|From left, Cardinals Luis Aponte Martinez of Puerto Rico, Georg Maximilian Sterzinsky of Germany and Geraldo Majella Agnelo of Brazil|
Not far from the Vatican, on the outskirts of Rome, is a glistening new mosque built with Saudi oil money. It is a symbol for many in the Vatican of the growing Islamic presence in Roman Catholicism's traditional European heartland.
Europe is now home to about 15 million Muslims whose very public loyalty to their faith makes Catholic leaders envious, especially at a time when attendance at both Catholic and Protestant churches across the continent is dropping drastically and religious indifference is growing fast.
John Allen, a Vatican-watcher for the U.S. publication National Catholic Reporter, says the religious and moral clarity Islam stirs among its believers has been lost in the West.
"In England today, there are more Muslims that go to mosque on Friday than there are Anglicans, practicing Anglicans that go to church on Sunday," he noted. "Certainly, there are many people at the senior level of the Catholic Church and in other Christian denominations that are worried that, within a generation, Europe may well be an outpost of the Islamic world as opposed to being the cradle of Christian civilization."
And, while European churches are emptying as the older generations die out, Christianity is facing a strong challenge from Islam in such places as Africa. Father Bernardo Cervellera, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, says both religions are engaged in a battle for souls in Central Africa.
"In fact, Saudi Arabia is financing strongly and very, very deeply the preaching of Islam and the building of mosques in Central Africa," Father Cervellera said.
How to deal with the Islamic challenge may not be the decisive issue in choosing a new pope. But a debate has been going on for some time among cardinals on whether the Vatican's relations with Muslims should be conciliatory or more confrontational. And that debate intersects with other issues like Europe's increasing secularism and its rising number of Muslim immigrants.
Pope John Paul II avoided confrontation with resurgent Islam. He opted for accommodation, seeing Muslims as allies in his struggle against abortion, birth control and what he saw as growing hedonism, not just in the West but in other parts of the world too.
Some prominent cardinals, like Francis Arinze of Nigeria, follow John Paul's line, arguing that believers of whatever faith have a duty to fight together against a secularism he believes has sapped Christians of their spiritual strength.
Italian cardinals mentioned as possible popes, like Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan and Angelo Scola of Venice, have advocated improving contacts between Christians and Muslims as a contribution to peace, both in Europe and in the Islamic world.
John Paul's strong opposition to the Iraq War resonated with Arab Catholics. Father Shafiq Abuzayid, of Lebanon, says the pope not only tried to protect shrinking Christian minorities in the Arab world but also send a clear sign that he wanted to build bridges with Muslims.
"What did they see from the West? They saw invasions," said Father Abuzayid. "They saw war. They saw armies. They saw destruction. So I think Islam has to be understood. It has to be discussed. We have to have a dialogue with them and understand each other."
But some Vatican prelates, including the influential German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wonder whether John Paul's outreach toward Islam hasn't gone too far. He has opposed Turkey's entry into the European Union, saying Turkey represents a tradition different from that of the West. Although he has written that it may be useful to talk to Muslims, it is better to revitalize Christianity. His writings also reveal that he sees Islam and Christianity as competitors rather than partners.
At the same time that it has sought greater dialogue with Islam, the Catholic Church has spoken out more clearly about the denial of religious freedom for Christians in some Muslim countries, notably Saudi Arabia. Analyst John Allen says many Vatican officials complain about the lack of a level playing field in their dealings with Islam.
"When their citizens show up in the West, there is always a demand for legal recognition, for fair play, for the ability to build centers of worship," he said. "But the same thing certainly doesn't go on when Christians immigrate into the Arab world."
It is difficult to say how much consideration the cardinals will give to the church's policy toward Islam when they meet to choose a new pope. But John Paul's successor will have to decide whether Islam represents a threat to Christianity and whether it is better to confront it or to engage it in trying to root out what both religions consider the evils of the modern world.