“The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” As Pope Benedict XVI makes his way through the Holy Land, his mistakes and gaffes haunt the reporting on his trip. His course corrections, his initiatives, and extensions of well-regarded policies are overlooked. In his current visit to Jordan, reporters constantly recall his 2006 Regensburg Lecture where his use of a quotation from a Byzantine emperor about the violence and irrationality in Islam led to furor in the Muslim world. He quickly apologized, and, at risk of his life, he undertook a planned visit to Muslim Turkey that went flawlessly.
Subsequently, he re-established the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which he had downgraded, appointing the esteemed Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran as its prefect. He has met with a variety of Muslims leaders and overseen dialogues with Muslims on a couple of different tracks. Just two weeks ago, moreover, the Vatican signed a new treaty with the Arab League. In addition, in keeping with his policy of reciprocity with the Muslim world and in line with initiatives of Pope John Paul II, a new parish was recently opened in Bahrain. So, Benedict has a constructive record, but the memory of the offense continues to overshadow his positive work.
Jordan, where he is now visiting, is an especially hospitable country for Christians, though their numbers are small, perhaps around 3% of the total population. Some families have both Christian and Muslim branches who remain in close touch, as Protestant and Catholics family members in the U.S. would do. What the local Christians call the dialogue of everyday life is strong. Patriarch Fouad Twal, in introducing the pope at the Regina Pacis Center, indicated this, pointing out how Muslims and Christian work alongside one another there. In Catholic schools, Christians and Muslims study together, and the Catholic policy is to admit Muslim students to lay the groundwork for good relations in future generations.
Of course, there are tensions in some places at some times, though the Jordanian government keeps a tight lid on militant Islam. When I visited a school after the First Gulf War, the Muslim Brotherhood were riding high. As we left the convent (the local term for the entire church complex), the pastor pointed out to me that the Brotherhood had built a mosque right at the door to the church where the muzzein broadcast over loudspeakers during the hours of the Catholic liturgy.
I expect that in Pope Benedict’s address to Muslim leaders, diplomats and educators tomorrow, he will praise the interreligious coexistence found in Jordan as well as theinterreligious dialogue promoted for many years by the royal family . With others, I will be waiting to hear what new message he has for the Muslim world.
* This is the second in a series of blogs on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land (Jordan, Israel and Palestine) beginning Friday, May 8, by America editor in chief Drew Christiansen, S. J.
Father Christiansen served as Mideast adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for 14 years, worked as facilitator for the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land for five years, and was invested as a canon of the Holy Sepulchre for his work on behalf of the church in the Holy Land.