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.

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.

Foto: AFP

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."

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.

Part II: A Muhammad "evil and inhuman"

By this time, Lombardi had received anxious calls from his office in Rome. "There are problems. You must speak with the Holy Father." Lombardi's response was that one cannot tell a pope what to say in his own speech. He told the journalists: "The pope certainly has no intention of telling anyone here that Islam must be characterized as violent." Lombardi's comments were businesslike and he showed no sign of concern.

"We had the same situation in Krakow when he visited Auschwitz," says Marco Politi. "The word Shoah did not appear in the text of the speech that was handed out. Navarro-Valls probably spoke with the pope, and the word was inserted at the last minute."

But Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who ran the Vatican's press office for twenty years, had just retired, and there was no one with sufficient authority to tell Benedict XVI that he would be better off deleting the passage about Muhammad. Indeed, a minor bit of legitimate editing to delete the words "only evil and inhuman" would have been sufficient to deflect the impending storm.

No one knows whether Federico Lombardi mentioned the matter to the pope on the day of the lecture. The affable Jesuit is no longer willing to comment on the Regensburg affair.

Under Pope Wojtyla, every speech was read by at least two other people, including the Vatican's chief theologian and a deputy in the office of the secretary of state, usually Argentinean Leonardo Sandri. But Benedict dispensed with this procedure. After all, a German university professor is not about to submit one of his lectures to anyone else for review.

But at the very least, Archbishop Paolo Sardi -- an official responsible for papal speeches and who passes them on to translators -- must have read the lecture previously. Ratzinger's private secretary Prelate Georg Gänswein was probably also in the picture. But apparently no one believed it possible that a quote from Byzantium could reignite the still-smoldering controversy over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The infallible needs spin doctors

The Vatican has no "war room" where officials take care of damage control when a media catastrophe occurs, nor will one be created after Regensburg. The logic? Someone who has already been judged to be infallible enough to be made pope doesn't need spin-doctors. Indeed, Lombardi himself had just told the Catholic News Agency CNA that the pope's thinking was completely clear, and that this explained why he had no need for a personal spokesperson.

But managing public relations has become a more difficult task under the new pope than under his predecessor. "It is easier to communicate with gestures, whereas speeches must be read in a number of different ways," Navarro-Valls said after the Regensburg lecture. "If I had remained in office, it's quite possible that none of this would have happened. It was a wonderful text, but a few press agencies packaged it in misleading ways. No one in the audience, which included a few Muslims, understood the lecture the way it was characterized later on."

On that Tuesday in Regensburg, no one seemed to have any idea of the storm of outrage it would unleash. If the text of the speech about to be given was distributed to a few senior officials traveling with the pope (and if they read it), no one decided to intervene. Indeed, the prevailing sentiment might have been that by that point only prayer could help, and that perhaps no one would notice the comments about Islam.

At 5:00 p.m. Benedict XVI walked down the steps between the rows of seats in the auditorium at the University of Regensburg. He was in a festively-decorated room full of likeminded individuals and scholars. Heckling was clearly not to be expected. When the pope mounted the stage, everyone in the room stood up and applauded, and everyone felt moved and deeply honored to be in his presence. Professor Joseph Ratzinger was about to deliver his last lecture ever at the University of Regensburg, where he once taught. He was expected to revisit the topic of his inaugural lecture in Bonn, close the circle, separate and then interweave the poles of reason and faith. It was his favorite topic, his life and his university. Joseph Ratzinger had entered his own Garden of Eden. The pope was in paradise.

Benedict XVI likes to begin his speeches with something tangible -- a passage from the Bible or a reference to something topical -- before moving deeper. He likes to speak about the main topics that interest him -- and perhaps spur on the debate within his church a little. He is not interested in starting a crusade. Ratzinger is no politician, nor is he a fundamentalist. He's a fundamental theologian.

"Spread by the sword"

Dr. Pope, the professor, began by remembering the good old days at the bishop's seminary, when lectures were still written by hand and the concept of universitas scientiarum (or of the essential unity of science) was a lived, everyday reality -- an "internal coherence of the cosmos of reason." Then he quoted the book whose pages have been cut open -- a book he says he "recently" stumbled upon again. He quoted Manuel II Palaiologos, a Byzantine emperor that none of the journalists in the audience is likely ever to have heard of before.

He addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Mohammed 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.'

Ratzinger improvised the phrase "a brusqueness that we find unacceptable" -- it was not in the original manuscript. Perhaps his secretary convinced him to change his speech after all. But the quote stayed -- it was important to him. And he was too much of a German professor to refrain from quoting the passage in full in Regensburg.

