By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — In trying to help people understand how belief in God is a natural part of life and provides grounding for the values that protect human dignity and peaceful coexistence, Pope Benedict XVI saw Jews and Muslims as natural allies.
But in the almost eight years of his pontificate, his relations with the Jewish and Muslim communities were marked by alternating tensions and new initiatives.
During his pontificate, Pope Benedict visited synagogues in three countries and mosques in three others. However, despite his efforts to promote new forms of dialogue with the followers of Islam, in the field of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, many people remember Pope Benedict primarily for remarks about Mohammed in a 2006 speech.
His relationship with the world’s Jewish communities was not always smooth either, primarily because of his decision in 2009 to lift the ex-communication of a traditionalist bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
As recently as last October, Pope Benedict affirmed the church’s teaching about the importance of dialogue with and respect for Jews, Muslims and members of other religions, but he did so with a caveat.
In an essay published on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict wrote about the ongoing importance of “Nostra Aetate,” the declaration on re-lations with other religions, for Catholics in increasingly multi-religious societies.
But he also said, “a weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: It speaks of religion solely in a positive way, and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance,” and which explain why Christians for centuries had been mostly critical of other religions.
When some 300 religious leaders joined him in Assisi, Italy, in October 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of Blessed John Paul II’s prayer for peace meeting, Pope Benedict said that, as more and more people become convinced religion is a major source of tension in the world, religious believers have to be honest about their communities’ past and present.
“As a Christian I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature,” he told the religious leaders.
At the same, he insisted that history also has shown the danger of denying God’s existence because “when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself,” he feels free to unleash his fury to obtain what he wants.
During his May 2009 visit to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, prayed at the Western Wall — Judaism’s holiest site — and met with Israel’s chief rabbis and with Jewish leaders from throughout the country.
He used his meeting with leaders of the Jewish community as an occasion to reaffirm the fact that “the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to the path chosen at the Second Vatican Council for a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews.”