June 12, 2009


President and pope visit the Middle East

President Barack Obama gave his most important foreign policy speech to date on June 4 when he spoke to a Muslim audience at Cairo University in Egypt.

It was a speech that the Muslim world listened to carefully. By the time this editorial appears in print, the speech will have been studied and analyzed in many parts of the world.

We hope that the speech achieved its purpose: to convince the Muslim world that the United States wants to join in a partnership to seek, in Obama’s words, “a world where extremists no longer threaten our people and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes, a world where governments serve their citizens and the rights of all God’s children are respected.”

While reading the speech, there were times when we thought we were reading one of the speeches that Pope Benedict XVI gave during his visit to Jordan and Israel last month. Both the president and the pope appealed for peace, interreligious dialogue and freedom of religion.

Which of the two men urged a negotiated peace settlement that will allow both Israelis and Palestinians to “live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders”?

It was Pope Benedict during his meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, although Obama has frequently said the same thing, and it’s the position of both the U.S. government and that of the Holy See.

Or which man said, “Six million Jews were killed [in the Holocaust]. Denying that fact is baseless. It is ignorant, and it is hateful”?

This time it was Obama. Pope Benedict’s words, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, were that the sufferings of the Jews must “never be denied, belittled or forgotten.”

On his arrival in Israel, the pope said, “Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable.”

The president said in his speech, “Around the world the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries.”

One more: Which man said of interreligious dialogue that they have advanced an “alliance of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, confounding the predictions of those who consider violence and conflict inevitable”?

It sounds like the president, but it was actually said by the pope during his trip to Jordan.

Both during his trip and at other times, Pope Benedict has defended the freedom of Christian minorities in the Middle East to practice their religion. He warned against the “ideological manipulation of religion” that can act as a catalyst for tensions and violence in contemporary societies.

But it was Obama who said, “Tolerance is essential for religion to thrive. But it’s being challenged in many different ways. Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld, whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.”

Both the pope and the president are appealing to moderate Muslims—the overwhelming majority—to condemn the actions of the extremists.

The pope, during his trip, spoke of the “fundamental contradiction of resorting to violence or exclusion in the name of God.”

The president, in his talk, said that the United States will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our society because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject, the killing of innocent men, women and children.”

Either one might have said, “The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism; it is an important part of promoting peace.”

This time it was the president.

The pope said that his visit to the Holy Land was a “pilgrimage of peace.”

The president ended his speech, “The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.”

—John F. Fink

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