WASHINGTON - As much as he is now the spiritual leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI also has become an overnight global political leader, causing both consternation and hope for the former cardinal's new role as a bridge builder.
Even though he rules over the smallest state - the Vatican is only 109 acres - the new Pope will have immediate influence on whatever issues he chooses to spotlight, whether they be the war in Iraq, AIDS, Iran's and North Korea's bid for nuclear weapons, terrorism or even the internal affairs of other countries.
Also, as a powerful figure at the Vatican for 24 years, the new Pope has already met most of the world's leaders, either as he traveled with Pope John Paul II or as leaders came to pay their respects at the Vatican.
In the millions of words poured forth in the past week about the Catholic Church's 265th leader, so much was made of his doctrinaire, arch-conservative theological views that the new Pope hastened to give a speech at the end of his first Mass as Pope promising he would work for reconciliation between Christians and other religions.
But Diana Eck, comparative religion professor and director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, said the new Pope's traditional caution about interfaith dialogue, calling it the "ideology of dialogue," and his new pledge send a "confusing signal."
"He did say he would continue the spirit of his predecessor in reaching out to others," she acknowledged. "But he has been very dismissive of much of the bridge building [that has been going on]. Right now, Catholic relations with Muslims are crucial. There needs to be a spirit of dialogue that is mutually respectful and trust-building."
Many agree that a key challenge for the Pope in an age where Muslims now outnumber Catholics and has become the fastest-growing organized religion will be deciding on what stand the church should take in forging a new relationship with Islam.
Some in the church are pressing for a new harshness with radical Muslims, insisting there must be clear messages on where Christianity and Muslim divide. But others want new overtures to mend a growing rift.
As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger vehemently opposed the entry of Turkey, a largely Muslim country, into the largely Christian European Union. This caused outrage among some Muslims.
But James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, said that if the new Pope continues his predecessor's path with regard to opposition to western unilateralism in Iraq and his support of the Palestinian people along with providing new signs of respect toward Muslims, "I think he will do quite well."
Mr. Zogby added, "This pope will be as much shaped by the realities of the world he enters as he will shape it. I expect more continuity than differences."
So far Arab leaders are taking a cautious wait-and-see approach, while privately stressing that the slightest sign from the pope of any anti-Islamic sentiment would be disastrous for relations.
"We hope that the new pope will give the church more roles in trying to solve the problems that the world is facing," Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust, said. "We hope that he will continue the policy of John Paul II, who opposed the wall around the Palestinian territories and called for peace between the two peoples."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said America's Muslim community said it "looks forward to working with (the new pope) and other representatives of the Roman Catholic Church to advance the cause of peace and justice for people of all faiths. We encourage the new pope to build upon John Paul II's legacy of interfaith outreach and reconciliation based on mutual respect and religious tolerance."
Jews tended to be hopeful. "He is known as a friend to the Jewish people. And I hope, pray and wish him to follow the footsteps of John Paul II in his good approach and friendship to the Jewish people in the world and to the state of Israel especially," said Israel Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
At the White House came a sigh of relief. President Bush, who shares many conservative views with the new Pope, including opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage, saw a leader who would bolster his presidency, not create waves as the former pope did over his frequently voiced opposition to the war in Iraq and the U.S. death penalty. President Bush immediately praised the new Pope's "great wisdom and knowledge."
At the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan wished the new Pope "every strength and courage as he takes on his formidable responsibilities," noting he "brings a wealth of experience to this exalted office."
But in much of Africa there was disappointment. There had been speculation that Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria might be chosen pope. While theologically conservative, he has headed the Vatican group that keeps ties to other religions. And there had been immense hope that he could improve dialogue between the Vatican and Islam.
Jacob Olupona, director of African studies at the University of California at Davis, said, "I think Africans are disappointed that the conclave did not produce a more progressive pope." For one thing, Mr. Olupona said, the new Pope is all but certain to continue the Vatican's policy of opposing the use of condoms even as the AIDS scourge spreads throughout the continent.
Also, said Mr. Olupona, "He unfortunately doesn't have (Pope John Paul II's) charisma. But he saw the responsiveness to the (former) pope. If he is smart, he will do things that make him more popular to the world."
Mr. Olupona said, "Any pope is a world leader. Whether or not he will be an effective world leader is a different thing. We may find at the end of the day he becomes a formidable pope like the last pope. I want to be optimistic. I don't want to be like my colleagues who think it's hopeless."
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