Benedict XVI: Stealthily withdraws 2006 slap in the face to Islam and other world religions
London ~~ Tuesday May 29, 2007
Pope backtracks after Muslim outcry
- U-turn quietly reinstates council for inter-faith talks
- Earlier decision to dissolve body had fuelled mistrust
John Hooper in Rome
Pope Benedict XVI has moved to allay Muslim concerns over his commitment to understanding between the faiths by performing a u-turn on one of his most hotly contested Vatican reforms.
Eight months after prompting an outburst in the Islamic world, the Pope has quietly decided to reverse the downgrading of the Vatican department responsible for dialogue with other religions. His original decision was an important reason why even moderate Muslim representatives and scholars had greeting the then-new Pope with mistrust and responded with indignation to his remarks.
Until last year the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue was a fully-fledged Vatican "ministry" headed by the British expert on Islam, Michael Fitzgerald. In March 2006, in one of his first bureaucratic initiatives, the Pope merged the council with the Vatican's culture ministry and sent Archbishop Fitzgerald to Cairo as the envoy to the Arab League.
According to some sources close to the Vatican, the move reflected Pope Benedict's conviction at the time that a full theological dialogue with Muslim representatives was impossible.
Others insisted the criticism was a misunderstanding, since the inter-religious section retained its autonomy in the new "super-ministry".
But it was nevertheless widely seen as a slap in the face by the representatives not only of Islam but of other world religions. Some observers argued that the furore last September over the Pope's comments on Islam would not have happened had Archbishop Fitzgerald been on hand to advise him.
The Pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying Islam had only brought evil to the world and was spread by the sword. He later said his words were taken out of context and he regretted any misunderstanding; but by then churches had been attacked in the Middle East and a nun murdered in Somalia.
No announcement was made of the latest change of tack. The news was slipped out at the weekend by the Vatican "prime minister", Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who heads the Secretariat of State.
In an interview with the daily La Stampa, he was quoted as saying: "The Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue is to be set up again as a dicastery [ministry] in its own right."
Cardinal Bertone appeared to suggest it was his department that had lobbied for the rethink. He said: "The change demonstrates the importance for the Secretariat of State of inter-religious dialogue."
It was not immediately clear whether Archbishop Fitzgerald would be brought back from Egypt to take up his old post.
This was the second time in five days that Pope Benedict had shifted his position in response to international sensitivities. Last Wednesday, following widespread criticism in Latin America of remarks he made about the evangelisation of the continent, he gave a clarification of his position to pilgrims in Rome.
Having earlier said the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity had not involved the imposition of a foreign culture, he acknowledged it was accompanied by "suffering [and] injustices inflicted by the coloniser".