HONG KONG — What theological devil tempted Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month to make a byzantine reference to a long-forgotten Christian emperor who, under siege in Constantinople (now Istanbul) from Muslim forces, made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad’s instruction to spread Islam by fire and sword?

The pope was delivering a closely argued and also provocative theological address at a German university. He delved deep into philosophy and theology. One of his aims, which has already become a theme of his pontificate, is to reassert the place of reason and God as central and vital civilizing forces in an increasingly Godless Europe.

But in the week of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Pope Benedict also wanted to express his opposition to the idea that a “holy war” — killing in the name of God — can ever be justified.

Contrary to what his critics claim, the pope does have a sense of humor. In his opening remarks, he remembered that a old colleague “had said there was something odd about our university: It had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God.”

The pope quoted from Greek philosophy, Socrates and Plato, from Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Pascal and Kant in developing his argument.

In key sentences, he said: “The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares ‘I am,’ already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy . . .

“As far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?”

It is doubtful that any of the effigy-burning protesters read, let alone understood, the pope’s address. And Pakistani Foreign Minister Tasnim Aslam’s response to the pope’s remarks — that “anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence” — surely was irony without bounds.

The pope’s problem is that most of the outraged Muslims did not feel a need to read the whole text. Benedict had already shown his bias when he quoted from a 1391 debate between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed Persian.

The pope noted that the emperor “addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying, and I quote: ‘Show me just what Muhammad 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.’ “

This was pure cleverclogs Herr Professor Panzercardinal Ratzinger showing off his knowledge of Christan history and theology — but also displaying that his studies of Islam are deficient.

Vatican apologists, as well as the pope himself in his “apology,” have tried to put a distance between the emperor’s opinions and the pope’s by saying that he was quoting rather than expressing his own views. But this is not good enough. For a university theology professor, it would be a poor excuse, since using such a selective quote without stating your own difference from it suggests that you probably approve or agree with the quotation.

For a pope and head of the 1 billion Roman Catholics to use such a statement without disavowal at such a delicate time was irresponsible.

It was also misguided because it undermined hopes he had of persuading moderate Muslims that they should speak out against murder being conducted in the name of God.

I do understand where the pope is coming from. Benedict believes that a more robust “tough love” must be shown toward Islam. He is fearful of its fanatical and violent attitudes toward the West. Early this year he exiled the Vatican’s leading scholar of Islam, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, to Cairo as ambassador to the Arab League. He thought that the Englishman was too soft on Islam.

In addition, at a midyear Vatican meeting the pope said there were huge differences between Christianity and Islam in terms of tolerance. He quoted Jesus Christ’s instruction to separate “that which is God’s and that which is Caesar’s.” But, Benedict claimed, Islam sought to “integrate the laws of the Quran into all elements of social life.”

However, as pope and pastoral leader as well as a head of state, Benedict should tread more carefully, since nothing is achieved by gratuitously antagonizing people with whom you want to have a dialogue.

He would also be advised to bring Michael Fitzgerald back to the Vatican to so that he can learn a few more lessons about Islam. The pope slipped up in his lecture when he quoted Surah 2,256 from the Quran, which reads, “There is no compulsion in religion.” The pope claimed: “It is one of the Surahs of the early period, when Muhammad was still powerless and under threat.”

The pope is misinformed. Most Muslim scholars believe that this Surah dates from the middle period, around the 24th year of Muhammad’s prophethood in 624 or 625, when he was in Medina and had already established control of a state. So Muhammad was talking from a position of strength, not weakness.

If the pope wanted to use a quotation about religion and reason and violence suitable to his theme, he could have highlighted Surah 2,256 differently and used it to issue a challenge to Muslims and to Christians of good will. He could have humbly acknowledged that all religions had used murder and mayhem in the name of God, but pleaded that now is the time to set aside violence and try to find a common path of unity through the differences of approach to the same God that Christians, Jews and Muslims all claim to believe in.

Otherwise, Benedict and Christians and Jews and Muslims should understand the comment of a “scandalized atheist” that “If I were a God of love, I would first damn to hell all the Christians, Jews and Muslims who abuse my name by committing murder.”

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