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The Pope Tackles Faith and Terrorism

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This past Monday it was Sept. 11 in Bavaria too, but you never would have known it if you'd been following Pope Benedict XVI's homecoming visit to his native region. The German pontiff stuck to his itinerary and prepared texts, staying mum on Islamic terrorism even as the fifth anniversary of 9/11 dominated headlines and discussions around the world. Aides said Benedict prayed privately for the victims of the attacks, noting that it is rare for popes to speak out on foreign trips about news events not related to the country being visited. But some reporters grumbled unfavorable comparisons with the shy German pontiff┤s news-generating, geopolitically attuned predecessor.

But the Vatican press corps is slowly learning that it's best to cover Benedict on his own terms. For the 79-year-old would not stay silent for long on the topic of faith-based terror. On Tuesday, in a riveting and provocative university lecture, the Pope explored the philosophical and historical differences between Islam and Christianity—a speech that would become the surprise centerpiece of a five-day visit that many had expected would be mostly just a walk down memory lane. There is little doubt left that Benedict is indeed highly attuned to the risks of fundamentalist terrorism. In fact, it is testament to where this problem stands on his list of priorities that he used the occasion of his triumphant return to Regensburg University, where he taught theology in the 1970s, to deliver a lecture that explored how Christians and Muslims may have historically viewed the relationship between violence and faith, based on the two religions' conceptions of the divinity.

His discourse Tuesday sought to delineate what he sees as a fundamental difference between Christianity's view that God is intrinsically linked to reason (the Greek concept of logos) and Islam┤s view that "God is absolutely transcendent." Benedict said that Islam teaches that God's "will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." The risk he sees implicit in this concept of the divine is that the irrationality of violence can potentially be justified if someone believes it is God's will. "As far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?"

This is indeed Benedict doing it on his own terms. Rather than tackling the challenge of fundamentalist terrorism with a pithy remark packaged for the 9/11 anniversary or reaching for a John Paul-inspired sweeping gesture, the professor Pope went digging into his books. He went so far as to quote a 14th century Byzantine emperor┤s hostile view of Islam's founder. "The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the Pope said. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'" Benedict added "I quote" twice to make it clear these were someone else's words. Nevertheless this reference was undoubtedly the most provocative moment of a provocative lecture. In a sense, explicitly including the Muslim prophet by name, and citing the concept of jihad, was a flashing neon signal to the world that the soft-spoken Pope intends to make himself heard clearly on this defining tension of our times.

It is not the first time he has entered the fray. On his last trip to Germany, to Cologne for Catholic World Youth Day in August 2005, he told a group of Muslims that they have a responsibility to try to halt the violence carried out in the name of their religion. Even earlier on this trip to Bavaria, which ends Thursday, he seemed to refer to Islam's negative view of a Western society that has too little faith, and cited it as the cause for tensions.

But Tuesday's university lecture was a watershed. After laying out the historical contrasts with Islam, the Pope used much of the discourse to call on the West, and Europe in particular, to clearly affirm the value of a faith in God —and a God built on reason. "While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them," he said. "We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons."

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