Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The pope, Islam and Tibet

Speaking in two voices: The pope, Islam and Tibet

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the US came at a very critical time. Just before his visit, the American people had witnessed massive global protests about the Olympic torch, which has increasingly become a symbol of Chinese repression against Tibetans and their religious beliefs rather than a celebration of freedom.

The 81-year-old pontiff summed up the crisis of faith in the modern world of unbridled free market capitalism when he asked, “Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads?” He was admonishing his followers that while the church’s path is known, there is a danger of people taking the road less frequented. In spite of the promises of rising economic prosperity and globalisation, “we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundation” of the social order. American society accepts unmarried couples, unwed mothers, bachelor fathers, same-sex civil unions, multiple sex partners and all kinds conjugal or parental arrangements. Some Americans claim it their religious right to be polygamous. All lifestyles cannot be equally acceptable, according to the church orthodoxy.

The pope asked a meeting of bishops: "Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday and then during the week promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practising Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalised, to promote sexual behaviour contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?” His views on abortion and homosexuality appeal to a much wider audience than 67.5 million American Catholics, the largest single religious denomination in the US. Although the pope opposed the Iraq war in 2003, on abortion and homosexuality he has a kindred soul in the White House, where he was treated as a most honoured guest.In spite of the settlement of thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, which cost the church $2 billion, the pope’s visit was overshadowed by a haunting sense of shame and embarrassment. But I wondered if he was trying to spread the blame across all of American society when he asked, “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?” Although he met some people who were sexually abused as children by clerics, there was no profound sense of atonement in his speeches to the American public. It seemed he was trying to do damage control ~ the way a multinational corporation does when it is hit with a scandal ~ and bring the faithful back to the fold.

Throughout his visit, the pontiff talked about protecting individual rights without any reference to the recent bloody events in Tibet. Perhaps the pontiff does not think much of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama or other religions. He has pooh-poohed the idea of ‘relativism’, which means that other religious paths are not as good Catholicism. Last December the scheduled meeting between Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama was cancelled because China protested that the meeting would “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. The Vatican has been trying to restore diplomatic ties with China and assert its supremacy over the Catholic Church there, which of course China won’t accept.

While calling “for a dialogue of the Christian faith with the modern world, and for a dialogue between all cultures and religions”, Pope Benedict uttered unpardonably inflammatory words against Islam, at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany, in 2005. He quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who in an exchange with a Persian scholar said, “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.”The pope failed to imagine the reaction such an insulting statement would have caused and later tried to apologise. “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address, 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,” he said.

Papal apologists on both sides of the Atlantic did not succeed in assuaging the outraged Muslims.
But what was the pope thinking when he chose a text that did not represent his own or the Catholic Church’s views? When on 19 April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger became the pope, he became the defining voice of the Catholic Church. He could not have been unaware of what he was saying.No doubt the pope was trying to warn the global Catholic community about the gulf that separates it from Islam. His views are not very far from those of President George W Bush, who told the National Endowment for Democracy a few years ago that “Islamic terrorist attacks serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane. Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism.” The Vatican like most of the West does not look at Islam as a humane, gentle and kind religion.

In spite of his ambivalence about other religions and his diplomatic attempts to avoid offending China, the pope in his address to the UN called for outside intervention if a state failed to protect human rights: “If states are unable to guarantee such protection the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations charter and in other international instruments.”

Perhaps the pontiff should put his words into action, meet with the Dalai Lama and condemn Chinese atrocities in Tibet. Would the pontiff dare?

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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