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(photo credit: AP [file])
In the basic Israeli worldview, the Vatican and its vicar always seemed like the Catholic version of the United Nations and the secretarygeneral.
These two were both international diplomatic organizations, with questionable resources and unclear powers, whose leaders never really said anything definite on any particular conflict, except when it came to the Middle East - where nine times out of ten - Israel was in the wrong.
Both world bodies were uniformly pro-Arab and suspect of harboring hidden but ingrained anti-Semitism, and only in recent years were there signs of a thaw in relations.
Well, now is the time to forget everything we thought we ever knew about the pope - Benedict XVI is no Kofi Annan at prayer.
As Father Peter Medros, a lecturer at Bethlehem University and Catholic priest, said yesterday over the uproar following the pope's Regensburg lecture: "You have to realize two things about this pope; first, he is not a diplomat. Second, he is a German so he likes things to be very clear, even difficult things."
And perhaps that should be the bottom line. After all the clarifications and regrets following the Islamic uproar, the pope, not for the first time, wanted to make clear the challenge facing the West, especially his personal backyard - Christian Europe.
Some of his apologists tried to explain that this was only a theological and theoretical lecture, aimed at a mainly secular European audience. But that was the whole point. The pope sees these people as his main constituents, and he was issuing them a warning.
"His main concerns now," according to Father Peter Medros, who was at pains to emphasize that he is acting as an independent commentator not as a spokesman of Rome, "are the atheism in Europe and the infiltration of Islam into those countries." And the two concerns are intertwined, since "for many of those Muslims, the only point of reference is religious and where there is no religion, there is no way to engage them" says Medros.
Of course, he added, the pope's message was "to start an initiative of dialogue, not one of violence," but this isn't going to be one of those cases where Christians turn the other cheek. "Some critics put us to shame," says Medros, "when before it looked as if we only smiled at terror," he admits without openly criticizing the previous management at the Holy See. Now, Catholics are more likely to remind you that in 1962, they initiated an interreligious dialog at the second Vatican Council but they've yet to see a single document of rapprochement coming from their Muslim counterparts, all those years later.
To hear Catholics talk about their new pope, you'd think they were describing Churchill and his battle against appeasement in the 1930s. But when you look at what he's actually said and done over the last year and a half: opposing Muslim Turkey's joining the European Union as a full member; his implicit condemnation of terror - including placing the responsibility squarely with Muslim leaders; effectively closing down the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and over the last few days - while expressing regret - refusing to apologize for his words at Regensburg, despite the violent threats in the Muslim world.
Pope Benedict XVI might not have anything personal against the faith of Islam but he is definitely worried by the Muslims, especially those who have settled throughout Europe. His view is that they have to give up some of their religious principles, especially their lack of allegiance to the nation-states in which they live and their preference for Sharia (Islamic Law) to the laws of their countries of residence.
As a boy in Nazi Germany, John Ratzinger saw the depths of racial hatred and warfare that Europe could be plunged into, and he is deeply worried that a Europe of large, estranged Muslim communities could spawn terrible wars once again. He also rejects the uneven terms in which the theological dialogue with Islam has been conducted up until now, from now on the watch word at the Vatican is "reciprocity." The pope isn't a neo-con; neither is he very pro-Israel. He joined the "disproportional" chorus of criticism of Israel during the Lebanon War, but when it comes to his own backyard, he isn't going to back down. He sees the spread of Islam through Europe as a definite threat, and a more robust brand of Catholicism is the only weapon he knows to counter it.