Home /

‘A Common Word’ in the News

Pope heads to Israel after fence-mending trip to Jordan

In Jordan, Pope Benedict XVI sought to stress the importance of religion in public life as a way to find common ground with
Jewish and Muslim groups.

The overall feeling in
Jordan is one of pride and positivity as Pope Benedict XVI leaves for
Israel after a “Christian pilgrimage” that doubled as an opportunity to
smooth the Vatican’s strained relations with both Muslim and Jewish

On Sunday, the third day of his week-long trip to the Middle East, the pope held an open air Mass in a Jordanian soccer stadium,
urging the region’s Christians to persevere in their faith despite hardships threatening their ancient communities.

Speaking on Saturday in the company of Christian and Muslim leaders, the pope discussed “the essential relationship between
God and the world,” which he said was the common ground between the religions.

It’s this theme – the importance of a vigorous role for religion in public life – that the pope sought to stress as a way
to find common ground between the Abrahamic faith traditions.

“The opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own,” he said. “The need for
believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly.”

Mending fences

throughout the world reacted angrily when the pope gave a speech at a
German university in 2006, which appeared to associate Islam with
violence and irrational extremism. And in 2009, many in the Jewish
community were up in arms after the pope reversed the excommunication
of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson.

This weekend, the pope reached out to both
groups. In a speech at Mt. Nebo, where Moses was supposed to have
looked out over promised land, he described the “inseparable bond”
between the Catholic church and the Jewish people, and called for
reconciliation between the two faiths. In another address, at the huge
new King Hussein bin Talal mosque in an affluent area of Amman, he
mentioned his “deep respect for the Muslim community,” and praised
Jordanian leaders for their contributions to education, interfaith
dialogue, and “a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by

Jordanians skeptical of rapprochement

Many Jordanians said they were pleased that the Pope was visiting their country, but faith that the pilgrimage would bring
about any rapprochement between Muslims and the West was in short supply.

is no hope in any of these [leaders] … No Arabs! No Pope! Only God,”
proclaimed Abdullah Abdulkhader, just before Friday prayer at the
Husseni mosque, in one of Amman’s oldest areas. Neither religious
dialogue nor the government, Abdulkhader said, would lead to any
improvement in the lot of Arabs, particularly Palestinians.

A refugee from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, now
easily in his 60s, he rents out used cardboard cartons for latecomers
to use as makeshift prayer mats. On Fridays, the mass of the faithful
praying in the Husseini mosque fills the building and the courtyard,
and spills out into the streets on either side.

The mosque is widely associated with conservative Islamic groups,
and is the starting point for many of Amman’s rare political
demonstrations. But despite loud objections to the papal visit from
Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, there were few negative reactions from
those coming to pray on Friday. In fact, many seemed more concerned
about how the Pope perceived them than about insults to their religion.

Sa’ed Haddad, who for 17 years has worked the
counter at a bookstore across from the mosque, says the papal visit was
definitely a good thing. “As Muslims, we always welcome coexistence and
communication … this matters to us, so people can know how peaceful
we are,” he says, adding that he hopes the pope’s travels in the region
would make the leader more aware of the suffering of Muslims.

Mohammad Hasan Batat, who came to pray, puts it more simply: “Islam is not a terrorist religion.”

the Arab world, we care about the West,” says Salah Ahmad, another
worshiper, wearing white traditional garments, with a huge black beard
and a deeply sun-worn face. “We care that through this visit, the Pope
will take positions [on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]
so that the Arabs will be free of injustices that are committed against
them by the West and the world.”

But while he says he hopes this will happen, he’s
not optimistic that the discussion will make anything better for
Muslims who are suffering as a result of stereotypes. “Dialogue is
supposed to reach a goal and a solution,” he says: “To reach better
understanding, and not view Muslims as terrorists.”

Sadness over how the West views Islam

here feel that no amount of dialogue will change Westerners’ negative
attitudes about Muslims. According to John L. Esposito, the director of
Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and
co-author of the recent book “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion
Muslims Really Think,” this focus on what the West thinks of Muslims is
not surprising.

“In my experience traveling across the Muslim
world, particularly post-9/11, there’s very much a sense of many
Muslims feeling that, as it were, Islam is under siege: Islam is
misunderstood, Islam and Muslims are equated with extremism and
terrorism,” he says. The polling data gathered for his book supports
the same conclusion, he adds.

But while for many in Amman, “interfaith
dialogue” means nice words with no effect on reality, Mr. Esposito
thinks that the Pope’s visit could pave the way for changes that could
really mean something, from how religion is taught in mosques and
seminaries to how faith communities respond to crises and disasters
like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Asian tsunami. Mr. Esposito is also
a former Catholic theologian, and is involved in the “A Common Word
Between Us and You” initiative, which was started by Jordanian Prince
Ghazi bin Mohammad, as a way of responding to the Pope’s divisive 2006

In 2008, the initiative organized interfaith
theological conferences at Yale and Cambridge Universities; a third
conference, to be held at Georgetown University this October, will look
at how to make interfaith dialogue lead to real world change.

Could concern over secularism bring unity?

In the end, like some in the Vatican, Esposito thinks it will be the struggle to keep faith involved in public life that brings
the two together.

is often missed, by many on both sides, is that at the end of the day
there’s a core of religious belief and outlook that many Catholics and
Muslims share,” he says. “They’re very concerned about family values
and they’re certainly very concerned about secularism … that is not
simply separation of church and state, but secularism that is

For many in Jordan, though, that dialogue won’t become meaningful until they perceive Christians and Jews as having stopped
thinking of Islam as inferior. And there are many who still hold out for a more formal apology from the pope.

the Muslims are angry with him, not because he’s the Pope, but because
he insulted the Prophet [Mohammad],” says Abdulrahman Sleiman, a former
teacher with a degree in philosophy, who was praying at the Husseini
mosque. “If [dialogue] is the pope’s goal, we think it could definitely
help. But he’s coming here for Christian rites that concern him only.”