In early March, the media had a field day announcing that Pope Benedict XVI had issued a list of “new sins.” As with many reports on religion, the new sins articles were slathered with self-satisfied secular glee. They were also wrong. The story started spinning when comments — made to a group of priests by a Cardinal on the subject of hearing confessions — were made public. The Cardinal’s goal was to underscore that moral choices were not limited to what we did when alone, but also included what we do as citizens of the world. Hence, the Cardinal’s focus on caring for the environment, preventing pollution, and ending poverty, as acts of social responsibility. The Pope was asked to comment on the Cardinal’s remarks when he met with the group later, but there was no list. The Pope didn’t try to upstage Moses or Jesus.
Thankfully the spin cycle was abbreviated by Wednesday of Holy Week, (March 18th), when the attention of the media was transfixed by the latest pronouncement from the elusive Al Qaeda mastermind. His words inspired Matt Drudge to run an all caps red-letter headline: “Bin Laden Slams Pope.” Certain members of the press sustained a serious case of whiplash. More than one must have (secretly) wondered how that purported list of new sins could have caused bin Laden go ballistic at Benedict. Then came the transcript of the tape in which bin Laden attributed his wrath to the planned reprinting of a dozen controversial Danish cartoons, first published two years ago, that satirize Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. This time around, Bin Laden was not focusing his threats solely at the Danes. This time he told the entire EU to beware. And — just in time for Easter — Osama shared his latest pet conspiracy theory. He asserted that the decision to reprint the cartoons was part of a nefarious Papal plot designed to gin up a new Christian Crusade against the Muslim world. Nice cover story, but there are several other provocations afoot — any one of which could have put the wind up the terrorist kingpin.
Back on March 5th, Vatican officials and a visiting group of five Muslim leaders agreed to establish a permanent dialogue. The first meeting of The Catholic Muslim Forum is scheduled for early November of 2008 in Rome. The Pope will deliver a message to the 24 attendees. This announcement comes two years after remarks Benedict made — at his former university home, in Regensburg, Germany — which angered many Muslims. A passage in the Pope’s speech was interpreted as an accusation that that Islam was violent and irrational.
The misunderstanding, for which the Pope expressed regret, resulted in the deaths of about 50 people and a bit of property destruction by indignant Islamists. It also prompted 138 Muslim scholars to pen and sign “Common Word,” an appeal for the Vatican and other Christian church leaders to enter into a dialogue because “the very survival of the world itself” depended on it. Since the document was created, the number of Muslim signatories has grown to 240. As Ibrahim Kalin, of Turkey’s Seta Foundation, noted: “Muslims and Christians make up about 55 percent of the world and there will be no peace in the world unless there is peace between the two communities.” Of course, the crucial question for many will be: Peace at What Cost?
Osama is — no doubt — also reeling from fresh territorial issues. Only days before his Crusade tirade, the first (ever) Catholic Church opened its doors in Doha, Qatar. Services at Our Lady of the Rosary will be held in 14 languages to accommodate the estimated 150,000 — predominantly Catholic Christians — from 100 countries, who reside in Qatar. The first worship service — attended by thousands of people — was held under heavy security, but it went off without disruption. The mass was led by the Pope’s special envoy, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, (a red flag title if there ever was one to devout Muslims) Cardinal Ivan Dias. Vatican Radio described this event as one “of historical importance which, after 14 centuries of prohibitions, sees a place of worship for Catholics established.” Mind you, the building in which worshippers gather has no outward symbols of Christianity — no crosses or bells — but the land on which the structure stands was donated by Qatar’s Emir (Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani) – in power since a coup in 1995. The Emir favors interreligious dialogue. Not so all of his ministers, one of whom has asked for a countrywide referendum before other Christian churches are approved.
That same week, news began to circulate that the Vatican was negotiating to open a Catholic Church in Saudi Arabia. This possibility emerged following King Abdullah’s visit to the Vatican last November, where he was welcomed by the Pope. The man in charge of this dialogue is Archbishop Mounged El-Hachem, the papal envoy to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. That title speaks volumes. Although all Saudi citizens are required by law to be Muslims, opening a Catholic church in Saudi is viewed — by both parties — as a sign that reciprocity and respect between Islam and Christianity is not impossible.
Now if 9-11 was a protest against the US military presence in the Middle East, most specifically Saudi Arabia, just imagine how annoyed Bin Laden must be about King Abdullah giving permission for Christian churches to be established on Muslim turf. But wait — there’s more.
The Saudi Arabian government has just announced that 40,000 Imams will be “retrained” to eliminate extremist tendencies in their teachings. (Maybe they can reserve a space for Rev. Wright). According to Al-Sharq al Awsat, a prominent Saudi newspaper, five years ago, a Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs and Center for Religious Dialogue was inaugurated to disseminate a more moderate interpretation of Islamic tradition and encourage religious tolerance. Imam retraining is part of the plan. Since the Center was created, at least 1000 Imams — judged to be inciting youth to join the global jihad — have been banished from their mosques. When King Abdullah visited the Bush Ranch in Texas, there were snickers about oil and family deals. But it turns out that the President was negotiating with the Saudi King to “rein in” militant clerics. Some observers are quick to point out that this may only be an exercise in superficial shuffling for the sake of appearances. Time will tell.
Another straw — piled on to help break the camel’s back — came during the Easter Vigil this past weekend when the Pope officiated at the baptism of seven people. Among that select group was the Egyptian (and Muslim) born Magdi Allam — now a Catholic convert — who serves as Deputy Editor of Italy’s Corriere delia Sera paper and is a noted commentator on Muslim and Arab Affairs.
Small wonder Osama is succumbing to dark conspiratorial thoughts. He must be terrified to ask himself “what next?” Can’t you just picture him — in a state of religious frenzy — desperately trying to find some Alka Seltzer or a couple of aspirins in his militant Islamic medicine chest?