WASHINGTON - A pope's visit to another nation is rarely, if ever, viewed as inconsequential, but Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in the U.S. today comes at a time when consequences loom larger than usual.
In only three years as pontiff, Pope Benedict has managed to ignite controversy in an already volatile religious environment, most recently by baptizing the Italy-based Muslim journalist Magdi Cristiano Allam during this year's Easter vigil.
Not surprisingly, many Muslims were offended and criticized Pope Benedict for being insensitive. It wasn't only that the pope baptized a Muslim in such a public way, but that Mr. Allam, specifically, has written critically of Muslims who use violence to advance Islam.
This was the second time Pope Benedict has stoked Muslim outrage, which is, inarguably, not the toughest trick in the book. In 2006, he was assailed after a lecture at Germany's University of Regensburg about the mutual dependence of faith and reason. In the course of his remarks, he quoted a 14th-century Christian commentator who pointed out that many Muslims justify using violence in the name of Allah.
Scandalous. Who knew?
In response, Muslims blanketed the streets with flowers, built dozens of orphanages and collected canned goods to feed the hungry. No, wait, sorry, wrong movie. What they did was attack five Christian churches in the West Bank and Gaza; kill an Italian nun, shooting her in the chest, stomach and back; and burn effigies of the pope, calling for his death.
Mr. Allam has enjoyed similar expressions of peace and love following his conversion. Because of death threats, he travels with a security detail and keeps his wife and son in hiding.
A majority of Americans anticipating the pope's visit are favorably inclined toward him and the Catholic Church, according to a poll recently commissioned by the Knights of Columbus. But many say they don't feel they know him.
One can know this much about Pope Benedict XVI without further evidence: He is a brave man. And it seems that his messages against violence and in defense of human rights not only are being heard, but also are being echoed in surprising places.
In the midst of Muslim protests over Mr. Allam's baptism, for instance, Saudi King Abdullah issued a call for Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders to begin a dialogue about the world's suffering. On Easter Monday, of all days, King Abdullah said he has been distressed the past couple of years by a crisis that "has caused an imbalance in religion, in ethics and in all of humanity."
In other headlines, the Riyadh government called for refresher courses for Saudi Arabia's 40,000 imams to encourage a more moderate interpretation of Islam and to discourage extremists.
And in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, Christian and Muslim leaders recently met, along with Hindu and Buddhist representatives, to discuss how the world's religions might work together.
More than 30 Islamic educators meeting in Jakarta issued an appeal to begin educating young Muslim men in more accurate ways. That is, without justification for violence.
Tipping points and perfect storms have permanent parking spaces in the pantheon of American cliches - and heaven forbid we should be seduced by optimism - but the confluence of these comments seems to offer a glimmer of hope for a saner world.
Yet even here, Pope Benedict poses a small problem with his inflexible insistence on human rights, one of the most fundamental of which is freedom of conscience.
While Muslim leaders, including King Abdullah, want to talk about the shared love of God common to all monotheistic religions, Pope Benedict has refused to engage in a dialogue exclusively on theological principles of love.
Father Roger J. Landry, priest of the Fall River, Mass., diocese and editor of the diocesan newspaper The Anchor, wrote in a recent editorial that Pope Benedict has "insisted that the conversation tackle how such love becomes concrete in analyzing how each tradition handles the question of human rights."
This will be the focus of Pope Benedict's message as he visits the U.S., according to Vatican insiders. Although the official timing of his trip coincides with the 200th anniversary of Baltimore's becoming an archdiocese, Pope Benedict's real purpose in coming to the U.S. is to address the United Nations - to reach as many of the world's people as possible, not just Americans.
His essential message, if only implied, will be that the ultimate test of any given faith is the freedom to choose it - or to reject it - without fear of persecution.
A brave man.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears weekly in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
How Americans view the pope
Pope Benedict XVI is still a mystery for large numbers of Americans as he arrives today for his first visit to the United States. Three out of 10 say they do not know enough to offer an opinion of the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows.
Among those who have heard at least a little about the pope, opinions of his announced efforts to promote more positive relations with other religions are sharply divided, with 39 percent saying he has done an excellent or good job and 40 percent saying he has done only fair or poor.
Pope Benedict, who is completing his third year in that role, is considerably less favorably viewed than was his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in the 1980s and 1990s.
About 52 percent of Americans view the pope favorably compared with 76 percent for Pope John Paul in May 1987. Overall, 45 percent of Americans say Pope Benedict is conservative, down from 56 percent in August 2007. A majority of Catholics - 58 percent - continue to say the pope is conservative.