Cardinal Walter Kasper  was sitting at the very front of the lecture hall. He hadn't seen the text of the lecture either. (This man never shows anyone anything, he'll tell a guest later. Sure, he may be "gscheit" or "clever" -- but not even a pope can know everything.) When Benedict XVI got to the part about Muhammad, Kasper cringed: This is going to mean trouble, he thought. It had been a long time since a pope had publicly questioned one of the central concepts of another world religion -- such as Islam's concept of jihad -- so directly. It had also been a long time since a pope had quoted a statement as critical of Islam without clearly distancing himself from it.

But no pope had ever presented as lucid and well-argued a hymn to reason either. Benedict's lecture was a song of praise for the university as a site of dialogue. He said: "The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature."

Ratzinger was still speaking when the Italian news agency Ansa issued a wire at 17:28 p.m.: "Pope: Islam's Holy War is contrary to God and reason." A more comprehensive summary of the "densely worked and elaborate lecture" followed at 17:36. The passage on Palaiologos was quoted, and the general context -- the fundamental importance of logos for faith -- was sketched, but only in the wire story's last sentence.

Dispatching the good news

The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Soldano, was sitting right next to Cardinal Kasper, but his German isn't so good. "What was that quote at the beginning?" he asked Kasper when the final round of applause finished. The man who virtually governs the Vatican discovered he didn't have the faintest idea what one of the Pope's most important texts was about.

At the time, Soldano had only three more days in office. He would have liked to remain in office for another year, but Benedict decided to replace him and had appointed one of his confidants, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, as Soldano's successor instead.

Victor Simpson, the bureau chief of the Associated Press in Rome, was impressed by the lecture. "He wanted to say it, and he said it," Simpson said afterward. "You can't have a dialogue if you're trying to stay politically correct. He's taken the heat." Simpson is from New Jersey and he lost a daughter in a Palestinian attack on the Roman airport Fiumincino in 1985. He knows what the Pope was talking about.

God is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.

During the speech, Simpson leaned over to one of his colleagues and said, "I knew he's a mentsch." The word, in Yiddish, is great praise. Afterward, Simpson made his way to the press room in order to dispatch the good news.

But Phil Pullella from the Reuters news agency saw things a bit differently. He began his report by noting that Pope Benedict XVI invited Muslims to engage in a "cultural dialogue" on the premise that the Islamic concept of jihad is unreasonable and contrary to God's nature.

Already in the a.m., editors knew that something was up. They had the rest of the day to develop the story: to ask Muslims what they think of the Palaiologos quotation. Having actually read or listened to the speech was not a prerequisite for answering the question. And so the ball got rolling.

Alessandra Borghese has a papal ancestor herself. Her surname stands chiselled into the front of St. Peter's basilica in giant letters. Years ago, the princess was already called "Little Ratzinger" because of her sympathies for the current pope. On the day of the pope's speech, she was visiting her friend Gloria von Thurn und Taxis in Gloria's castle in Regensburg.

Part III: Reasoned dialogue

Borghese knows most Vatican experts. "If you want to understand this press scandal, there's one thing you mustn't forget: The overwhelming majority of Vatican experts aren't Ratzinger fans; they certainly weren't enthusiastic about him before the conclave, nor during it." Ever since Ratzinger took office, many have been waiting for the Teutonic bulldozer to make his first wrong move.

Marco Politi says now that "the lecture was no blunder. It's well written and well thought out," he says. "The quotation was a blow to the face for moderate Islam. It's part of a logical development. After all, the pope has had reservations about the way the dialogue with Islam was conducted under Pope John Paul II ever since he took office. Unlike Wojtyla, the current pope isn't dreaming of climbing Mount Sinai in order for all monotheistic world religions to pray together. He wants to set up signposts in his dialogue with Islam and say: This is an aspect that doesn't follow the path of rationality."

Simpson too is convinced that Ratzinger knew what he was doing. "He made only two minor changes to the lecture when he spoke. He must have known that this passage was explosive -- handle with care." Things stayed quiet on Wednesday. In Germany, the significance of the passage on Islam was noted only by two papers, the dailies Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Berliner Tagesspiegel.

But the Italian dailies set the tone. The conservative Corriere della sera discovers "nothing resembling a refutation of Palaiologos's view, Ratzinger even seems to hold essentially the same position."

Urdu, Turkish, Hindi and Persian

The New York Times weighed in not long afterwards saying that the pope's lecture used "unflattering language about Islam." The story immediately appeared on its Web page, and was sent on from there. BBC World Service dispatched the news in Urdu, Turkish, Hindi and Persian.

Still, no question about the passage on Islam was asked during the final press conference at Munich airport on Thursday. Manuel II Palaiologos seemed to have disappeared back into the past.

