Pope Reaffirms ‘Deep Respect’ For Muslims

AMMAN : Keen to promote better understanding between Christian and Muslims not only in the Middle East but worldwide as well, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed his “deep respect” for Muslims during his visit on the weekend to Jordan, and for the second time visited a mosque.

He began his May 8-15 visit to the Holy Land in Jordan.

After landing in the capital, Amman, the Pope in his speech said, “My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by His Majesty the King (King Abdullah II) in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.”

Christians number less than 3 percent of the 6-million strong population in this majority-Muslim country, and enjoy good relations with Muslims and full religious freedom.

On May 9, he visited the new Al-Hussein bin-Talal Mosque, also in Amman.

The Pope surprisingly entered the mosque wearing his shoes, but so too did Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, a Hashemite prince and descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, who escorted him.

To pre-empt possible misunderstandings, Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi hastened to explain afterward that the Pope “was ready to take off his shoes out of respect for the holy place, but his host did not request him to do this.”

He also sought to fend off other kinds of criticism by stating that the Pope “did not pray in the Christian way” in the mosque, instead he spent a moment “in respectful recollection.”

Some leading Jordanian Muslims hailed the mosque visit as indisputable confirmation of Pope Benedict’s respect for Islam. They made clear that they consider that the tensions aroused in the Muslim world by his 2006 Regensburg lecture have been put to rest. In that lecture, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said Prophet Muhammad had brought “things... evil and inhuman.”

The Pope’s statement of respect for Islam also resonated in Asia. In the Philippines, according to local press reports, Muslim leaders led by House Deputy Speaker Simeon A. Datumanong Deputy welcomed the pontiff’s encouraging statement.

“I appreciate and welcome the words of Pope Benedict XVI about his ‘deep respect’ for Islam and his call for a three-way dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews,” Datumanong was quoted as saying.

In Amman, Hamdi Murad, a mufti and distinguished Muslim scholar, told UCA News that the Pope’s visit “is enough to declare that he has opened a new page, and has closed that other one.”

“His visit is a golden bridge to better relations between Christians and Muslims based on love of God and love of neighbor, and working together for peace, not only in the Middle East, but elsewhere too,” Murad said.

But not everyone in Jordan shared that view. Hammad Said, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party in the country, complained that the Pope had not properly apologized for the Regensburg offence, while Sheik Ysef Abu Hussein, a mufti in the southern Jordanian town of Karak, said, “We wanted a clear apology.”

Emad Hassam, an Amman taxi driver and a Muslim, said he knew of many ordinary Muslims who were “disappointed” that the Pope had not said he was sorry, especially as the King and the Jordanian people had welcomed him with such great hospitality.

Murad, however, dismissed those who still insist on a papal apology as “a tiny minority among Muslims.”

Prince Ghazi, chief advisor to the king on religious affairs, left no doubt that he too considered the case closed. Muslims understood the pope’s visit as “a deliberate gesture of goodwill and mutual respect” to Islam, he stated at a ceremony outside the mosque after the visit.

He thanked the Pope for expressing “regret” after the Regensburg incident, “for the hurt” caused to Muslims by that lecture, and said Muslims “especially appreciated” the subsequent Vatican clarification that the offensive words “did not reflect Your Holiness’s own opinion, but rather was simply a citation in an academic lecture.”

He thanked him too “for many other friendly gestures and kindly actions towards Muslims” since becoming Pope, including receiving the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and warmly responding to the 2007 “Common Word” Letter of 138 leading international Muslim scholars. The prince was a key figure behind that letter.

In his speech, the theologian-pope praised the “Common Word” letter, saying it echoed a recurrent theme of his first encyclical: “the unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbor, and the fundamental contradiction of resorting to violence or exclusion in the name of God.”

He went on to alert his audience of Muslim and Christian religious leaders to the fact that they should all be concerned when people increasingly assert that religion by its nature “is a cause of division in our world” and not “a builder of unity and harmony.”

He said one cannot deny “the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions”, but he insisted that “often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society.”

Asserting that “the opponents of religion” aim not only “to silence” the voice of religion but to replace it with their own, Pope Benedict urged Muslims and Christians to combat this secularizing tendency by letting the world see them as “worshippers of God, faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees” and “consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good.”

Pope John Paul II was the first Pope ever to visit a mosque. When he entered the Great Mosque in Damascus, Syria, in 2001, he was already recognized by Muslims worldwide as a friend.

When Pope Benedict XVI entered the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in November 2006, the situation had changed. His visit was considered by many as a necessary gesture to reaffirm his respect for Islam and his commitment to dialogue with Muslims in the wake of the Regensburg lecture.

His visit to the Al-Hussein Mosque, however, and his forthcoming visit to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest shrine, are something else: They are part of a renewed, concerted effort — not only in words but also in gestures which are more easily understood by ordinary people — by the Pope to promote greater understanding and better relations between Muslims and Christians not only in the Middle East, but worldwide for the good of humanity and peace in the world.