A small group of prominent Islamic scholars recently stood at the airport in Rome, waiting to be picked up. But no one showed up. Instead, the academics had to find their own way to the Vatican, where they had been invited to attend a meeting to establish a "Catholic-Muslim Forum."
It was probably just a slip-up on the part of the Vatican. But it was yet another false step in the ongoing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Islamic world.
At Easter, the pope sparked controversy when he personally baptized the Cairo-born journalist Magdi Allam. The baptismal water, wrote the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, was "like gasoline on the fire" of cultures.
After the death in 2006 of the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was known for her fiercely anti-Islam views, Allam is now considered the most vocal critic of Islam in his adopted home country of Italy. "We have allowed the Islamists to take control over mosques in European countries," Allam writes. "The West, with its naïve attitudes, has nourished its own enemy." His latest book is titled "Long Live Israel."
Was the baptism a slip-up or a provocation? It is said that the pope wasn't even aware of who he was baptizing. Perhaps the baptism represents an attempt by Italian monsignors from the curia to thwart the dialogue with Islam. This notion is supported by the fact that Benedict is increasingly turning over his foreign policy to his Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, an Italian.
But given the prominence of Magdi Allam, it is also conceivable that the pope wanted to send a message -- with little regard for the consequences -- against what he perceives as excessive pacifism in the cultural dialogue. Islam supports religious freedom? Well, then, part of that freedom is the freedom to convert to another faith.
Ratzinger triggered a global uproar during a speech in the southern German city of Regensburg in the fall of 2006, when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying: "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."
Meanwhile, Benedict has confessed that the Regensburg speech was no accident. In a letter to students at a papal university, he wrote that his purpose had been to counteract the naïve belief of some people that dialogue with Islam is easy. But he also wrote that he was shocked and completely surprised by reactions in the Islamic world.
The example of Saudi Arabia reveals how difficult this dialogue can be.
Last November, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who is styled the "custodian of the two holy mosques" (in Mecca and Medina), paid the pope a first-ever visit.
The two men seemed to hit it off spiritually. King Abdullah shared Benedict's concerns about the decline of values and family, and the rise of atheism. Benedict, for his part, welcomed the Saudi monarch's proposal to organize a meeting with what King Abdullah described as "our brothers" of all religions, including those from Israel.
Then the pope pointed out to the Saudi king that as of Easter Qatar, his country's neighbor, now has a new church dedicated to the "holy Virgin Mary," making Saudi Arabia the only country on the Arabian Peninsula without a church -- despite the roughly 1 million Christians living in the country, mostly Filipino immigrants. The last priest was forced to leave Saudi Arabia in 1985. The possession of Bibles and rosaries is almost as serious an offence there as the possession of heroin.
King Abdullah promised to consider allowing a church to be built in the kingdom. Informal talks between the Vatican's nuncio in the region, Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hachem, and representatives of the Saudi government have been underway since January.
But in taking his position, Abdullah incurred the wrath of religious leaders in his own country. A leading imam recently demanded the death penalty for two journalists who had expressed sentiments similar to those of their king. The country's grand mufti is strictly opposed to inviting rabbis to a conference.
"It would be possible to launch official negotiations to construct a church in Saudi Arabia only after the Pope and all the Christian churches recognize the prophet Muhammad," said Anwar Ashiqi, who heads an institute for Middle Eastern studies in the Saudi capital Riyadh, in a recent interview with the al-Arabiya satellite television network.
In other words: We'll trade you a church for recognition of the prophet. Now there's transcendence for you.
The five intellectuals stranded at Rome's airport are part of a group of 138 liberal Islamic scholars who wrote a letter to the pope after his Regensburg speech. It was the first time that Muslim clerics of different orientations had spoken with one voice. It wouldn't have hurt the Vatican to have rolled out the red carpet for them.
Especially as it now represents a minority: The Vatican was recently forced to admit that there are now more Muslims in the world than Catholics.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan