9/11 marked crucial turn in Vatican-Muslim relations

By Francis X Rocca, Religion News Service

More recent attacks on Christians in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Egypt and Malaysia have made the issue an even greater priority for the Vatican, said John L. Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and author of “The Future of Islam.”


VATICAN CITY — A few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pope John Paul II invited Muslim leaders to an interfaith prayer summit in Assisi, Italy, the site of a dramatic interreligious peace gathering he had hosted 15 years earlier.

In the shadow of 9/11, John Paul said, the world needed to hear from Muslims and Christians that “religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred and violence.”

Catholic-Muslim dialogue took on a new intensity and sense of urgency. And then came the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, in 2006.

Speaking in his native Germany on Sept. 12, 2006, John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, was delivering a scholarly address on the Western tradition of faith and reason. He quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who described the teachings of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhumane” and “spread by the sword.”

One could almost hear Catholic-Muslim dialogue come to a screeching halt.

The statement sparked Muslim protests worldwide, some of them violent, including the burning of churches and the murder of a nun. Turkey’s top Muslim cleric said the speech revealed “the hatred in (Benedict’s) heart.”

The speech, and the reaction to it, revealed deep tensions between the world’s two largest religions, and complicated the delicate task of building understanding on both sides.

Benedict later acknowledged Muslims’ “understandable indignation” at the quotation, but insisted that he had not meant to endorse the offending words, nor to show disrespect to the Quran, which he described as the “holy book of a great religion.”