What Will the New Pope Build?
If he opens the door to Islam, Benedict XVI will foster the love for Jesus already within the Muslim soul.
BY: Akbar Ahmed
At the time of his death, Pope John Paul II was in the process of constructing a new global religious architecture that made space for the Roman Catholic Church to build productive relationships with people of all faiths. The challenge for the new pope, Benedict XVI, is what to do with that unfinished project.
Those looking for clues to how Benedict XVI will deal with the Muslim world point to then-Cardinal Ratzinger's statements on Islam. Last summer, he told the French newspaper Le Figaro that he opposed Turkey joining the European Union, because Europe's roots are fundamentally Christian. He has expressed concern about the "competition" for adherents between Islam and Christianity in developing countries. And he has publicly spoken out against what he regards as the inclination of Muslim leaders to fuse politics and religion. Yet there is no cause for alarm or a premature verdict on the new pope's priorities. Celebrating his first mass, Benedict XVI said he felt that the late Pope John Paul II was holding his hand, and that he wanted "open and sincere dialogue" with other faiths.
The new pope has three choices: First, he can continue in the footsteps of the late pope and build bridges with Judaism and Islam. Second, the new pope can freeze the movement toward rapprochement with Islam and say we need to pause and take stock. Finally, he can consciously reject the path of his predecessor and withdraw into the church itself, drawing rigid boundaries around it.
He has no honeymoon period. The debate around his personality and policies is already becoming heated and he has no time to waste before clarifying the direction his pontificate will take.
The pope cannot ignore Islam and pretend that the church's relationship with the world's 1.3 billion Muslims does not matter. There is a thousand years of bad history between Christianity and Islam-from the time of the Crusades to European colonization in our times. On the plus side of the ledger, Christian and Muslim societies share much religiously, culturally, and sociologically. While there has been a thousand years of warfare and conflict there is also ample evidence of synthesis and borrowing. And since 9/11, Islam is at the forefront of global political debate and controversy. For all of these reasons, Islam is the elephant in the Vatican's room.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church is a world figure. For him Islam is not so much about theology as it is about coming to terms with a major world force with which Christianity is in various stages of confrontation on every continent-in North America, especially after 9/11; in Europe-in the Balkans and Chechnya; in Africa-in Nigeria and Sudan; in Asia-in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Pakistan, the tiny Christian minority in a Muslim population of 160 million often feels under siege. Bishop John Joseph of Faisalbad committed suicide in 1998 in despair over anti-Christian discrimination in his country.