May 9th, 2009
05:53 PM ET

Why the pope's shoes are raising eyebrows

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/05/09/jordan.pope.visit/art.mosque.gi.jpg caption="Pope Benedict XVI visits the King Hussein Bin Talal mosque Saturday in Amman, Jordan."]

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/05/09/jordan.pope.visit/art.nebo.afp.gi.jpg caption="The pope looks out from Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses looked over to the promised land."]

John L. Allen Jr.
CNN Senior Vatican Analyst

Amman, Jordan

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.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Middle East • Pope Benedict
soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Terry, TX

    This is a non-story....President Obama covers up religious items at Georgetown, a Catholic University, for a photo op...basically doesn't participate in National Prayer Day....refers to the US as non Christian country on his European apology tour...can't pick a church...and CNN talks about the Pope.

    May 11, 2009 at 9:08 am |
  2. Maria Cruz

    This shouldn’t surprise anyone. While the Third World membership of the wealthiest of all religions continues to pump their meager earnings into Roman Church franchises around the Earth, the Pope and his Cardinals live it up. The pope and his cardinals lead lives that are the exact opposite of Jesus and his apostles. The pope and P-Didi have more in common then does the Pope and Jesus Christ.

    May 11, 2009 at 9:04 am |
  3. Rose from Muscoy, Calif

    Well, I am a Catholic and I was tought to RESPECT all religions when entering their house of FAITH. Being a leader of a church I think that Pope Benedict should do the same.

    May 10, 2009 at 11:26 pm |
  4. MEL

    News is news, but the popes shoes? Although i understand the importance and respect that comes from removing your shoes in a place of prayer, there could have been a reason he was unable to remove them. i believe if it was a big deal to the host, they could have easily asked the pope to remove them.

    May 10, 2009 at 9:46 pm |
  5. Egyptian

    Michelle, when looking at the big picture one must not ignore the details.

    I agree that nobody was hurt, and the "emotional" impact of this event is not severe. However, entering a Mosque with your shoes on (i.e. Disrespecting Islam and the entire Muslim people) while attempting to promote better relations between Islam and Christianity sends mixed messages. It is unfortunate that the pope would make such a mistake...

    May 10, 2009 at 5:55 pm |
  6. nestacal

    Jesus When HE went into the temple wore the sandles of the day!

    When we go into church, we wear whatever fits our feet! Why is everybody making a big deal over what footwear the pope is wearing?
    If a man or a woman did not own a pair of shoes, should he be kept out of CHURCH?

    Give me a break!

    If people were more concerned about what was going on in the world, I don't think that men would envy others!

    May 10, 2009 at 4:40 pm |
  7. Lor

    It's just ashame that people have to critize the Holy Father anyway they can. How is anything supposed to change in this world if people are not trying to change themselves?? Honestly all of us need to change our actions before we go and critize others. There are alot of people that say they are Catholic but it's ashame they don't act like it. As far as the leaders being so outta touch with the members, NO everyone is SO OUTTA TOUCH WITH JESUS and it's really sad for humanity.

    May 10, 2009 at 4:17 pm |
  8. Michael C. McHugh

    I am not a church member, but as a former Protestant, I have little interest in the Pope's shoes or views.

    May 10, 2009 at 3:28 pm |
  9. theoates

    In my opinion it is ironic that the Catholics dislike this religious relativism because of their ever-present belief in the brotherhood of man. In spite of being an Atheist I am pleasantly surprised at what I hope is another step towards peace

    May 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm |
  10. Sharon

    At the risk of being misunderstood; What else woould he wear with a white dress and shawl, if nothing else th guy really knows how accessorize

    May 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm |
  11. Gail Ellis Duncan

    Thanks for the tip as I am invited to perform in Morocco so I had better start my research as not to put shame on my country. Where ever we go, we should respect the host. Will be on my P's and Q's.

    May 10, 2009 at 4:03 am |
  12. Oorvi

    I guess the world doesn't have enough issues of importance to discuss, and so we make issues out of non-issues. I am sure that Pope's visit to Jordan led to an improvement in the relations between the Vatican and the Islamic world – and that's what we should concern ourselves with...if at all!

    I am however most concerned about my food bowl staying full.

