John L. Allen Jr.
CNN Senior Vatican Analyst
The last time a pope’s shoes were in the news, it was shortly after Benedict XVI’s election four years ago. A rumor made the rounds that the new pope had replaced the scuffed loafers of his predecessor, John Paul II, with stylish new Prada footwear – a rumor, by the way, eventually denied by the Vatican.
Today in Jordan, the pope’s shoes raised eyebrows for another reason … specifically, because he didn’t take them off.
The setting was the Hussein bin Talal Mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman, the second mosque Benedict has visited as pope. (He went to the famed Blue Mosque in Instanbul, Turkey, in 2006.) It was only the third time a pope has ever entered a mosque, with the first coming with the late Pope John Paul II in Damascus, Syria, in 2001.
Because these events are so rare, and in light of other episodes in which perceived slights to Muslim sensitivities have had lethal consequences, the day’s symbolism was closely scrutinized. When discerning eyes realized that the pontiff had not taken off his shoes before entering the mosque, which is widely considered a sign of respect in the Islamic world, heart-rates went up in fear that the pope had committed a gaffe that might unleash new tensions.
For the record, Benedict XVI did put on slippers when he entered Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in 2006.
Today’s frenzy only lasted about 15 minutes, however, as it quickly became clear that keeping his shoes on wasn’t the pope’s choice. Instead, it turned out that his hosts at the mosque had laid down small aisles of carpet for the pope and his party to walk along, so the visitors were told it wasn’t necessary to remove their shoes.
That clarification came during a press briefing given by Italian Fr. Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesperson. Quickly realizing where this might be headed, a visibly flustered Lombardi almost pleaded with reporters, “It would be absolutely wrong to make a problem out of this.”
There was one other difference of note between today’s visit and Benedict’s last experience in a mosque. In Turkey, Benedict XVI paused along with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul for a moment of silent prayer in front of the mihrab, a niche in the wall which points toward Mecca. Today, there was no such moment.
That gesture in Turkey drew poor reviews in some conservative Catholic circles, with some worrying that it might promote religious relativism (the idea that “one religion is as good as another”), others grousing that the pope was going too far to accommodate his critics in the Islamic world.
Once again, however, a fairly benign explanation was offered for the difference today. Instead of being shown around by a Muslim cleric like in Turkey, Benedict was accompanied today by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a cousin of King Abdullah II, and by an architect who pointed out features of structural and artistic interest. As a result, there was no natural moment to stop for silent prayer. (Or, as Fr. Lombardi put it today, “respectful reflection.”)
In the end, both the missing prayer and the shoe incident seem little more than footnotes (pardon the pun) to the pope’s mosque visit, which was designed to project an image of reconciliation and friendship between the two faiths.
Nonetheless, these small episodes may offer a valuable reminder to the pontiff and his team: The Middle East is a part of the world where symbolism can spell the difference between life and death, and absolutely everything the pope says and does here will be put under a microscope.
Now is probably the right time to absorb that lesson. The truth is that Jordan, with its moderate reputation and commitment to good Muslim/Christian relations, has been a diplomatic walk in the park for the pontiff, compared to the high-wire act he’ll have to perform in Israel and the West Bank.
Editor's Note: John L. Allen is the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and senior Vatican analyst for CNN.
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