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Opinion

Opinion: Pope Francis should weigh his words

Pope Francis is a man of words, yet often he simply says what comes to his mind. He recently spoke of an "Arab invasion" in Europe. The pope has just used another rather unfitting term, writes DW's Christoph Strack.

"Open your heart to mercy! Divine mercy is stronger than the sins of men," tweeted the pope on Friday. One would think that the daily tweets are edited by Vatican officials before they are published - and not only because of the 140-character restriction. In reality, Pope Francis expresses himself more sharply.

But the pope's latest controversial remark had his readers resorting to fact-checking. "We can speak today of an Arab invasion. It is a social fact," said Francis. He was not quoted by just any Italian newspaper - they all know that theologically touchy remarks made by the pontiff go down well with readers. No, his words were cited by "L'Osservatore Romano," published by the Holy See itself.

Neighborly love for invaders?

One can only imagine the reactions from Catholic volunteers helping refugees in the German state of Saxony, for example. Active supporters of refugees have already met with plenty of resistance for their efforts. Soon, people will be telling them that even the pope is talking about an "Arab invasion!" The term conjures up images of troops, soldiers and militia.

Francis certainly did not mean it that way, although he did use those words. The term "Arab invasion" needs to be understood in a broader context: It encompasses the challenges and new opportunities connected with the refugee crisis. Europe has seen many invasions in its history, yet "it has always known how to overcome its limitations, moving forward to find itself enriched by the exchange between cultures."

Intensive dialogue with Islam

The word "invasions" was mentioned twice, chosen by a pope who has become a human rights advocate for refugees since his symbolic first trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013. He unceasingly reminds Europe and other wealthy countries of their responsibilities to the less fortunate. Many see him as a beacon of hope.

Muslims (Francis speaks of Arabs and not just Muslims) now view him with a new openness: At the end of January he welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, one of the most powerful Shiites, and Shiite clerics, at the Vatican. Ten days later, he met the grand imam of Al-Azhar from Cairo, one of the most important Sunni clerics. And Francis will soon be the first pope ever to visit Rome's Grand Mosque.

Christoph Strack

DW Correspondent Christoph Strack

The latest choice of words is reminiscent of the low point in Catholic-Muslim relations. In September 2006, Pope Benedict gave quite an intelligent speech on the connection between faith and reason. His rational and detached presentation of a medieval text about sectarian violence triggered criticism, new hatred and demonstrations in the Islamic world, as well as attacks on Christian institutions. Clearly, Benedict was not to blame. However, the words were there and it was a surefire way to spark outrage. Incidentally, a worthwhile read on the power of words is the poem "Unstoppable" by German poet Hilde Domin.

Francis, the pope known for his prophetic symbolism and unconditional love for humans, is often verbally off the mark. He has said that Catholics do not need to breed "like rabbits," or that it's fine for parents to smack their children. Once, he compared crisis-ridden Europe to "a barren woman, incapable of producing children."

Papal chitchat causes speculation

This last example, taken from a speech he delivered at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in November 2014, shows how such a choice of words can take on a life of its own. Four weeks ago, rumors began circulating that at the time, Chancellor Angela Merkel had angrily called the Vatican and criticized the pope about the skewed image of Europe as a barren woman. The source of this information: Apparently, the pope had told an Italian journalist.

The German government was asked about the matter, but Merkel said that she could not recall the phone conversation. The Vatican eventually confirmed that the conversation had never taken place and that the pope had not mentioned the alleged phone call to an Italian journalist. This may all be true. Who knows? Perhaps during her last visit to the Vatican, Merkel elaborated on appropriate and inappropriate metaphors for Europe. And maybe the Italian journalist had simply misunderstood the papal chitchat.

Even now, after the "invasions" remark, the Vatican says it regrets that a page-long speech containing a deeper meaning has been reduced to this remark. This anachronistic statement comes from an organization that regularly uses Twitter and is partial to clear and concise messages. Maybe they should tell their boss to weigh his words more carefully. Or, at least, to weigh them more often.

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