The Unlikely Ambassador To Islam

It sounds like the beginning of a good mystery novel — “a German Pope and a Saudi King were meeting privately behind the Vatican walls” — but, in fact, that is precisely what happened this week.

For the first time ever, a reigning monarch of Saudi Arabia came to the Vatican to meet with the Pope.

Not just any Pope; it’s the Pope of the Regensburg address — that infamous speech against religiously-motivated violence that provoked parts of the Muslim world into proving his point. And this is no ordinary monarch; he’s the leader of a Muslim country that boasts, year after year, one of the worst records of religious liberty in the world.

Strange bedfellows? Not so.

The well-kept secret of this papacy is that it is on track to leave a legacy of effective diplomacy and inter-religious dialogue with the very group it so upset just one year ago — Muslims.

Ever since the violent protests have subsided in the aftermath of Regensburg, Muslim leaders have been flocking to the side of Pope Benedict, and he to theirs. In September of 2006, Pope Benedict opened the doors of his summer residence (off grounds even to most Catholic prelates) for a personal meeting with the twenty ambassadors of Muslim countries stationed in Rome. In November of the same year, just two months after Regensburg, Pope Benedict managed a successful trip to Turkey. Then, in September of 2007, on the anniversary of the Regensburg address, 138 Muslim clerics, scholars, and politicians from Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish groups signed a letter to the Pope inviting the Christian and Muslim worlds to unite around love. Now we witness the first visit of the King of Saudi Arabia.

All in a year’s time! What’s going on? Is the Pope caving in on his core convictions, as expressed in the Regensburg address, for the sake of public relations? A look behind the scenes tells us that it is just the opposite.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting with King Abdulla, the Vatican briefed the press about the secret content of their discussion. The press office used typical diplomatic verbiage: “The presence and hard work of Christians in Saudi Arabia was discussed.” A straight-talk translation of that would go something like this: “Pope Benedict XVI expressed indignation to King Abdullah that the nearly one million Christians in Saudi Arabia are prohibited from any form of public worship. He wondered why there is a grand Mosque in Rome and no cathedral in Riyadh; no crosses, no Bibles, and no churches anywhere in the Kingdom.”

This reminds me of the fact that Pope Benedict never apologized for his Regensburg speech; he expressed regret that some people were offended by it.

So while Pope Benedict isn’t mincing words, his interlocutors keep coming back for more of the same. Either they are gluttons for punishment or the Pope is making headway in promoting human reason and the dignity of the human person as the meeting point between cultures and religions.

The combination of a clear presentation of differences and lots of cordial human contact, seems to be a uniquely “Benediction” approach to diplomacy and inter-religious dialogue.

From this vantage point where I write — a stone’s throw from the Vatican — it seems his approach is working, at least better than anywhere else.

God bless, Father Jonathan