As a Catholic I read with chagrin the ill-conceived and regrettable comments made Pope Benedict XVI at an address in Germany yesterday. The Pope read quotations from a book that documented a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and a Persian scholar on the respective truths of Christianity and Islam.
"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the pope said. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'"
Pope Benedict evidently believed that by merely repeating a derogatory quote about Islam that he would not be misinterpreted.
He could not have been more wrong.
Muslim leaders around the world are expressing outrage over the perceived offensive comments. Mohamed Mahdi Akef, head of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, argued that Islamic countries should break ties with the Vatican if the Pope does not apologize.
"The Pope has aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world and strengthened the argument of those who say that the West is hostile to everything Islamic," he told reporters.
Federico Lombardi, the Vatican Press Office Manager, said that the Pope did not intend to offend Muslims.
Left: Pope Benedict XVI
Lombardi added that Benedict wanted to “cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, obviously also toward Islam. It is opportune to note that that which is at the pope's heart is a clear and radical refusal of the religious motivation of violence."
Unlike Pope John Paul II, the current Pope has not demonstrated the sort of media savvy necessary to excel as a 21st-century world leader. His comments, while probably not meant in a spirit of attack, nonetheless demonstrate that His Holiness continues to struggle with public relations on the world stage.
During a May visit to Auschwitz, he seemed to minimize the role of ordinary Germans in the horrors of the Holocaust in the following comments:
"As a son of the German nation over which a band of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people were used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power (…) I have come here today to implore the grace of reconciliation, first of all from God, who alone can open and purify our hearts, and from the men and women who suffered here."Certainly some of the Muslim criticisms have been a bit overblown, especially the comments of Salih Kapusuz, a deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party, who said that Benedict will go "down in history in the same category as leaders such as (Adolf) Hitler and (Benito) Mussolini," and that the Pope has a "dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages."
Still, one would expect that a leader as authoritative and powerful as the Pope would exercise greater tact.