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Benedict XVI will test religion's 'red-blue' divide

In his first homily Wednesday, he pledged 'sincere dialogue' with all believers.

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Secular activists in Europe are worried. "Conservatives and hard-liners in the church will have been given a boost" by Cardinal Ratzinger's election as pope, says Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament. "We can expect them to be more militant now. It's going to be even more important to build a secular force to drive that agenda forward."

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Muslim view

Equally worried are Muslims, who had been encouraged by John Paul II's outreach to Islam, symbolized by the kiss he planted on a copy of the Koran during a visit to a mosque in Damascus in 2001.

"Our concern is that [Benedict XVI] has a more narrow approach to the religious content of Western societies, that he wants to return to the centrality of Christianity in Europe," says Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Muslim theologian who has been active in interfaith dialogue.

Last August, Cardinal Ratzinger told the French daily Le Figaro that he opposed Turkey's European Union bid because "Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. The roots that have formed it ... are those of Christianity."

"For our understanding of our past and our future we must recognize that all the monotheistic faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - are part of Europe's roots," Mr. Ramadan argues.

The new pope "has got to decide if religiosity in Europe is good or bad," says Fouad Nahdi, editor of "Q," a Muslim magazine in London. "If he is not prepared to ... be inclusive of other religions he'll be alienating one of the strongest moral religious forces in Europe."

The views the new pope has expressed in the past, however, suggest that he is not willing to deal with members of other faiths as equals. "Any notion that we are on a level playing field, and dialogue with other religions under the assumption that they have the same access to truth, would not be something he would be happy with," says Paul Lakeland, a professor of Catholic studies at Connecticut's Fairfield University.

Benedict XVI "has very clear views, that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, and it makes it difficult to have a dialogue of equals if you do not regard everyone as equal before God," adds Tissa Balasuriya, a progressive Sri Lankan theologian whose run-in with Cardinal Ratzinger in 1997 led to his temporary excommunication.

"He will be compelled to think of this issue," he adds. "Being so strong in condemning others will not go far in the modern world."

Benedict XVI, who is seen as a brilliant theologian, "is capable of changing his mind," says Prof. Duffy. "He is not a bully or a thug. People have found him fair."

To convince members of other faiths of his sincerity, however, "he would have to re-center himself somewhat away from an exclusively Christian perspective," says Ramadan.

Other Muslims find things in common with the new pope. "He speaks in favor of the moral stance of Islam on a variety of issues, and he sees that as a strength, just as he sees a strong moral stand as a strength in Christianity," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Washington.

Protestant concern

At bottom, however, Benedict appears to hew to the traditional church view that "the position of Catholicism is one of superiority, rooted in the fundamental revelations," says Fr. Murphy O'Connor.

That is a source of concern for other Christian churches, such as Protestant groups. "My prayer is that God will help him see more clearly and hear clearly the needs of the whole world in this new setting," says the Rev. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the US National Council of Churches. "He is no longer just the enforcer. He is now the pastor of all of those persons around the world."

In the end, says Murphy O'Connor, it may be the new pope's broad intellectual scope that will lead him to confound his critics. "It's a sense of history, how things have actually happened, that tempers absolutism," he says. "I hope that will happen with him."

Andreas Tzortzis in Berlin, G. Jeffrey MacDonald in Newburyport, Mass., and Josh Burek in Boston contributed to this report.