ROME, Sept. 19, 2006 -- -- Pope Benedict the XVI faces his first major crisis as leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics. His comments about Islam on Sept. 12 have sowed widespread anger across the Muslim world, and there are growing fears, in some circles of the church hierarchy, that Pope Benedict's words may have thrown back relations with Muslims by a quarter of a century.
Up until now it has been difficult to make comparisons between Benedict and his charismatic and immensely popular predecessor, John Paul II. But with the crises growing, Benedict is being harshly criticized for destroying the goodwill John Paul built during his 27 year papacy.
Contrast in Leadership
Author and longtime Vatican watcher Marco Politi wrote in Rome's La Repubblica that John Paul "was respected and listened to by the Muslim world as a spiritual leader."
It has been noted that John Paul traveled to several Muslim countries, and that during his long papacy his door was always open to Muslim leaders, and they in turn made numerous visits.
And crucially, John Paul II was the first Pope to visit a mosque.
Pope Benedict, nicknamed "God's Rottweiler" because of his conservative views, staked out a much harder line right from the beginning.
In Germany last August, he challenged Muslim leaders in the city of Cologne to condemn any link between "your faith and terrorism".
Benedict has also protested against the treatment of Christians in Muslim countries. He has called on governments in the Islamic world to allow Christians the same freedoms to practice their faith that Muslims are afforded in the West.
Those statements did not result in any widespread negative reaction. However, it is clear that Pope Benedict's recent speech has hit a nerve. Quoting a 14th century Christian emperor who called Islam "evil" and "inhuman," he has opened a raw wound.
Pope Benedict moved swiftly to assure Muslims that the quote does not in any way reflect his own views. He even publicly stated that he was "deeply sorry" that the words offended Muslims. It was an unprecedented papal apology, and it did help to deflect some of the anger. But anger does remain, along with deep suspicion.
'No Casual Slip,' Pope's Critic Says
The executive director of the American Muslim Perspective, Abdus Ghazali, wrote an editorial in Al-Jazeera calling the pope's speech in Germany a "thinly veiled attack."
"This was no casual slip," according to Ghazali.
Ghazali also joined other writers in comparing Benedict to John Paul. "Unlike the late Pope John Paul II, Benedict does not approve of joint prayers with Muslims. He is also skeptical of the value of inter-religious dialogue," he wrote.
Ironically, the pope has maintained throughout the crisis that his speech at his old university in Germany was actually intended to promote interfaith dialogue.
The pope also reaffirmed, repeatedly, his respect for the Islamic faith. Nobody inside the Vatican doubts the pope, and the leader of Germany, for one, has come to the pontiff's defense, saying the remarks were taken out of context.
However, Gian Enrico Rusconi a professor at Turin University, believes right now what counts most is what people in the Muslim world think. His editorial in La Stampa painted a grim picture and talked about an "irreversible break not only in relations between Islam and the Catholic Church but also of the very image of the pope in the West."
Not exactly what the Pope wants to hear but neither he nor the Vatican appears to be giving up. The papal visit to Turkey, planned for the end of November, is going ahead. At least for now.
Is the Trip a Bad Idea?
Many quarters of that predominately Muslim country still seethe over Benedict's remarks, and there are very real fears the pope's visit will lead to violent demonstrations. But there is also a sense that the intensity of the anger will drop somewhat by then and some senior Turkish leaders say the trip may even help repair the damage.
The head of Turkey's foreign affairs committee, Mehmet Dulger, told The Associated Press: "His trip will provide a window of opportunity to rephrase what he said, to show that he does not accept the negative stereotypes of Islam often found in the Western world."
Some have questioned the decision to press ahead with the Turkey trip. There is still a great deal of anger and, in some circles, hatred, directed at the pope. It seems as if one of the last places his holiness should go. But the possibility for a significant first step in the healing process is as real as the danger.
It will most certainly be a leap of faith for this embattled pope.