Sunday, April 24, 2005

Will the new Pope reach out to the Arab World?

From the NY Times:

New Papacy Stirs Some Concern in the Arab Middle East


AMMAN, Jordan, April 20 - The elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI is stirring some uneasiness in the Arab Middle East, where many remember Pope John Paul II as a champion of some of their causes and fear that his successor will not be as sympathetic.

Pope Benedict's conservative religious teachings are not likely to have a striking impact on Arab daily life. In a region with 300 million Muslims, only about 15 million Arabs are Christians, and of those only a small fraction are Catholics or have ties to the Vatican. Rather, it is the pope's political leanings and his approach to Islam that are of greatest concern here.

"The church decided to close inward, and to focus on its European roots" in choosing Cardinal Ratzinger, said Hussein al-Shobokshi, a Saudi columnist for the pan-Arab daily Al Sharq al Awsat. "The neocons should be happy with this election. He is someone they can do business with."

Many Arabs felt they could do business with Pope John Paul II. During his 26-year reign, John Paul expressed sympathy for Palestinian suffering and opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq. He spoke against the West's materialism while speaking well of the poor, talk that still resonates in many Arab casbahs.

He engaged Muslims and called for interfaith dialogue, working to dispel talk of a clash of civilizations. Many here came to see him as a counterbalance to America, even though he had warm relations with the United States and Israel.

"The Arabs must appreciate what the pope did for them," said the Rev. Riad Hijazin, parish priest of the Latin Convent here in Madaba. "He fought for Arab rights more vigorously than many of the Arabs did."

"The Vatican's point of view is important," said Abdel Monem Said, director of Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It has moral standing. The pope's opinion on Palestinian issues and Jerusalem is very important, so Arabs will be looking closely at the views the new pope expresses."

Some of the views he expressed as a cardinal have raised doubts, which he seemed to address in his first message, at Mass on Wednesday with a promise to "make every effort and dedicate myself to pursuing the promising dialogue that my predecessors began with various civilizations."

Last August he told Le Figaro that Turkey should not be admitted to the European Union, because "Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one."

"The roots that have formed it," he said, are those of Christianity.

Vatican officials said at the time that the church was neutral on the issue, and the cardinal said he had been expressing a personal view. As a cardinal, Pope Benedict also pointed to growing competition between Islam and Christianity for new adherents, especially in the developing world.

"The rebirth of Islam is due in part to the new material richness acquired by Muslim countries," he wrote in an essay, "but mainly to the knowledge that it is able to offer a valid spiritual foundation for the life of its people, a foundation that seems to have escaped from the hands of old Europe."

Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University, said, "This competition will continue, though it will be civil." But Mr. Shobokshi, the columnist, said he worried that focusing on the competition "may serve those trying to sell the idea of a clash of civilizations."

Some Arab political analysts expect the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as pope to mean a return to previous patterns of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Arab world.

"The late pope was an exception," said Muhammad al-Momany, a professor of political science at Yarmouk University in Jordan. "Compare Benedict to the late pope, and you can expect him to be further to the right. He may not be as outgoing or be pushing reconciliation as aggressively as the former pope, but I don't expect a radical turn in the church."

Ultimately, Cardinal Ratzinger's ascension will have the biggest impact on towns like Madaba, a onetime Christian stronghold south of Amman that has grown predominantly Muslim in recent decades. Today it is a microcosm of the complex dynamics facing the Arab world and its relations with Christianity.

"There are two cultures here: an increasingly conservative Muslim one and a more open Christian one," said Sami al-Nahas, a historian who has chronicled the changes in the city. "Increasingly those two aren't mixing."

Five years ago Pope John Paul II visited this biblical town, known for its mosaics and as the spot from which Moses is said to have sighted the Promised Land. In his wake, many residents say, the pope stretched bridges between this city's shrinking Christian community and its rapidly growing Muslim one. A Muslim-Christian dialogue continues, and local figures have worked to dispel the tensions between Christians and some extremist groups.

But much of the work has slowed in recent months, and Christian residents here now worry that they will be forgotten by the church at a critical moment.

"The pope put us under the spotlight, but the changes we needed have not happened," Mr. Nahas said. "He must pay much more attention to the East, because we are the ones most affected by the current political conditions."

Professor Momany sees that as an opportunity as much as a problem. "The Middle East is the best place to reach out to other faiths," he said. "It has the three main religions and is home to their civilizations, and it has tension. So the best place to build his bridges is here."

Katherine Zoepf contributed reporting from Damascus for this article, and Mona El Naggar from Cairo.