The furore over the Pope’s remarks about Islam has left many Catholics inside and outside the Vatican shaking their heads in disbelief. Aides of Benedict XVI are dismayed that a quotation used to illustrate a philosophical argument should have provoked such anger from Muslims. But for others, the row has highlighted their concerns about the Pope’s attitude towards the Church’s relations with the Islamic world.
By John Hooper in Rome Oriana Fallaci, the controversial Italian journalist and author who is awaiting trial on charges of vilifying Islam, has been granted a secret audience with Pope Benedict. Fallaci’s diatribes against Muslims’ persuasions have turned her into a hate figure for the Italian left and a heroine for the anti-immigrant right. The Pope’s decision to grant her the privilege of a private meeting came after he appeared to reach out to Muslims on his first trip abroad as pontiff. Benedict’s discussions with Fallaci are bound to fuel concern among liberal Catholics, already dismayed by discussions on Monday between the Pope and leaders of an ultra-conservative group of breakaway Catholics. The Society of St Pius X, whose founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was excommunicated in 1988, rejects many of the progressive initiatives taken by the Second Vatican Council. One of the society’s main objections is that the council opened a dialogue with other religions. Vatican sources were embarrassed by disclosure of the meeting with Fallaci. The Italian news agency APcom reported that the Pope had received Fallaci on Saturday at his summer residence near Rome. No announcement was made before or after their encounter and not even Fallaci’s family was aware that the writer, who lives in the US, had been in Italy. The newspaper La Repubblica said the writer, who is being treated for cancer, had driven herself to and from Castelgandolfo. Vatican sources said the audience had been brief and had been held at her request. Fallaci repeatedly berated the Pope’s predecessor for pursuing talks with Muslims. But she has been more positive about the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. However, after the London bombings, she said she had been astonished by his insistence on the need for dialogue. “Do you really think that they can change, mend their ways and give up planting bombs?” In June, a judge in the northern Italian city of Bergamo ordered that the 76-year-old Fallaci should stand trial next year on charges of slandering Islam in her book The Strength of Reason, one of three polemical works published since the September 11 attacks on the US. On his first visit to his native Germany since his election, the Pope last month made a point of meeting Muslim officials, addressing them as “my dear Muslim friends”.