It was a moving scene; a solitary, elderly, white-robed figure, kneeling in prayer on a brilliant yellow carpet amid the remains of what were once two of the world's tallest buildings. With that hole in the New York City skyline still an aching wound in the American psyche, we might be forgiven for thinking that the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Ground Zero was all about us. As firefighters, cops and families of the fallen exchanged words with the pontiff, many kissing his ring, it was tempting to believe that his visit was intended only to soothe the grieving.
Although the pope's Ground Zero vigil played well to a grateful American public, his intended audience was likely far beyond America's shores. Indeed, in much of the developing world -- especially in Africa -- Christianity is locked in a fierce battle with Islam for the souls of converts. (Africa is home to 150 million of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.) Meanwhile, the churches of Europe stand empty, and this pope has shown no intention of moderating Catholic doctrine to accommodate the mores of the postwar West.
In the United States, a third of baptized Catholics no longer practice the faith, and Benedict seems disinclined to go chasing after them. He has made it clear that he would like to see Catholicism regarded as an intrinsic part of the West's cultural identity, but his search for souls, for the most part, lies far to the south of Vatican City, in areas where Islam is the direct competition.
In his duel with the imams, Benedict has crafted a narrative from which he has not budged since he unveiled it, sometimes with explosive results. In 2006 at the University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria, he remarked that Christianity is the marriage of faith to reason whereas Islam is faith devoid of reason and therefore lends itself to violence.
The pope, in his Regensburg speech, attributed that notion to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus. When those words were met with riots in the Islamic world, the pope answered demands that he recant with a rather unapologetic apology, in which he essentially said, if I may paraphrase, "I'm sorry you're so upset." Benedict did however, offer this disclaimer: he said that the words of the emperor he quoted at Regensburg about the inherent violence of Islam "do not in any way express my personal thought."
But Benedict has adopted as his own the emperor's assertion that Christianity is the superior faith by dint of its claim to rationality. And by kneeling at the site of carnage waged by terrorists in the name of Islam, the pope hardly needs to claim the other half of the emperor's assertion -- that of Islam's inherent violence -- as his own.
I don't mean to suggest that the pope had no business going to Ground Zero. I do, however, see it as a calculated move designed to make a proselytizing point. With his emphasis on violence committed in the name of Islam, the pope suggests he has little interest in aiding the work of Muslim leaders who seek to calm the excitable in their ranks, who plead for a turn from violence. Indeed, violence conducted in the name of Islam could, by contrast, burnish the image of 21st-century Catholicism.
In some nations, like Nigeria the competition between Christianity and Islam has taken a violent turn, as told in this stunning story by Eliza Griswold in The Atlantic. While in Nigeria, atrocities have been committed by both Christian and Muslim mobs, sectarian violence takes a different shape in Sudan, where a government controlled by Muslims has oppressed Christian populations.
In truth, often these conflicts dressed in religious garb are more about culture, ethnicity, and territory than differences of faith. (In Sudan, the northerners who control the government are Arabs, while Christians in the south are not.) In nations where chaos and violence abound, the tagging of Islam by the pope as an inherently violent faith is an act of positioning Christianity as the reasonable alternative. (And just in case anyone should think those other Christian denominations also vying for African souls count as reasonable, this pope has made it clear that the only true form of Christianity is the Catholic brand.)
There are those who will no doubt call me a cynic or worse for taking the pope's actions at Ground Zero at more than their very poignant face value. Yet the pope, as a well-traveled intellectual, surely knows how his actions play on the global stage, and Ground Zero makes for one high-impact set. Add in the big, public spectacle of the meeting with George "the crusader" Bush, with Benedict greeting America from a White House balcony bedecked in tulips the exact yellow hue of the papal flag, and you've got a scene that can only be regarded as provocative in some parts of the world. Every time an extremist responds to a papal gesture with an act of violence, the pope's positioning of Christianity as the faith of reason gains solidity.
Just weeks before his American sojourn, Benedict himself presided over the high-profile conversion of a Muslim dissenter at a very public Easter Sunday Mass at the Vatican. Magdi Allam, a prominent Italian journalist, explained his conversion this way in Corriere della Serra, the newspaper for which he writes: "I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a 'moderate Islam' ... ended up being sentenced to death in the name of Islam on the basis of the Koran. I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive."
Not that Allam's assertion in any way expresses the personal thought of Pope Benedict XVI, the priest who baptized him. After all, the pope is a most reasonable man.