Let’s be friends

Addressing a group of laypeople and religious leaders, the Pope avoided controversy and emphasised h

Around midday on Friday 17 September, Pope Benedict XVI addressed approximately 100 laypeople and religious leaders, representing Britain's non-Christian faith communities, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.

It was a colourful affair, with Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals in full dress sitting alongside white-robed swamis and yellow-cloaked Zen masters who mingled happily among the darker suits of rabbis, imams and turbaned Sikhs. Among this wonderful mosaic of religious dress there was not a secularist in sight.

And, in the absence of secularists, the Pope clearly felt among friends. Introduced by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, the Pope listened as the Vatican was commended for its contribution to interfaith understanding. According to the Chief Rabbi, "today is a celebration of difference". The Pope listened carefully and nodded.

A Muslim leader, Dr Khalid Assam, followed and talked about how faith binds creation together. Again, the Pope looked pleased.

So far, so good! It was his turn. He walked to the lectern, appearing tired, like an elderly shepherd, and spoke in a low voice. We all strained to listen.

His words were familiar to people of faith. He was in his comfort zone. No need to condemn secularism here.

Beginning with a discussion on the meaning of life, he depicted God in search of humanity, as much as human beings are in search of God. Our duty as men and women of faith is to live peaceably together and jointly steward God's creation, he said.

In his only mention of Vatican II, he said that the Catholic Church placed a high value on dialogue with other faiths. In turn, the Church expected reciprocity, notably freedom of worship and practice in all countries. The remark was directed at Muslim countries that deny Christians the right to worship or to build churches, and other citizens the right to convert to Christianity.

This was the only point of potential controversy, though in my conversation with Muslims present it was not mentioned.

The Pope completed his short address by calling for face-to-face dialogue, where faiths face one another, creating a shared, but inward-looking bond. He also called for side-by-side dialogue, where faiths stand together but face outwards, unified in a common task.

In these words, he echoed the writings of the Chief Rabbi, focusing not on condemning secularism, but on respect and the need for all faiths to work together.

How he envisaged this happening, he left to another day and probably, I suspect, to another pope.

Dr Edward Kessler is executive director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, where he studies relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is contributing a series of posts on interfaith issues raised by the papal visit.

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Emmanuel Macron can win - but so can Marine Le Pen

Macron is the frontrunner, but he remains vulnerable to an upset. 

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is campaigning in the sixth largest French city aka London today. He’s feeling buoyed by polls showing not only that he is consolidating his second place but that the voters who have put him there are increasingly comfortable in their choice

But he’ll also be getting nervous that those same polls show Marine Le Pen increasing her second round performance a little against both him and François Fillon, the troubled centre-right candidate. Her slight increase, coming off the back of riots after the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man and Macron’s critical comments about the French empire in Algeria is a reminder of two things: firstly the potential for domestic crisis or terror attack to hand Le Pen a late and decisive advantage.  Secondly that Macron has not been doing politics all that long and the chance of a late implosion on his part cannot be ruled out either.

That many of his voters are former supporters of either Fillon or the Socialist Party “on holiday” means that he is vulnerable should Fillon discover a sense of shame – highly unlikely but not impossible either – and quit in favour of a centre-right candidate not mired in scandal. And if Benoît Hamon does a deal with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – slightly more likely that Fillon developing a sense of shame but still unlikely – then he could be shut out of the second round entirely.

What does that all mean? As far as Britain is concerned, a Macron or Fillon presidency means the same thing: a French government that will not be keen on an easy exit for the UK and one that is considerably less anti-Russian than François Hollande’s. But the real disruption may be in the PR battle as far as who gets the blame if Theresa May muffs Brexit is concerned.

As I’ve written before, the PM doesn’t like to feed the beast as far as the British news cycle and the press is concerned. She hasn’t cultivated many friends in the press and much of the traditional rightwing echo chamber, from the press to big business, is hostile to her. While Labour is led from its leftmost flank, that doesn’t much matter. But if in the blame game for Brexit, May is facing against an attractive, international centrist who shares much of the prejudices of May’s British critics, the hope that the blame for a bad deal will be placed solely on the shoulders of the EU27 may turn out to be a thin hope indeed.

Implausible? Don’t forget that people already think that Germany is led by a tough operator who gets what she wants, and think less of David Cameron for being regularly outmanoeuvered by her – at least, that’s how they see it. Don’t rule out difficulties for May if she is seen to be victim to the same thing from a resurgent France.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.