Pope Benedict and Islam

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We didn't know it at the time, but when John Paul II stepped into Warsaw's Victory Square on June 2, 1979, he was about to change history. It was only the second of his 104 papal trips, but perhaps the most moving —and momentous. His inspiring, but carefully chosen words were credited by many as opening the first crack in the edifice of communism. John Paul's deft diplomacy and his experience of life behind the Iron Curtain made the Polish pontiff uniquely placed to tackle the defining political issue of the day. But Benedict XVI has assumed the papacy at a moment where the Cold War has been replaced by the challenge of Islamic extremism — an issue very much on his mind even when he was a leading official in John Paul II's Vatican.

And as long ago as 1997, he wasn't particularly optimistic: Islam features "a very marked subordination of woman to man," he says in his interview book Salt of the Earth. Islam "simply does not have the separation of the political and religious sphere that Christianity has had from the beginning." Just a few months before being elected Pope, he spoke out against predominantly-Muslim Turkey's candidacy to join the European Union, insisting that Europe is defined by Christian values. His views of religious fundamentalism, regardless of the faith, are also worthy of note. Faith "was intended precisely for the simple," he says in Salt of the Earth, but "the quest for certainty and simplicity becomes dangerous when it leads to fanaticism and narrow-mindedness. When reason as such becomes suspect, then faith itself becomes falsified."

So, what impact can the Pope have on terrorism that claims to be inspired by Islam? He said last month that he wanted "to try to find the best elements to help." To that end, on Saturday he met with moderate German Muslims, and offered them blunt words on terrorism. "Those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison our relations, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful, fair and serene life together," Benedict said. The Muslims he met wholeheartedly endorsed the Pontiff's concerns and desire for inter-faith dialogue, urging that it be extended to a permanent forum to discuss issues such as poverty, globalization, the loss of values, racism and terrorism. The fact that the Pope made no mention of the other issues and only wanted to discuss terrorism suggests that the Vatican may be toughening its line.

Vatican sources say Turkey is on top of the list of prospective destinations for the pontiff's next voyage. Benedict would like to accept the invitation from the Patriarch of Constantinople for the Nov. 30 Feast of St. Andrew. The Turkish government, however, has not yet extended an invitation. They no doubt remember Cardinal Ratzinger's views about the European Union.