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Pope steps into row over Islam

india Updated: Sep 14, 2006 02:43 IST
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Pope Benedict XVI has stepped into the controversy over Islam and violence during a visit to Germany, citing historic Christian commentary on holy war and forced conversion.

In a speech at the university where he once taught theology, Benedict made an unusual reference to jihad, or holy war - a concept used by today's Islamic extremists in an effort to justify suicide bombings and other attacks on the West.

Benedict's speech was about faith and reason, and how they cannot be separated and are essential for "that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today." The German pope quoted from a book recounting a conversation between a 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel Paleologos II and an educated Persian on the truths of Christianity and Islam. "The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the pope said.

"He said, I quote, '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,"' he quoted the emperor as saying.

Clearly aware of the delicacy of the issue, Benedict added, "I quote," twice before pronouncing the phrases on Islam and described them as "brusque," while neither explicitly agreeing with nor repudiating them.

"The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable," Benedict said. He did not relate the Persian scholar's response to the emperor.

"Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul," the pope said.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope was not giving an interpretation of Islam as "something violent" although the spokesman said the religion contains both violent and non-violent strains.

Benedict did not touch directly on the current controversy over Islamic extremism, although it is an issue he follows closely with concern. In Cologne, Germany, last year he urged Islamic leaders to take responsibility for their communities and teach their young to abhor violence.

Last week, he told a gathering in Assisi, Italy, of Christian, Muslim and Jewish representatives that no one can "use the motive of religious difference as a reason or pretext for bellicose behavior toward other human beings."

Benedict will make his first visit to a Muslim country in November, when he is scheduled to travel to Turkey. Gerlinde Axmann, a 40-year-old social worker, watched the speech on one of the large screens set up in the square near the cathedral. "That was a very important start to dialogue with Muslims amid the terrorist threat," she said, calling Benedict's appeal to reason "a building block toward finding a way to argue with each other without using weapons."

"I think it's very important for him to bring these things up in society," she said. "Muslims aren't going to take us seriously until we become conscious of our own values. For example, they take the pope much more seriously than others in the West." The 79-year-old Benedict earlier celebrated Mass for some 230,000 people, the second-largest crowd of his six-day homecoming tour, which ends Thursday.

From atop the altar platform, the pope looked over a vast, good-tempered throng dotted with blue-and-white Bavarian flags and the yellow-and-white Vatican banners.

In discussing faith and reason, Benedict in his sermon at Mass scoffed at the idea of a "mathematically ordered cosmos" without any hand of God. He said this would mean "nothing more than a chance result of evolution."

"We believe in God. This is a fundamental decision on our part."

The message echoed the one he gave during a Mass on Sunday in Munich, where Benedict warned modern societies that excessive faith in science and technology had made them "hard of hearing" and deaf to God's message.

Eva Renz dozed in the sun as she waited for the pope, having been on the road since 3 a.m. (0100 GMT) with her husband and six children.

"His presence is important because he is a representative of Christ," she said. "I brought all the children because it's important for them to see this huge crowd and all the joy." Some people turned out in spite of disagreeing with Benedict's conservative stands such as his opposition to ordaining women and married men.

Machine shop worker Kurt Kellner, 40, came to the Mass but was skeptical about whether Benedict would win him over. "I know his positions, they're not entirely my opinions. I want to take part in the event," he said, calling Benedict "relatively good" as pope. "He knows how to move people," he said.

In his university speech, Benedict stressed that "a reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering a dialogue of cultures." But he assured that his critique of modern reason "has nothing to do with putting the clock back."

"The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly," he said.

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