    Licks n Wags,

    May 10, 2009 at 3:28 am |
  13. Eugene

    Why are there so many booboos committed by the current Pope? I think Pope Benedict should realize that he is the representative of Christ, who proclaimed Himself Servant of all servants and the Saviour of Mankind. Enough of treating oneself as infallible, we are living in a different time and everybody including the Catholic Church should realize this. I am a Catholic living in the Philippines and it just makes it so frustrating that our current leaders are SO SO SO out of touch with their members.

    May 10, 2009 at 12:12 am |
  14. havaneezer

    There the press goes again. Making a big deal out of what turned out was nothing.

    May 10, 2009 at 12:11 am |
  15. yero69

    slow News day?

    May 9, 2009 at 10:57 pm |
  16. Lampe

    you should be more concerned about Michelle Obama's wearing $600.00 tennis shoes, then you are about what The Pope is wearing.Nothing like Obama telling everyone ' To tighten our belts."

    May 9, 2009 at 9:13 pm |
  17. Ali Khan

    The pope should have taken his shoes off. I was trying to find a blog on the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan. This guy should be hanged. If the United States makes a nuclear deal with these people we can not even imagine what they will do. People like him should be made an example off so that no one whould ever be able to do what he did to that poor guy. UAE is the threat not Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. These people have no regard for human life. CNN should do whatever it can to stop these guys!

    May 9, 2009 at 8:59 pm |
  18. Clark

    So the Pope says that both Christians and Muslims worship God. Jesus claims to be "I AM" in the book of John and Christians believe Him and the Jews know what He meant and say He blasphemed and the Muslims say that Jesus was just a man a good prophet. Jesus says He is the Way the Truth and The Life. Jesus claims to be God equal in substance with God the Father. Muslims deny this and so do Jews. Jesus says if you love Him and therefor if you love God the Father (since they are one) that you will obey His commands (in the Old and New Testament) ... both the Jews and the Muslims rebel against this and the Muslims claim the Old and New Testaments are not the Word of God.

    So, for the Pope to claim that both Christians and Muslims worship God ... the Pope is claiming something that is not true .... because Jesus says it is not so. Jesus says that nonChristians will hate and persecute Christians in all ages because they hate Him. Muslims and Jews and all other non-Christians do just that and continue to rebel against Jesus's commands. Non-Christians are still enemies of God until they are purchased by the blood of Jesus and God places them in His Eternal Kingdom and makes them heirs.

    May 9, 2009 at 8:30 pm |
  19. R. Steward

    Maybe he is scared of catching the swine flu.

    May 9, 2009 at 8:24 pm |
  20. Sue Ryan

    I realize it's difficult to observe all the small symbolisms that can offend a strict Muslim. However, as Islam is a faith of peace, I would like to think that the fact that a Christian leader would come to worship in a mosque would override any small 'mistakes' that might occur. I am sure that if an Imam came to a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue, that there would be small things that might happen that would not be 'in order' or even respectful. But an unintended error is surely what God would tell us to overlook and forgive be we Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

    A loving God asking us all to forgive each other, to overlook small pecadillos, is surely the God we all worship.

    Please, everyone, let's see the Big Picture.

    May 9, 2009 at 7:34 pm |
  21. Ayse_London@twitter

    The rights and wrongs of the Pope wearing his shoes inside a mosque is a double edged sword.

    One the one hand, yes it was okay for him to keep them on since his hosts never asked him to take them off, and therefore blame should be given to the hosts and not the Pope.

    But on the other hand, blame the Pope for ingorance, as no matter the detail of not being asked to remove his shoes, the Pope should have known better. It wasn't right for him to keep his shoes on (no matter that he wasn't asked) as it can be interpretted as an insult to the religion and it's place of worship.

    May 9, 2009 at 7:09 pm |
  22. Michelle

    The whole thing was just small potatoes, in my opinion. The Holy Father has much more important things to worry about than whether or not he had his shoes on during his visit. People need to stop making mountains out of molehills. They need to look at the bigger picture as to why he is there. Look at his homilies. Examine them for their rich theological content.

    May 9, 2009 at 7:05 pm |
  23. Patti

    this visit itself is a symbol, lets pray (each in our own way) that it creates a positive and open communication.

    May 9, 2009 at 6:56 pm |
  24. Jrq

    Are you sure the Pope didn't know?

    May 9, 2009 at 6:53 pm |