Pope's statements were a 'fortunate fall': Egyptian priest

Cairo, Egypt - Pope Benedict's statements which linked Islam to violence and caused outrage in the Muslim world were in fact a "fortunate fall" which could lead to a more open dialogue between the two faiths according to an Egyptian priest.

Henry Boulad, the director of the Jesuit college in Cairo, believes the time has come for "clarity, an exit from the vagueness," in the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

Born in Alexandria in 1931 and now the head of Cairo's French Jesuit college, Boulad says that the speech given by Pope Benedict XVI which quoted a medieval Christian emperor who linked Islam with violence, while "unfortunate and regrettable" had the ability to spark a "more real and frank dialogue" between the two religions.

"If there was an error on the part of the pope, it could turn fortunate: it is a felix culpa," he told AFP, borrowing St. Augustine's expression "fortunate fall" in Latin, to describe an unfortunate event which brings about good.

Sitting in his modest office at the college of the Holy Family in the Fagallah district of Cairo, a melting pot of Cairo's elite for over a century, the priest predicts "the beginning of the experiment."

Boulad believes that moderate or reformist Islamists are today marginalized in Egypt, suppressed under a trend of "Islamization of society."

For him, Islamism, a trend advocating the re-organization of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam, "reflects the essence of an Islam that has been frozen, like a chick still in its egg.

"It's a type of totalitarian thought," says the priest who formerly held the post of vice president of the Christian aid agency Caritas in the Arab world.

"Girls are veiled younger and younger and the thrust towards fundamentalism continues with a radicalization of minds," he says.

The priest who studied in Lebanon, France and United States also talks of an "Islamic schizophrenia" especially on the issue of women who are seen as "objects of lust but forbidden" simultaneously.

"Gender is a central problem," he says.

Benedict's comments "fully reflect his will to clarify what separates Islam from Christianity over these fundamental questions," says Boulad.

According to the priest, Benedict is a man who understands Islamic theology well, allowing the pope "to say that 'Islam is inseparable from politics and a global social project.'"

As for the reactions of Muslim communities around the world which were at times violent, Boulad describes them as "understandable but often irrational."

"The pope's statements will force each person to expose what is in their heart, without pretense," he says.

"When they say Islam is a religion of tolerance, I'm waiting for the proof," he says pointing to the lack of religious freedoms in the 57 countries with majority Muslim populations.

In Egypt, it is inconceivable for a Muslim to freely and openly convert to Christianity. Ten percent of the 72 million population are Christian, most of which belong to the Coptic Orthodox church.

If they do convert, "it is in complete secrecy or in exile," he says.

"But a Christian man who wishes to marry a Muslim woman is forced to convert to Islam," he says.

"The pope knows this. He is very lucid and he has no illusions on religious reciprocity, or rather the lack of it," says Boulad.

In Egypt, "we see a lack of critical thinking and a pull towards fundamentalism in both Muslims and Christians," says Boulad insisting he hasn't given up hope yet.

"Is Islam able to reform? That is always the question and I hope with all my heart that it can adapt to a more pluralist time in states where the worldly and the spiritual are separate."

"Today, the Arab world is taken over by modernism... with technologies and consumer products, but it will not be able to indefinitely resist modernity."