue, a rabbi and Holocaust survivor, welcomed the Pope by calling for an “increased effort to repair a fractured world.” Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward says that, for the Jewish community, the New York visit was an important symbolic event, along with the prior interfaith meeting in Washington. In view of the concern raised by Pope Benedict’s recent “revival” of a prayer calling for the conversion of the Jewish people, Nathan Guttman says, these two symbolic acts “help send a message that the Vatican … does want to reach out to other religions and mend their relations.”
Akbar Ahmed says that the journey from faith to dialogue and reconciliation on which Pope Benedict has embarked is critical at this stage in history, and he predicts that the 21st century will be “very difficult for humanity if half the world’s population is going to be … killing each other across several continents.” Professor Ahmed says that Christians and Muslims really “have to begin to get their act together” because mutual problems – such as global warming, depletion of our natural resources, starvation in some regions, poverty, and the AIDS pandemic – now confront the future of humanity itself.
To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.