The Vatican media and religious leaders worldwide have welcomed President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, Egypt, as a step toward peace and a new beginning for U.S. relations with the Muslim world. The Vatican’s spokesman, Federico Lombardi, S.J., said that the speech on June 4 brought “an element of hope” to the world. “The undeniable political weight of the United States is being employed with clarity toward objectives that are certainly crucial for peace in the world,” Lombardi said. He cited several concerns touched upon in the speech, including an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, nuclear disarmament, religious freedom, democratic values, development and women’s rights. “These are openings toward directions in which very many people of good will want to cooperate in order to find the right way for humanity,” Lombardi said.
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote that President Obama “went beyond political formulas, evoking concrete common interests in the name of a common humanity,” including peace, security, education, work, family life and religious values. On the question of Iraq, the newspaper said, Obama “marked a break with the past” by citing the need for the United States to use diplomacy and international consensus to solve problems.
Vatican Radio also reported on the speech, saying that it “went beyond expectations” as a reconciliation effort with Muslim countries. “The words pronounced at the University of Cairo are much more than an extended hand, but the foundation of a real common platform for launching what [Obama] defines as a new beginning in relations between the United States and the Middle East,” it said.
Religious Leaders. Mario Scialoja, an official of the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, said Obama’s speech signaled a change from the approach of the administration of President George W. Bush. He said it was especially important that Obama recognized Muslims as a part of American society and called Islam a religion of peace, citing verses from the Koran. “It seems to me,” Scialoja said, “that Obama has touched the right chords in the hearts of Muslims and the entire world and that he has opened an era of more receptive and more frank dialogue between the United States and the Islamic world.”
In the Middle East, several Christian leaders said they were generally impressed with Obama’s speech but wanted action to follow the president’s words. “It’s a speech that has been needed for a long time, and the U.S. president had the courage to make it,” Chaldean Bishop Youssef Sarraf of Cairo said. He expressed the hope that “Islam and the Arab world will know how to receive this extended hand.... It’s the beginning of a new process, a new era. Obama really wants to change things, and the image of the United States will benefit from it,” Bishop Sarraf said.
Archbishop Paul Dahdah, apostolic vicar of Beirut, Lebanon, said he hoped the speech would spur real initiatives aimed at resolving the “root of all problems in the region,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If that does not happen, the extended hand will not lead to any result,” he said.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan priest who is head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, said Obama was sincere, determined and very balanced in his speech, confirming the U.S. relationship with Israel but signaling a change in strategy with the Muslim world. “This should give an impetus to the search for a solution to the main problem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
Pizzaballa added that it was significant that Obama had recognized the potential role of the militant group Hamas in a future peace settlement, asking at the same time that Hamas recognize Israel.