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Sunday 3 December 2006

It's good news for mankind that the Pope's a Catholic

WELL, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey impressed me, but not the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, which issued a considered statement on Wednesday: "The Pope's visit, in fact, is to consolidate the crusader campaign against the lands of Islam after the failure of the crusader leaders - and an attempt to extinguish the burning ember of Islam inside our Turkish brothers."

Like many Muslims, these Iraqis were extremely cross about the speech the Pope gave at a German university in September. Intending to discuss the relationship between reason and religion, he had the temerity to touch on the worrying issue of radical Islam's espousal of jihad.

photo: Sunday Independent
TOLERANCE: A believer holds a Turkish flag and a picture of Pope Benedict XVI during the Pope's visit

His quote from a 14th-century Byzantine Emperor about there having been "evil and inhuman things" in Muhammad's teaching, "such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" was thoroughly wrenched out of context by Islamist agitators and fed to the credulous Islamic masses as an insult to the Prophet.

"As a faithful Muslim," said the courageous feminist writer Irshad Manji, "I do not believe the Pope should have apologised. I've read what's been described as his inflammatory speech. Actually, he called for dialogue with the Muslim world.

"To ignore that larger context and to focus on a mere few words of the speech is like reducing the Koran, Islam's holy book, to its most bloodthirsty passages. We Muslims hate it when people do that. The hypocrisy of doing this to the Pope stinks to high heaven."

But hypocrisy and worse are widespread in the Muslim world these days. What happened in Iraq when the Pope's polite expression of regret that people had been offended failed to satisfy was predictably hideous.

To show their displeasure at his refusal to grovel for having associated Islam in any way with violence, Islamists fired rockets at a church and bullets at a Dominican convent and in October kidnapped a priest. As the kidnappers demanded, Father Paulos Eskander's Syriac Orthodox church apologised for the Pope's comments, but were unable to raise the $350,000 ransom, so he was tortured and beheaded.

Meanwhile, there is a little-publicised campaign of terror against vulnerable Iraqi Christians; thousands have fled the country and many of the remaining Christian enclaves have armed guards.

Such events - and there were many outrages in the next few weeks, including the firebombing of churches by Palestinians and the murder of an Italian nun in Somalia - were the fault of the perpetrators, not the Pope, though if you read the liberal commentariat you'd think he had deliberately provoked peace-loving Muslims beyond endurance.

Those same voices thought he should hang his head in shame and cancel his visit to Turkey lest others be driven to violence.

They underestimate this Pope. He is courteous and gentle but intellectually and morally he is the embodiment of muscular Catholicism. He has studied Islam for years, he knows Islamism threatens the world, he wants Europe to rediscover its Christian values and he is vigorously pushing the concept of "reciprocity" by demanding that Islamic states treat religious minorities with the same tolerance that the West accords Muslims. He may want dialogue, but he will not bow to the forces of unreason. In Turkey, where Roman Catholicism is not recognised, the Pope conducted himself with humility, graciousness, tact and warmth: even his critics were mollified when he deliberately kept his cross under his coat in secular venues and they were positively ecstatic when in the Blue Mosque, standing beside the Grand Mufti, he turned towards Mecca to pray.

As a gesture of reconciliation, this has been compared with his predecessor's insertion of a prayer into Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. But Pope John Paul II was in Israel to apologise to the Jews for their persecution at the hands of Christians: Pope Benedict is engaged in challenging secularism and Islamism.

The Pope addressed the core issues unapologetically. On Wednesday, at mass, he honoured the memory of Father Andrea Santoro, murdered in Turkey last February by a Muslim youth seeking revenge for the publication of the Danish cartoons.

On Thursday, in St George's Greek Orthodox Church, he spoke of "the process of secularisation [that] has weakened the hold of . . . [Christian] tradition in Europe. In the face of this reality, we are called, together with all other Christian communities, to renew Europe's awareness of its Christian roots, traditions and values, giving them new vitality."

In referring to the "universal responsibility" of Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Pope demonstrated his opposition to the Turkish government's refusal to recognise him as leader of the 150 million members of the Greek Orthodox Church worldwide.

"We urge all world leaders to respect religious freedom as a fundamental human right," he said, in the same address. Al-Qaeda will have been vexed.

I may be an atheist, but I'm very glad the Pope's a Catholic.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards