U.S. Groups Mostly Mum on Pope’s Remarks

By Marc Perelman

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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One of Israel’s chief rabbis was quick to condemn the recent comments of Pope Benedict XVI on Islam, but American Jewish organizations were mostly silent.

The Israeli Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, sent a letter written September 17 letter to Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a leading Sunni Muslim legal scholar in Qatar, in which he criticized the pope. Qaradawi is a controversial figure who since 1999 has been banned from entering the U.S. because of his advocacy of violence, including the use of suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq.In the letter, which was written in Arabic, Amar said that “our way is to honor every religion and every nation according to their paths, as it is written in the Book of Prophets: ‘Because every nation will go in the name of its lord.’” “Even when there is a struggle between nations,” Amar added, “it cannot be turned into a war of religions.”

The pope enraged Muslims with a lengthy address on theology last week in his native Germany, in which he quoted 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus saying that everything the Prophet Muhammad brought was evil, “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

In sharp contrast to Amar, most major Jewish organizations did not issue any statements criticizing Benedict. The silence was broken Tuesday, when the Anti-Defamation League sent out a press release — one that condemned the Muslim media for accusing Jews of plotting the pope’s outburst.

The German pontiff expressed regret September 17 that some of his remarks about Islam had drawn fierce condemnations from Muslim religious and political leaders, and that they had sparked violent demonstrations against churches in Muslim countries around the world. He called for a “frank and sincere dialogue.” But while some Muslim leaders accepted his gesture and called for quiet, several others demanded a straight apology. Speculation swirled that an Italian nun murdered in Somalia was the first victim of the uproar.

A Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, was quoted as saying he hoped that the murder was “an isolated event.” He added: “We are worried about the consequences of this wave of hatred and hope it doesn’t have grave consequences for the church around the world.”

In addition, media reports cited an Al Qaeda group calling for the pope to be punished by strict Islamic Sharia law for insulting the members’ religion. Also, an Al Qaeda umbrella group in Iraq promised war on “worshippers of the cross.”

The ADL cited several comments and caricatures published in Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt as evidence that antisemitic “conspiracy theories are being promoted by the Arab/Muslim media, this time in the outrageous claims that Pope Benedict XVI is being manipulated by Jews to attack Islam.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said in the statement, “Objections to the Pope’s comments should be made civilly, not with violence being perpetrated by Muslims against Christians, and not with inflammatory cartoons and editorials against Jews.”

Other mainstream Jewish organizations that often speak out on interfaith issues have not taken a public stance on the recent controversy.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope last year, some Jewish officials expressed concern that he would privilege relations with Muslims and other faiths over the dialogue with the Jews. But the new pontiff and his close aides have since denounced repeatedly the risks posed by Islamic fundamentalism, opposed Turkey’s admission to the European Union and dispatched John Paul II’s top liaison with Muslims, archbishop Michael Fitzgerald to a diplomatic posting in Egypt.

While most of the attention was focused on the pope’s words about Islam, he also offered some hardly noticed comments in his apology last Sunday, which could prompt some discomfort in Jewish circles.

In reply to a rhetorical question about the usefulness of exalting the cross, a tool of execution, the pope quoted the verse from Paul as saying, “We preach the crucified Christ — a scandal for the Jews, a folly for the pagans.” The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported that some Jewish representatives expressed surprise.

Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the Jewish umbrella group in charge of dialogue with the Vatican, said he couldn’t understand why “any Jew should be offended over this, as I think it would be fair to say that the idea of crucifixion is itself a scandal for Jews.”

With reporting from Ha’aretz in Tel Aviv.

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