Leading article: Religion and respect in the global village

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The Independent Online

The notion that a single paragraph of a Papal address to a group of German academics would be winging its way around the world with potentially devastating consequences might once have been the stuff of fiction. But the episode of the Danish cartoons should have been a lesson. In this age of instant communications, nothing that has been published or spoken can be guaranteed to remain confined in space and time, once someone has identified its interest, or offence, to someone else.

Our nation and the circles we move in are predominantly secular. We tend not to interpret the words of the Pope - either a Pope as inspirational as John Paul II, or one as scholarly as his successor, Benedict XVI - as having force beyond the theological context in which they are uttered. But this is not universally so.

Within hours of the offending paragraph becoming public, official protests were registered from Pakistan and a succession of other Muslim countries. It was quoted, and condemned, at Friday prayers in mosques around the world. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference made vehement representations. Violent demonstrations were threatened.

One lesson is that those in a position to have their words (or drawings) treated as an incitement, whether to religious hatred or to violence, need to watch their tongue (or pen). As do those who give them wider currency by publishing them. The Pope might have been well-advised to omit the paragraph concerned. If his chief purpose was to chart the heinous nature of religious wars, this particular quotation was probably not strictly necessary. There is no point in causing offence gratuitously. Sensitivity is a virtue.

That said, the operative word is "gratuitous". Nothing that the Vatican has said suggests the Pope set out in any way to offend. And there is a real issue here: should any religious - or other - leader, speaking to those of a similar cultural and religious background to his own, be expected to weigh his every word as though the whole world is listening? Too much blandness in public discourse surely carries dangers of its own. If everyone speaks in inoffensive platitudes, real points of disagreement will remain concealed. The dispute may then flare up more violently than if it had been aired in calmer circumstances before.

The Pope's public and personal apology, in the course of his Sunday sermon, was an appropriate response. But we struggle to square his stated desire for "respectful dialogue" between religions with the passage that caused all the fuss. If dialogue is what he was calling for, perhaps there were ways of doing so that were less amenable to misinterpretation.