Pier Paolo Cito/AP

When the pope comes to call

Religion | It is hard to reach out and touch the masses in a post-9/11 era

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

NEW YORK- When John Paul II visited Washington, D.C., in 1979, he drove down the street in an open convertible. When he came to New York in 1995, he took a spontaneous walk down Fifth Avenue as a crowd of 6,000 pressed in.

When Pope Benedict XVI visits the United States this month, he will ride in a car shielded by bulletproof glass on four sides, and there probably won't be any spontaneous sidewalk strolls.

"This is a post-9/11 era," Mark G. Ackermann, executive director of New York's Office of the Papal Visit, told Catholic New York. "Security is much tighter."

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In 1995, Pope John Paul ventured into run-down areas of nearby Newark, N.J., and celebrated Mass with 283,000 people in all: 83,000 in Giants Stadium, 75,000 at the Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, and 125,000 on the Great Lawn in Central Park.

Pope Benedict will make fewer public appearances, dividing his April 15-20 visit between Washington, D.C., and New York City. In Washington, D.C., he'll hold a reception at the White House, meet with Catholic educators and bishops, and celebrate Mass with 46,000 people at Nationals Park, the stadium of the Washington Nationals baseball team. He will also hold an interfaith meeting, but Secret Service officials say Sikh representatives won't be included unless they agree to leave their ceremonial daggers behind.

In New York, the pope will address the UN General Assembly, visit Ground Zero, hold a rally for 20,000 youth and seminarians, and celebrate Mass with 57,000 people at Yankee Stadium.

For that event, the Secret Service keeps a database with every ticket-holder's name, address, and birth date. Each non-transferrable ticket has its own bar code, and ticket-holders will have to show photo ID and go through security to attend. In November, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 29 percent of New Yorkers wanted to attend the papal Mass in Yankee Stadium. With only 90,000 total New York tickets and more than twice that number of people clamoring for them, every ticket is taken.

According to The New York Times' accounts from 1995, security was tight but sometimes inconsistent. A picket fence surrounded the Great Lawn in Central Park, guarded by thousands of police officers screening tickets and plainclothes officers roaming the crowd. People scattered through the park and even climbed trees to catch a glimpse of Pope John Paul. At Giants Stadium, people sitting closer to the pope ran the gamut of metal detectors, hand-held scanners, and drug-sniffing dogs, but security was more lax for people sitting farther away. Rules prohibited umbrellas, but on damp days people brought them, anyway. (This year, organizers have collected 100,000 ponchos in case of rain.)

In 1995, police arrested a handful of people protesting for women's and gay rights, along with six people who unfurled a banner saying "Condoms save lives" from a window overlooking St. Patrick's Cathedral. This year, the Rainbow Sash Movement-a group of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender Roman Catholics-is calling on Catholics to blow whistles and shower the pope with ashes. DignityUSA, another national LGBT Catholic group, is planning quiet demonstrations in both New York and Washington, D.C.

Sean O'Donnell is studying law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where the pope will meet with Catholic educators. O'Donnell said he's never seen buildings and sidewalks go up so fast, and he's noticed a greater metropolitan police presence in the area.

The school will shut down for two days, revoke student parking passes to clear the parking lots, and close off certain entrances to select dorms. Students can watch the pope on a screen when he visits, but O'Donnell says, "None of us are really going to get near the pope. We may see him as he goes by." O'Donnell said the school is trying not to throw the campus into chaos, "but they also want to balance that with not letting the next John Hinckley on campus." After the 1983 assassination attempt and 9/11, O'Donnell said, "They're not taking any chances."

Kinder, gentler pope?

The Roman Catholic patriarch famously exploded Vatican-Islamic relations with good and confused effect

By Mindy Belz

Pope Benedict XVI presents ample security risk as a leading religious and political figure known worldwide. But this pope is credited with further roiling the waters between Muslims and Christians, most notably by comments in a 2006 speech at a German university. In his lecture, Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor: "'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.'" The pope emphasized that he was quoting the emperor and used the quote to make a plea against religious violence.

But much was lost in translation. As his quote circumnavigated the Islamic world, it was attributed directly to him and ignited protests and violence. Muslims rioted in Cairo, Jakarta, and Tehran. Muslim gangs attacked seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza. In Somalia an Italian missionary was shot to death after a senior Somali cleric denounced the pope.

Then a curious thing happened. Late last month the misinterpretation and maligning came full circle, as former Muslim Magdi Cristiano Allam stepped forward to be baptized by the pope at the Vatican on Easter Sunday. One key ingredient along the way to his conversion, he said: Benedict's 2006 speech. Allam, 55, said the speech and its aftermath galvanized his long-held feeling that Islam is a religion of violence. His conversion was well-noted because he is a prominent journalist and deputy editor of the Corriere della Sera daily newspaper.

"Thousands of people in Italy have converted to Islam and practise their faith serenely. But there are also thousands of Muslims who have converted to Christianity who are forced to hide their new faith out of fear of being killed by Islamist terrorists," he wrote in a letter to his newspaper following his conversion. The Egyptian-born journalist said he has received death threats and now is under police protection.

Allam said "the phenomenon of extremists and Islamist terrorism at the global level, the root of evil is inherent to a physiologically violent and historically conflictual Islam," and he described Catholicism as "an authentic religion of Truth, Life and Freedom."

Allam's testimony stands out at a time when the Vatican, following the pope's controversial remarks, has pursued a muddled reconciliation with Islamic leaders. It embraced a controversial open letter signed by 138 leading Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals from around the world, "A Common Word Between Us and You," and this month announced creation of a permanent Catholic-Muslim Forum. Reconciliation talk across political and religious lines is something the pope can uniquely do but is problematic for most Protestants.

"They are dealing with everyone from the point of view that there is no separation between church and state. Americans who support this agenda are dropping a principle they adopted a long time ago-that there is a legitimate separation between the activities of the church and the activities of the state," noted Berty Abdel Masih, head researcher of the Barnabas Fund.

According to the Vatican's 2008 yearbook, Muslims are now more numerous than Roman Catholics. "Muslims have overtaken us," said Monsignor Vittorio Formenti, who compiled the newly released Annuario Pontificio.

The data, based on 2006 statistics, found that Muslims made up 19.2 percent of the world's population while Catholics only accounted for 17.4 percent. In 2006, the world's population was estimated at 6.5 billion, and thus Muslims totaled approximately 1.25 billion people and Catholics 1.13 billion people. Christian groups as a whole, however, still represented 33 percent of the world's population, or 2.15 billion people in 2006.

Although the Catholic population has remained fairly stable, Formenti said the Muslim population is growing because Muslim families continue to have more children than Christian families.

-with reporting by Kristin Chapman


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