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Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, The Pope’s Emissary To Islam

The French diplomat-cleric leads Pope Benedict’s efforts to reach out to Muslims, while reaffirming his Catholic identity

Jean-Marie Guénois

ROME - On Sunday, he was in Pakistan. Saturday it was Iran. If it weren't for his Cardinal robes, Jean-Louis Tauran's travels might raise some eyebrows. After all, what could this Holy See diplomat possibly be doing in countries that are so often shunned by the international community? Tauran's smile, candid but never naïve, offers a pragmatic yet crucial response: "interfaith dialogue."

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his controversial speech in Regensburg, where he raised questions about the violence within Islam. His comments sparked a sometimes violent reaction, and the risk of a true "clash of civilizations' appeared greater than ever. It was at that point that Benedict turned to Tauran for a delicate undertaking: calm the waters in the short-term, and lay the groundwork for lasting trust with the Muslim world.

Benedict originally gave Tauran control over what seemed like a relatively low-profile department: the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue. In the wake of the Pope's comments, though, this department would wind up at the center of the diplomatic chessboard.

Today, Tauran racks up plenty of frequent-flyer miles, traveling to distant countries where Church diplomats don't have a well-established presence: Egypt, Qatar, India, Jordan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan. In 2008, he organized the first Catholic-Muslim summit in Rome, which was widely seen as a final closing of the Regensburg controversy.

These three remarkable years, however, shouldn't obscure the rest of Tauran's brilliant career. Under Pope John Paul II, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, from 1990 to 2003. When John Paul chose Tauran, then just 47, to take over this prestigious position, it caught many by surprise.

Although perhaps better known abroad than in his own country, this 67-year-old French prelate was recently honored with a doctorate honoris causa, from the Catholic Institute of Paris. The honor was in fact a challenge to Tauran, who famously avoids talking about himself.

In 1973, he left France for Rome, and the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy of the Church. Applicants are admitted to the Academy based on their skills, and are trained as diplomatic priests for the Catholic Church. After serving stints in the Dominican Republic and Lebanon, the Holy See chose him in 1975 to represent the Church at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Ever humble about his accomplishments, this diplomat quickly accumulated vast international experience at the very highest levels. He was working the global corridors of power when the Cold War came to an end, when the Church expanded its diplomatic reach under John Paul, during the Lebanon War, and the first Gulf War. He also played a key role in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

Through his travels, Tauran says he's learned some valuable lessons. "I discovered that diplomacy is not actually a negotiation among competing strategies or religions, but simply a process of men and women capable of the best and worst, because they themselves are split between good and evil," he explains. "These are people who love and betray, or create and destroy, are capable of unforeseen technical prowess and barbaric acts—these are my brothers. I did not choose them. God asks me to love and serve them."

While denouncing "fanaticism, fundamentalism and sectarianism," Tauran cites three fundamental principles for interfaith dialogue: the duty of identity: affirming a spiritual identity; the courage of otherness: other believers can enrich me; and the frankness of our intentions: we are witness, we propose without the excess of proselytism.

On October 9, Cardinal Tauran was in charge of welcoming French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was to meet the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica. During a short prayer for France, the prelate affirmed: "We measure the complexity of managing society and the weight of those who have been called to guide them. We also know the importance of politics and economics. They are not, however, entirely under the control of man. God and individual conscience still come first! The only way a man can justify exerting control over another man is through servitude."

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that one of Tauran's favorite quotes comes from Pascal: "The property of power is to protect."

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