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Current Affairs

Opinion: A Calculated Risk

Muslims may have been angered by Pope Benedict XVI's recent speech in Regensburg. But Orthodox Christians, whom he will soon visit in Turkey, are bound to give him a warm welcome because of it, writes DW's John Berwick.


The pope has apologized. Not for something done by fellow-Christians centuries ago, as his predecessor John Paul II did on Good Friday 2000. Benedict XVI has apologized for something he himself did earlier this month. Now that's truly remarkable. Pious popes may go to confession, but they don't generally make public apologies. True, Benedict hasn't actually admitted he did anything wrong, but he has said he's sorry that his remarks on violence and Islam earlier this month in a lecture given at Regensburg University were "misconstrued" and that they hurt Muslims. The press seems to have decided that this is an "apology." And most Muslim leaders have accepted it as such.

The apology was necessitated by the violent reaction in the Muslim world to the pope's quoting the 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus on the subject of Christianity and Islam: "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". Muslims were outraged at the pontiff's quoting the mediaeval emperor. They rioted in Pakistan, torched churches in the West Bank, and murdered a Catholic nun in Somalia. Ever since the Regensburg Lecture, the Vatican has been scrambling to limit the damage. Benedict XVI has said that the quotation does not reflect his own views. He summoned Islamic envoys to his summer residence in Castelgandolfo to assure them of his deep respect for their religion. But the question remains: Why did he do it in the first place? Why did he begin a lecture on faith and reason by quoting the obscure Greek emperor Manuel II?

A naive pontiff?

It may be true, as the Vatican insists, that the press reported the quotation out-of-context. But didn't the pontiff realize it was inflammatory? Is it plausible that he forgot for a moment that he is a public figure in the age of 24-hour TV news? Anything he says (or quotes) is a potential "sound-bite." Are we to believe that he simply lapsed into his old role as a university professor and allowed himself a provocative quotation or two to make his students sit up and take notice? Is Benedict XVI really that naive? And who was this Manuel, anyway?

Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425) was one of the last Christian rulers of Byzantium. He was the father of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, who is revered by Greek Orthodox Christians as a saint. There's even a statue of the "ethno-martyr" St Constantine in front of Athens Cathedral. During Manuel II's reign, the Turks had conquered most of the Byzantine provinces, devastated and pillaged Greek cities, and enslaved thousands of Christian women and children. In 1394, the sultan laid siege to Constantinople, inflicting hunger and suffering on the Christian residents of the city for eight years. Naturally, the emperor had a rather jaundiced view of Islam. So why did the pope quote Manuel II as an authority on "jihad"?

Constantinople vs. Istanbul

Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict is not a pope who enjoys travel. Yet, we are told, he has a burning desire to visit Turkey. A trip is planned for November. Now, this is the man who, as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith – the chief theologian of the Catholic Church, said Turkey had no place in the European Union and should rather join a league of Muslim states. It would seem therefore that he is not going to Turkey because he views that country as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, as Ankara likes to present itself.

It is not even dialogue with Muslims that Benedict will be seeking in Istanbul – though he does see that as an urgent political issue. The main purpose of his trip is to visit the most senior cleric of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. The patriarch is the chief spokesman of the Eastern Orthodox communion. His official title is as impressive as anything the pope might claim: "His Most Sublime All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch." And his most important function is to preserve the unity of the eastern church, just as the pope's main function is to preserve the unity of the western church.

Desirable unification

Benedict XVI has an ambitious agenda. He wants to reclaim Europe for Christianity. That project may seem unrealistic, but a first step would be to reunite divided Christians. In the pope's view, theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are so great that little progress can be expected on that front. But Eastern Orthodoxy, the second largest Christian communion in the world after the Roman Catholic Church, is a different matter.

There are no major theological differences separating the two communions. As the Catholic Encyclopedia says, this is "perhaps the only prominent case of a pure schism, of a breach of inter-communion caused by anger and bad feeling, not by a rival theology." Some form of reunion is not only feasible; from Benedict's point of view, it is highly desirable.

Benedict has a natural affinity to many aspects of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He has criticized attempts in his own Church during the twentieth century to modernize the liturgy; the Eastern Orthodox liturgies have resisted reform. The pope has criticized the historical-critical approach to biblical studies, pioneered by German Protestant scholars in the nineteenth century and developed by Catholic exegetes in the twentieth.

Eastern Orthodox scholars are equally skeptical of this "scientific" approach to scripture. So what is keeping them apart? Over the centuries, the disagreement between the two communions has mainly focused on papal claims to authority and precedence. Significantly, Benedict dispensed with the traditional papal title "Patriarch of the West" at his election – as though to remove that difficulty.

A gesture of solidarity

The pope is 79 years old and in poor health. When he was elected, many said openly that he was an interim pope. He knows that he won't live to see his dream of a re-evangelized Europe come true. But the first step in that agenda – unity with the Eastern Orthodox communion – appears within his grasp. His reference in the Regensburg Lecture to the beleaguered Byzantine emperor Manuel II, heroically resisting the hostile tide of Islam, may have angered Muslims around the world, but it will have been understood by the world's 240 million Eastern Orthodox Christians as a dramatic gesture of solidarity.

The pope has apologized. The reaction of Muslims has probably been stronger than the Vatican had anticipated; but the long-term damage to Christian-Muslim relations seems less than it feared. I believe it was a calculated risk. In November the pope will meet Patriarch Bartholomew I, and no doubt he will receive a warm welcome.

John Berwick is DW-TV's religious affairs correspondent (win).

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