In Search of a Real Inter-Religious Dialogue

In a September 12, 2006 lecture on faith and reason at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI used a monologue to propose a “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.” ( “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006) He exemplifies how talk can serve to reveal or conceal reality, elevate or obscure truth, clarify or cloud injustice, confront or comfort oppressors.

Pope Benedict employed a “dialogue,” which was actually a monologue, to make his own point that “spreading the faith” by sword rather than by word is “unreasonable,” as “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” “Spreading the faith” is about convincing people by reason, which is God’s way-the Christian way-not by death threats and blood-letting. (Ibid)-which Benedict’s quoted “dialogue” implies is the Muslim way.

The so-called selective “dialogue” Pope Benedict cited to support his “faith and reason” argument, was between 14th Century “erudite Byzantine [Christian] emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian [Muslim scholar] on the subject of

Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.” Benedict quoted the Christian emperor, who, with “startling brusqueness,” said to his Persian “interlocutor” on “the central question about the relationship between religion and violence: ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'” (Ibid)

Pope Benedict continued the “dialogue”: “The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. . . . ‘Whoever would lead someone to faith,'” the emperor explained, ” ‘ needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats. . . . Not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.'” (Ibid) Benedict concluded his lecture by repeating, ” ‘Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God,’ said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God in response to his Persian interlocutor [italics added].” Benedict then added, “It is to this great logos . . . that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.” (Ibid)

” ‘ Not to act reasonably . . . is contrary to the nature of God,’ said Manuel . . . in response to his Persian interlocutor.” What had the “Persian interlocutor” said to elicit such a response from Manuel? What were the “educated Persian’s” own responses in the dialogue? His “truth” about Islam was not recorded in the dialogue, even though Pope Benedict said, “The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man,” (Ibid) Nor is quoted the “Persian interlocutor’s” answer to the emperor’s “startling brusque” condemnation of Mohammed as a messenger of violence and Islam as “evil and inhuman.”

Pope Benedict apparently sought to justify these critical omissions, and thus his self-serving example of Catholic triumphalism, this way: “It was presumably the emperor himself who set down the dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor” (Ibid). “In greater detail?” No “details” of the “Persian interlocutor’s” arguments are evidently found in the dialogue. Not even his name!

Violence is contrary to an ethic of universal humanness and to divinity that affirms everyone’s sacred worth and rights. But Pope Benedict’s lecture on “spreading the faith” through “reason” and not “violent conversion” does violence to history and honesty and humanness. He overlooked centuries in which Christians and Jews lived safely in Muslim-ruled countries but not Muslims and Jews under Christian rulers. (see the informative “Muhammad’s Sword” by Uri Avnery, Znet, Sept. 25, 2006) His quoted association of Islam with violence seems to reinforce the widespread distortion of the meaning of jihad, which is not about waging “holy war” but about “speaking truth before an oppressive ruler (Nasa-I, 4209),” defending against invaders, “and the greatest form of jihad, striving against one’s own impurities (Ibn Hibhan 4862) . . . . The word jihad literally means ‘to strive and struggle'” (Imam Salih Yucel, personal communication).

Pope Benedict conveniently omitted any reference to Christianity’s long history of “spreading the faith” through the sword, to present day 21,000 pound “shock and awe” bombs. From Constantine to the Bush administration’s unprovoked, horribly violent invasion and occupation of Iraq-and in between the “Crusades,” the murderous exploitation and annihilation of the peoples of the Americas, the brutal slavery of Africans for centuries, America’s continuing White-controlled hierarchy of access to political and economic power and thus to health, and the genocidal Holocaust with over six million Jewish victims.

So much violence and conquest and economic exploitation and imperialism, often initiated and supported and accommodated by Christians in the name of “Christ.” Jesus’ assumed resurrection and accompanying words serve as a pretext for political and corporate and religious predators: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Pope Benedict’s condemnation of “spreading the faith” by violence should be leading him to confront President Bush, who justifies his administration’s horribly violent spreading of “democracy” in Iraq with, “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world.” (“Acceptance Speech to Republican Convention Delegates,” The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2004)

In March of 2003, Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II opposed the Bush administration’s looming pre-emptive war against Iraq, and “called on Roman Catholics worldwide to fast and pray for peace.” (“Pope’s Emissary Meets with Bush, Calls War Unjust,” by Johanna Newman, The Los Angeles Times, Mar. 6, 2003; “Bush meets with Vatican envoy,” Associated Press,, Mar. 5, 2003). A year into the invasion and occupation of Iraq, President Bush visited Pope John Paul at the Vatican and presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian award)-in a White House-initiated occasion. In accepting the award, Pope John Paul reportedly “firmly reminded the president of the Vatican’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq last year,” and said the country’s ‘sovereignty’ needs to be restored and its ‘situation normalized’ quickly . . . in conditions of security for all its people.” (“Pope Expresses Concern about Continuing Unrest in Iraq” by John Thavis, Catholic News Service., 6/3/04). He then “assured the president of his prayers and invoked upon him God’s blessings of wisdom, strength and peace.” (Ibid)

