Reflections on Christian-Muslim Relations and the Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

Many Muslims share the observation that while Pope John Paul II had a clear-cut positive image in the Muslim world, Pope Benedict XVI unfortunately left mixed sentiments due to the controversy of his 2006 lecture at University of Regensburg. The perception of the Holy See’s long silence on the Danish publication of denigrating cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet caused initial skepticism among Muslims even before his Regensburg lecture. The cartoons were publicized on Sept. 30, 2005, and the Holy See’s statement was issued on Feb. 20, 2006.

However, it is a matter of fairness not to lose sight of the positive developments in Catholic-Muslim relations during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Efforts to control the damage caused by the controversial quote in Regensburg lecture unveiled an exercise of dialogue with leading Muslim figures. Muslim leaders accepted the pope’s personal expression of sorrow in an open letter, and the pope’s assurance that the controversial quote did not reflect his personal opinion paved the way for even greater interfaith dialogue. A second open letter from Muslim leaders to all Christian denominations of the world initiated the process of “Common Word,” one of the most prominent and scholarly interfaith initiatives of the last decade.

Pope Benedict’s much publicized visit to Turkey during which he visited and prayed in the Blue Mosque and his meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia which started an inter-religious engagement culminating in the Holy See becoming a founding observer of the “King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue” (KAICIID) in Vienna were testimony to his desire to reach out.

Due to the initial controversy, Pope Benedict’s visits to Turkey and later to Jordan and Palestine might not have met with the same enthusiasm that was accorded to his predecessor Pope John Paul II in the Muslim majority countries that he visited. Yet, it should be possible to focus and build upon on the positive legacies of the last two popes instead of any missteps.

Organization of Islamic Cooperation Secretary General Ihsanoglu repeated many times that there should be a “historic reconciliation” between Islam and Christianity in order to help ameliorate the relationship between the West and the Muslim majority nations.

It is apparent that in the theological area, progress will be slow and challenging. However, in order to build confidence between Catholic and Muslim communities, cooperation, particularly between Muslim and Catholic civil society in the field of humanitarian assistance and peace building, could be the entry point. As a matter of fact, in socio-economic development efforts, the United Nations field offices increasingly depend on the cooperation of faith-based organizations which have been crucial propellers of global humanitarian action.

Civil society institutions from Muslim majority countries should see Christian institutions such as Community of Sant’egidio, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis as natural partners in humanitarian and peace-building efforts. Particularly in parts of Africa where there is the potential for or ongoing tensions between Christian and Muslim communities, these partnerships should be utilized. Global Muslim humanitarian agencies such as Islamic Relief Worldwide and Muslim Aid based outside Muslim majority countries as well as the OIC Humanitarian Department have already demonstrated their readiness in this regard.

In terms of perceived fault-lines in Africa and the need to protect Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries, political dialogue and practical cooperation between the Holy See in its capacity as a political entity and the OIC as the intergovernmental political entity representing the Muslim world could be useful. Both could jointly encourage targeted interfaith action in conflict areas. Yet, in the future of this relationship, it is certain that while Muslims will expect the Holy See to be more vocal against increasing anti-Muslim sentiments in Christian majority countries, leading Muslim scholars will be expected to come forward with a more pro-active public stand in favor of the well-being of Christian minorities.

Meanwhile, cooperation between these two communities, particularly at the international level should not be displayed as limited to a holy conservative alliance towards others on sensitive social issues. The objective in the short and medium terms should be contributing to the wellbeing, safety, and health of individuals without discrimination.

As the conclave begins on Tuesday, much of the Muslim world looks at the future of the papacy with a hope that the new pope will build on the positive aspects of the previous two papacies and create a relationship of deeper dialogue and better mutual understanding with the Muslim community.