Dissecting the Vatican's Ramadan Diplomacy

The Pope remains concerned about soothing hurt feelings among Muslims, but some advisors are urging him to pursue the blunt dialogue he initiated in Germany

That singular Roman dialect known as Vaticanese can sometimes turn so vague as to be incomprehensible. But on Friday, when French Cardinal Paul Poupard presented the Vatican's annual message for the end of Ramadan, there was no doubt about what was meant by the "particular circumstances" that had heightened interest in what is usually a boilerplate goodwill missive. Five weeks since Pope Benedict XVI's speech in Germany about faith, reason and violence provoked a backlash among some Muslims, the wheels of Vatican diplomacy are still working overtime to "placate the souls," as Benedict himself had put it in mid-September, in his first discourse following his return from Germany.

The words of Friday's message — and Poupard's decision to hold a press conference for the first time to present it — were quintessential old-style Holy See diplomacy. "I wish you peace, tranquility and joy in your hearts, your homes and your countries," the Cardinal said in the message. "It is good to be able to share this significant moment with you in the context of our ongoing dialogue." Still the message, which is similar to other such annual missives to Buddhists and Hindus, doesn't answer the question that is on many minds in Rome, and beyond: When is Benedict going to pick up where he left off in Regensburg?

That's because in his speech at in Germany, the Pope had effectively challenged Muslims to an inter-faith dialogue less preoccupied with diplomacy. Of course, that speech turned into a worldwide diplomatic incident, largely because Benedict had cited a 14th century Byzantine emperor's statement branding the contribution to religion of Islam's Prophet Muhammad as "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Pope has since clarified that he does not agree with those words, and has repeatedly expressed his esteem for Muslims. Says a senior Vatican official: "We always say that when the house is on fire, the first thing to do is put out the fire." Still, there is a sense that something is changing in Rome, which for decades has focused all dialogue with other faiths on "finding common ground." Asked at Friday's press conference if the conversation between the Catholic Church and Muslims is bound to get more frank, Monsignor Pier Luigi Celata, secretary of the Vatican's pontifical council for inter-religious dialogue, said: "We have to go forward, with more courage than before. This was necessary."

Vatican officials cite a recent letter the Pope received from 38 Muslim intellectuals, which responds to his September speech with detailed arguments. "An exchange on the theme of reason and religion has been launched," Poupard said. Benedict's decision of how and when to return to his talking frankly on the subject is a delicate balancing act. Some in the Vatican hope he continues his post-Regensburg conciliatory tone during his trip in late November to Turkey, noting that any misstep could be explosive in a country that is 98% Muslim. Others say it is a unique opportunity to speak clearly to what will surely be a worldwide audience. In the meantime, two things are certain: An entire diplomatic corps will be busy offering its advice and technical services; and just one man will ultimately decide.

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