If Pope John Paul were still living, it is believed that the revelations of the lies on which the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war and occupation are based, and the ensuing horrific violence and civil war would lead him to strongly regret accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush, and give it back. Like former Central Intelligence Agency director George J. Tenet, who also received the President Medal of Freedom, in a White House ceremony in December of 2004-after the Bush administration distorted CIA intelligence assessments to justify its criminal war. Tenet is now quoted by his “former deputy at the C.I.A., John McLaughlin as saying he ‘wishes he could give that damn medal back.'” (“Records Show Tenet Briefed Rice on Al Qaeda Threat,” by Philip Shenon and Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times, Oct. 2, 2006)

Pope Benedict went all the way back to the 14th Century for an example to illustrate that “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” when violence and death are tearing Iraq apart today in the name of President Bush’s “freedom”-loving “God.” What seems to be most “unreasonable” about Benedict’s lecture on reason and faith and violence is his lecture itself.

Pope Benedict actually sounds like President Bush, who also uses words like “evil” and “inhuman” in referring to Muslims who resist his administration’s oppressive, imperialistic policies. Similarly, Bush has been carrying on a monologue with America’s enemies since 9/11, repeatedly saying, “You can’t talk sense to the terrorists.” Bush actually has difficulty engaging in dialogue with anyone who disagrees with him. And like Bush, Benedict appears to have difficulty admitting being wrong, saying he was “deeply sorry for the reactions” of offended Muslims to his quoted passages but not for being wrong in using them. (“Pope’s Regrets Over Statement Fail to Quiet a Storm of Protests,” By Ian Fisher, The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2006)

Pope Benedict’s use of medieval history to discuss “spreading the faith” through reason and not violence seems to be quite evasive. There is so much violence today he could have cited to emphasize “that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

A recent authoritative study reveals that 655,000 Iraqi people have died as a result of the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. (“Study Claims Iraq’s ‘Excess’ Death Toll Has Reached 655,000,” by David Brown, The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 2006). And the deaths and wounding of American troops continue to mount, with “the total number of US troop deaths this month . . . at least 70 and putting October on track to be the deadliest month of the war in nearly two years.” (“11 more killed as US deaths spike in Iraq,” by Bryan Bender, The Boston Globe, Oct. 19, 2006)

The latest report of terrorism trends by America’s intelligence agencies concludes that the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq have worsened rather than lessened the threat of global terrorism. (“Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat,” by Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times, Sept. 24, 2006) And Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, John Warner (R-VA) is a recent authority to be quoted as saying the “US is in danger of losing control of Baghdad.” (Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Oct. 6, 2006) Warner’s assessment follows Lt. General Peter Chrarelli’s reported warning that “militias” are pushing Iraq “toward civil war.” (“US general says militias pushing toward civil war: Rogue forces unchallenged,” by Nancy A Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers, The Boston Globe, Sept 25, 2006)

Such present anti-Muslim violence, perpetrated in Iraq by the Bush administration’s so-called “Coalition of the Willing” Christian nations, including Italy which provided 3,000 troops. Yet Pope Benedict chooses to “quote” a 14th Century Christian emperor to stress “spreading the faith” through reason and not violence. Any “genuine dialogue” today depends on an understanding of the context of violence that oppresses Muslims. Ingrained pervasive violence that apparently fuels inappropriate destructive reaction to sacrilegious cartoons and “dialogue” that are themselves oblivious to the reality of Muslims.

Certain Muslims have reacted with physical violence to the spiritual violence Pope Benedict inflicted on their faith and their sacred leader, Mohammed. Such physical violence is contrary to any universal ethic of humanness and justice. This said, editors and journalists and religious and political leaders, quick to condemn the violence of over-reacting Muslims, need to write and speak more truthfully and fully and strongly about the historic, ingrained institutionalized violence suffered by Muslims in many countries at the hands of Christian nations. Such as the UN-condemned “illegal” invasion of Iraq by the US and its “Coalition of the Willing.” American-backed oppressive Arab regimes. US military bases in Muslim countries. Uncritical US support of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and providing political cover and the bombs for Israel’s aerial devastation of Lebanon in its recent war with Hezbollah.

The widespread violence being perpetrated on and threatening our world reveals that inter-religious dialogue “is urgently needed today,” as Pope Benedict stated. But not the kind that is actually a monologue, with one faith superior to another. Nor the kind that leads religious leaders and their followers to fold their hands in prayer and do nothing. Not the kind that safely produces a vicarious feeling of accomplishment. Nor the kind that primarily serves to make the participants feel better about each other and themselves. Needed is the kind in which “reason” leads to action, i.e. speaking and doing truth to power. Political and military policy makers could care less whether religious leaders “reason” and pray together all day and night without ceasing, as long as they don’t get in the way of political and corporate global domination.

Dialogue should not be about “spreading the faith” but about spreading justice for everyone. About speaking truth to political power on behalf of all people’s right to their own faith and space. It should not be about evangelizing, but about realizing every human being’s right to believe and live as he and she chooses. For religious leaders and their members, it should be guided by belief in the divinity of diversity and the diversity of divinity. For Christians, their steeple should be the aspirations of all people, their altar the common ground on which everyone walks, their cross the oppression from which any individual or group is seeking to liberate himself or herself or itself.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at



Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is