It's only when the journalists were already heading for their flights back to Rome that their mobile phones began to ring with the news that the Grand Mufti had already registered his displeasure with the speech in Turkey. He accused Benedict XVI of having displayed a "crusader's mentality" and a "hostile attitude." Turkey's President of Religious Affairs, Ali Bardakoglu, will later say he hadn't even read the text of the lecture at this point.

Two hours after touchdown at Rome's Ciampino airport, headlines like "Pope infuriates the Muslim world" were scrolling across the screens of news programs the world over. They referred to the pope's "disparaging remarks on the Koran" causing "unrest." Lombardi issued a clarifying statement the same evening -- but it was already far too late.

Théodore Koury was on the road when he found out his name had suddenly become the center of a developing religious dispute. "A former assistant wrote to me by e-mail, pointing out that my name had been quoted by the pope," he said. And not just by the pope.

During the hours and days to come, the statement by Khoury quoted by Benedict became the driving force behind a media tsunami -- one whose effects were felt around the world. In Qatar, Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, Al Jazeera's house televangelist, called out a "day of peaceful rage." In Pakistan, thousands of Muslim clerics and scholars demanded the pope be removed from his post.

Weather from the Old Testament

The deputy leader of Turkey's governing party, Salih Kapusuz, issued a statement that the pope would enter history on par with Hitler and Mussolini: "He has the dark mentality of the Middle Ages. He is a pitiful being who has not benefited from the spirit of the Reformation in the Christian world."

The pope's lecture was shamelessly instrumentalized by all sides. The German weekly Welt am Sonntag featured a crusading editorialist writing about "the struggle for freedom -- mainly freedom of thought -- against imprisoned, oppressed and manipulated thought. This cultural clash cannot be avoided."

On Sunday, the airspace above Castelgandolfo was closed to air traffic and plain clothes anti-terrorism units mingled with the pilgrims. It was raining heavily -- weather seemingly straight from the Old Testament. Al Jazeera aired a live broadcast of the words Benedict spoke before the Angelus prayer: "At this time," the pope intoned, "I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought."

The comments were about as close to an apology that any pope has ever come. But the final step -- the genuine "peccavo" or apology, the "I have sinned" -- was never heard.

"That was no accident," Tübingen-based theologian Hans Küng said the week before last. In his view, it's inconceivable that a thinker of the caliber of his former colleague Ratzinger could have made his comments about Islam inadvertently. "He should have read my book first," Küng said. Ratzinger "probably wanted an intellectual debate but failed to foresee the international consequences," Vatican expert Marco Politi believes.

Politi's hypothesis seems supported by the fact that the disclaimer in the reworked, official version of the pope's lecture, issued in October, refers only to the "polemic" and the "unacceptably brusque form" of the Byzantine emperor's remark -- not to its content. Benedict explicitly says he agrees with Manuel's position on the "relationship between faith and reason."

The media catastrophe that started in Regensburg was partly due to the clumsiness of the Vatican's newly staffed press agency. Another reason was the absence of a person in the pope's orbit with the courage to warn him about possible mistakes -- someone without overblown respect for his authority. The curia is now counting on Cardinal Bertone as a reliable reviewer of speeches and lectures penned by Benedict. But Bertone's critical distance is not so great -- he prefers to differ from himself than from the pope.

The mistake

Benedict XVI spoke about the fundamental importance of the logos -- the "Word." At the same time, he underestimated the explosive potential of the spoken word in today's world. "In the beginning was the Word." That's more than just the opening phrase of St. John's gospel: It's also the fundamental rule of scandal. In today's global communication, "logos" is the 10-second soundbite, not the full text of a lecture, complete with footnotes.

That was the mistake.

It was the only mistake. For even as the debate over inter-religious dialogue and the role of Muhammad continues, a "Center for Christian Culture" is being opened -- with the support of the both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Vatican. And on Oct. 15, 38 Islamic scholars published their open letter to the pope. They included Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Takshiri from Iran, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and dignitaries from Russia, Bosnia, Istanbul and Oman.

The letter is scholarly and full of medieval references -- as if written to be read in Regensburg. It paints a different picture of contemporary Islam. "Jihad" doesn't necessarily mean "holy war," the authors write: It can also mean "struggle in the way of God." The letter points out that, under Islam, "non-combatants are not permitted or legitimate targets," adding that "If a religion regulates war and describes circumstances where it is necessary and just, that does not make that religion war-like, any more than regulating sexuality makes a religion prurient."

It marked the first time respected Islamic scholars had engaged with the content of a speech by the pope. They even defined the place of reason within faith as if they had studied under Professor Ratzinger: In their letter, the scholars argued that "there is a consonance between the truths of the Koranic revelation and the demands of human intelligence."

And so, even human error might occasionally serve a purpose.