Perceived Slights Have Left Many U.S. Muslims Wary of Pope

AP photographer Amy Sancetta captures the sights and sounds of the Pope's visit to New York City. (April 19) Video by AP
By Robin Shulman and Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 20, 2008

NEW YORK -- Pope Benedict XVI has said he would like to reach out to the Muslim community through dialogue, and Muslims were included in the pontiff's meeting with interfaith leaders in Washington on Thursday night. But many Muslims in America remain wary, saying the pope has created the impression that he is insensitive to their faith.

On Sunday, the pope will visit Ground Zero, perhaps the most poignant symbol of the divide between the West and the more extremist elements of Islam. But interviews in New York and elsewhere indicate that even those Muslims who do not hold such radical views are critical of the pope.

Many still recall the pope's September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, in which Benedict quoted a Byzantine Christian emperor saying that the prophet Muhammad brought "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

That lecture sparked days of protests in Muslim countries, some of them violent, and an Italian nun in Somalia was killed in retaliation. The Pope repeated several times that he regretted the offense his speech caused, and that he has deep respect for Islam. But the remarks have caused lingering damage, according to Muslims and some Catholic scholars interviewed.

"I don't think he did enough to apologize," said Omar T. Mohammedi, a member of the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

"For a person of his stature to come out and say this about Islam, it amazes me, it's sad," said Wael Mousfar, president of the Arab Muslim American Federation, a community group in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, a largely Muslim neighborhood. "Islam is the target of everyone nowadays; he just jumped on the bandwagon and joined the crowd."

There have been other perceived slights. For example, the pope confounded Muslims when he baptized a prominent Egyptian-born Italian Muslim convert on international television Easter Sunday.

"This person chose to be Catholic, it's not a problem," said Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. The problem was the pope's celebration of the conversion on a global stage, he said.

Conversion and religious freedom remain major, thorny issues in the relationship between the Vatican and Muslim countries. Some Muslim countries prohibit Muslims from converting, and punishments can include the death penalty -- a position that Catholics find an anathema.

"The whole idea of having civil laws against people converting -- and threatening them with death -- is totally abhorrent to our view of religious liberty," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a theologian with Georgetown University.

Another point of tension between the Vatican and the Muslim world is the issue of proselytizing, which is part of the Catholic mission but condemned by many Muslims.

Some Muslim leaders invited to meet the pope in Washington declined, citing the controversies over the Regensburg lecture and conversion. "I didn't attend," said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who was invited to the interfaith meeting. "The invitation was to be involved in the ceremonies and the pageantry, but not in authentic, in-depth discussions on issues affecting Catholic-Muslim relations today."

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