Pope's diplomatic woes pile up

31st January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Memories are still fresh of the fury Benedict unleashed in the Muslim world with a speech in September 2006 in which he appeared to endorse the view of an obscure 14th-century Byzantine emperor that Islam is inherently violent.

Vatican City -- Pope Benedict XVI, drawing fire over allowing a Holocaust denier into his flock, has found himself in similar hot water with Muslims, native Indians, Poles, gays and even scientists during his nearly four years as pontiff.

The German pope is struggling to mollify Jews after he brought a breakaway ultra-conservative faction back into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church by rescinding the excommunication of four bishops, including one who insists that no one died in Nazi gas chambers.

Memories are still fresh of the fury Benedict unleashed in the Muslim world with a speech in September 2006 in which he appeared to endorse the view of an obscure 14th-century Byzantine emperor that Islam is inherently violent.

The academic lecture at the German university where he once taught theology sparked violent protests in several countries as well as attacks on Christian targets including a nun who was killed in Somalia along with her bodyguard.

The pope initially said he was "sorry" for having provoked reactions through a "misunderstanding."

But it was not until he travelled to Turkey later in the year that Muslims began to forgive him, after he stood in prayer alongside Istanbul's grand mufti, facing Mecca, at the landmark Blue Mosque.

Benedict made waves again the following year when he travelled to Brazil. Discussing the Christianisation of the country, he said the indigenous people had been "silently longing" for Christ, asserting that European colonisers had not imposed their faith on them.

Ten days later he sought to make amends with a Vatican statement recognising that "unjustifiable crimes" had been committed during the European conquest of Latin America.

In Poland, homeland of Benedict's media-savvy predecessor John Paul II, the pontiff had to make a speedy about-face after he picked a former collaborator with the Polish secret police, Stanislaw Wielgus, to head the Warsaw archdiocese in December 2006.

The pope was forced to accept Wielgus's resignation a month later.

More recently, gays were up in arms over the pope's suggestion that homosexuality is as much of a threat to the survival of the human race as climate change.

Asserting that gender theory blurs the distinction between male and female, the pope called for "an ecology of the human being" to protect mankind "from self-destruction."

Gender theory explores how society designates fixed roles to people based on their gender, and many gay groups say it promotes tolerance and understanding.

The pope's remarks followed hard on the heels of the Vatican's refusal to join a UN appeal for the universal decriminalisation of homosexuality. More than 80 countries have laws against homosexuality.

Other controversies have erupted from incidents that cannot be considered outright papal gaffes, but avoidable all the same.

In January, the pope cancelled a planned speech at Rome's Sapienza University after science professors and students protested that it would violate the secular university's autonomy.

Many scientists fault the intellectual, tradition-minded pope for a series of positions he has taken that they say subordinate science and reason to faith.

In particular, opponents to his visit recalled a 1990 speech in which the pontiff, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, seemed to justify the Inquisition's verdict against Galileo in 1633.

It is with Judaism, however, that Benedict has had the most frequent unfortunate brushes.

During a visit to Auschwitz in May 2006, he portrayed his compatriots not as knowing accomplices in the Holocaust but as victims "used and abused" by the Nazis, whom he labelled a "ring of criminals."

Last year the pope defended the memory of Nazi-era pope Pius XII at a mass to mark the 50th anniversary of his death and urged his rapid beatification -- a step along the path to sainthood.

He later put the controversial pope's dossier on hold.

Also last year, Benedict authorised the use, in certain conditions, of the old Tridentine mass in Latin that was mothballed by the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s. The tradition's Good Friday liturgy includes a prayer for the conversion of the Jews.

Responding to the ensuing controversy, Benedict did not eliminate the prayer, but rather modified it to implore God to "enlighten (Jews') hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the saviour of all men."


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