Reconstruction of a Global Crisis How the Pope Angered the Muslim World

Pope Benedict XVI triggered a global crisis with his September speech in Germany. His ill-considered comments on Islam -- and the story behind how he came to utter them -- say a lot about how out of touch the Vatican really is.

By in Rome

In the fall of 1966, Paris publishing house Editions du Cerf published the doctoral thesis of a Lebanese immigrant. The work, titled "Manuel II Paléologue, Entretiens avec un Musulman. 7e Controverse," was the kind of book whose pages once had to be separated with a knife. The author was young theologian Théodore Adel Khoury. "My book was never widely distributed in Germany," says Khoury. "It was written in French and Greek. I don't know how he came across the book." The "he" Khoury is talking about is the pope.

Pope Benedict XVI hasn't done any favors for himself in the Muslim world.

Pope Benedict XVI hasn't done any favors for himself in the Muslim world.

Now, 40 years later, Khoury is a retired professor living in a rented house near the northern German city of Münster -- and for a few days Khoury became the world's most renowned expert on Islam. It isn't often that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church refers to someone by name -- as Benedict XVI did four times in a lecture on Sept. 12 at the University of Regensburg in southern Germany. Being singled out like that is an honor, but not exactly one that Théodore Khoury relished.

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.

Those were the words spoken in 1391 by Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos to a Persian scholar. Adel Khoury quoted the sentence in his 1966 doctoral thesis. And in 2006, the quote from the Middle Ages was suddenly at the center of a global religious dispute, the first serious conflict in the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

Crusade couched in the language of academia

Churches were set on fire in the West Bank. Demonstrators in Indonesia chanted: "Crucify the pope." The pope was burned in effigy in Iraq, and in Kashmir the police, in an effort to avoid unrest, confiscated newspapers that had printed the Khoury quote. The pope's lecture, his detractors screamed, was a call to embark on a new crusade, camouflaged in the language of academia -- a new stage in the West-East conflict of the 21st century, a conflict between Christianity and Islam.

Théodore Khoury read about all the repercussions of the pope's speech in the paper. He read about Leonella Sgorbati, a nun who was shot to death in Somalia, and about a senior Italian official from the European Union who, together with his wife, both practicing Catholics, was murdered in the Moroccan capital Rabat. The official version was that the Rabat murder was part of a botched attempted robbery --- but in Brussels, most saw that explanation as a white lie intended to avert further violence.

Four weeks later Khoury received a letter from the Vatican. "The Holy Father wrote to me," he says. "He wrote that he had not expected such a vehement reaction." Khoury, a man who translated the Koran and has been working with Islamic scholars for decades, says he still doesn't understand what actually happened. But one thing is clear to him: "Benedict could have done without the quote. It would have been better."

Today officials at the Vatican refer to the days following the pope's speech as l'incidente -- the accident -- as if it had been nothing but a mistake on the part of the pope. And, they add, he was essentially right. But whatever the case, the Regensburg lecture is now one of the most widely read, widely quoted and controversial lectures since the Sermon on the Mount.

It also has large implications for the journey Pope Benedict XVI will undertake on Tuesday -- to Istanbul, or "Constantinople," as he recently said inadvertently. It's likely to be a sensitive visit, and that there will be demonstrations is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already announced that he will not meet with the pontiff. Instead, Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos will accompany the pope, like a shadow, at his every appearance. Regensburg was a turning point.

The story of the Regensburg lecture says a great deal about conditions in the Roman curia, and about the inability of the world's most successful institutions to deal effectively with the present.

"The limits of dialogue with Islam"

The story began in the summer of last year, when the "circle of pupils," a group of Ratzinger's former postdoctoral students and fellow theologians, came together at the pope's summer residence for a seminar on Islam or, to be more precise, on the "limits of dialogue with Islam."

Turkey is preparing to host a pope who angered many by his September speech.

Turkey is preparing to host a pope who angered many by his September speech.

At the seminar, it was said that Islam has no true understanding of laicism, that it has no central authority and that the Koran is seen as the word of God, not as words inspired by God, which is modern Christianity's interpretation of the Bible. For this reason, the scholars argued, an eye-to-eye "dialogue with Islam" would be problematic. Instead, they concluded, it would be better to treat the idea as a "dialogue with the culture of Islam."

One year later, in July 2006, Benedict XVI received a copy of the latest edition of "Conversations with a Muslim" by Théodore Adel Khoury. Apparently someone felt that, after the "circle of pupils" meeting, it would be helpful to remind the pope of this fundamental text on the matter. With that, the 14th-century dialogue ended up on the pope's desk at his summer residence in Castelgandolfo, where the pope was preparing his trip to Bavaria.

"A scholar always reaches for the books that were part of his education. 1966 was the time when Ratzinger was stocking his library. It doesn't surprise me that he remembered the quote," says Ulrich Sander of Herder & Herder, which has published Ratzinger's works for the past five decades.

There were, of course, other text passages he could have used to introduce a talk on reason and faith. But Khoury's book happened to be sitting on his desk at the time. And Ratzinger also happens to be someone who enjoys provocation and has an aversion to pussyfooting and consensus. A dialogue, in his view, is not conducted with ceremonial embraces and anxious silence, but with logic, words and reason. Benedict XVI is no diplomat.

The text of this lecture was not subjected to review within the curia, and it was only sent to the office of the secretary of state on the day before the pope was scheduled to depart for Munich. Aides say that they practically had to pry the manuscript from the hands of the pope, who continued to fine-tune it until shortly before his departure. It was an important speech for Benedict.

It was also too important to be censored by Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Soldano.

Unusual speech

Copies of the pope's lecture were handed out on Sept. 12, a Tuesday morning, at Munich's four-star Platzl Hotel. Contrary to normal procedure, the lecture was only printed in German and Italian. And, for the first time, the text was marked as being "preliminary."

Victor Simpson, the Associated Press bureau chief in Rome, says: "I have been traveling with popes for the past 30 years. I know how to read a speech. I recognized immediately that this one was unusual."

Simpson called the pope's new press secretary, Jesuit father Federico Lombardi. It was Lombardi's first official trip, and he was in Holy Mass with Benedict when he received the call. Simpson said: "Listen, father, this is a difficult speech. I need some guidance. Could you come over?"

"I'll try," Lombardi replied.

Even the translators noticed the passage about Muhammad. "It must have been obvious to even the most dim-witted members of the curia that this sort of language has to approved by diplomats." But the translators kept their surprise and reservations to themselves.

Another of the few members of the church hierarchy to see the draft speech was too busy to read the text in-depth. "We received an entire packet containing the speeches and prayers for the trip. I don't believe that each of us read each text in its entirety. I, for one, wasn't able to do so until Tuesday."

And because even the Vatican is not immune to conspiracy theories, an official who has worked in the curia under four popes says: "There are a few people who, under John Paul II, carved out important niches for themselves in the church's dialogue with Muslims, and who are now out of a job. It is sad to have to say this, but they allowed him to walk into a trap."

The press corps departed for Regensburg at 7:30 on the morning of the lecture. At about 11 a.m., Lombardi arrived at the press center to meet with journalists from the Associated Press, Repubblica,the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. "There are some rather aggressive remarks against Muslims in the speech," Marco Politi, a Vatican expert at Italian daily Repubblica. "I struggled with the text. That's tough stuff," says Victor Simpson.


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