A promising road to Gandolfo

By Tuesday July 5th, 2011 No Comments

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s scheduled meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, this month will be closely watched from home.

TALK that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak will be meeting Pope Benedict XVI (pic) in about two weeks’ time is making waves among Roman Catholics in the country.

The meeting is scheduled for July 18 and the Prime Minister is expected to be accompanied by, among others, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, who is a Catholic.

The meeting will not take place at the Vatican, where the Pope usually has his audiences, but has been scheduled at the Papal summer palace in Castel Gandolfo in a beautiful town to the south of Rome, where the Pope spends the summer months.

Putrajaya officials have tried to downplay the significance of the meeting but, whatever they say, it is a major event for the Catholic community to have the Prime Minister meeting the head of their church.

Najib will be the second Prime Minister after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to meet the Pope.

There has been no official confirmation yet to queries regarding the meeting but it is understood that the meeting is part of the schedule of Najib’s official visit to London.

The meeting is bound to attract the usual chatter of the good, bad and ugly variety.

Dr Mahathir attracted his share of controversy back home over his audience with the late Pope John Paul II in 2002, about a year before he retired as Prime Minister and shortly before he assumed the chairmanship of the OIC or Organisation of the Islamic Conference (now known as Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation.)

The Vatican looked on Dr Mahathir as a global Muslim figure, an outspoken yet moderate Muslim voice.

There is no doubt the Western world has begun to take note of Najib as a Muslim leader of reason and moderation and the visit will certainly reinforce that.

The Pope, as one Catholic church official put it, meets a lot of people but meeting a head of state often assumes a bigger meaning.

“Not every political leader gets to meet the Pope, so those he meets, it is like a kind of implicit endorsement,” said the church official.

For instance, every one wants to meet Barack Obama but when the most powerful leader of the Western world met the Pope a year after he was elected president, he described it as “a great honour”.

It was that big, even for the US president and received massive play-up in the US media.

While Dr Mahathir’s Vatican meeting came at the end of his Premiership, Najib’s is about to take place at the start. Najib’s call on the Pope will be closely watched by Catholics as well as other Christians.

The Catholic church is the largest Christian grouping in the world with more than one billion members and it is among the world’s oldest institutions. However, Christianity is a minority religion in Malaysia.

Christians make up only 9% of the country’s population. Of this, Catholics compose only about 850,000 or 3%.

But churches are now a factor that politicians can no longer afford to ignore.

The first sign of this was during the Sibu by-election, where the powerful Methodist church held sway over a large segment of voters.

Politicians from DAP and PAS visited churches and campaigned actively for the Christian vote.

The Christians are a major voice in Sarawak and Sabah which is home to about 70% of Christian Malaysians.

Many church-goers are educated and middle-class and they know their constitutional rights as Christians in a Muslim country and they are not afraid to voice it.

The critical debate over religious conversions, the use of the word “Allah” and the “Al-Kitab issue” in Sarawak are instances of this group voicing their views and rights.

But the politicisation of the Christian community is not unanimous.

“Catholics are quite divided when it comes to politics. Some enjoy it when sermons touch on political issues, they think Christians must get involved when political issues touch on their rights as Christians. Others say they come to church to pray, not listen to political talk and that politics from the pulpit dilutes their worship. It’s a mixed crowd out there,” said the same church official.

Malaysia has yet to establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican, but Najib’s Vatican meeting is bound to make an impression, especially on Catholics; the Pope is, after all, their Supreme Leader on earth.

Putrajaya officials cannot be blamed if they are apprehensive about the visit on the Muslim constituency.

Dr Mahathir had also seemed rather cautious about the impact of his own historic visit and news reports from back then had portrayed it less as a Papal audience than a meeting to discuss Christian-Muslim relations, the situation in the Middle-East and to make a plea against Israeli terrorism in Palestine.

However, the two men did exchange gifts, with Dr Mahathir giving John Paul II a tiny gold carriage and John Paul II presenting Dr Mahathir with medals of his pontificate.

Back home, PAS leaders criticised Dr Mahathir’s visit as a waste of time, saying that it would “prove fruitless in improving conditions for the Palestinians”.

Najib’s meeting is taking place at a very different time and situation.

Both sides of the political divide are assiduously courting the Christian vote and no side would want to hurt feelings by disparaging an audience with the head of the Roman Catholic church.

Besides, Benedict XVI is known as the “peace Pope”. He is a strong opponent of war and had unreservedly criticised the US-led invasion of Iraq, where he had said that “the damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save”.

The impact of this meeting will be interesting to watch.

Source : The Star

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