WASHINGTON -- A pope's visit to another nation is rarely, if ever, viewed as inconsequential, but Benedict XVI's upcoming U.S. tour comes at a time when consequences loom larger than usual.
In only three years as pontiff, 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 Benedict for being insensitive. It wasn't only that the pope baptized a Muslim in such a public way, but that Allam, specifically, has written critically of Muslims who use violence to advance Islam.
This was the second time Benedict has stoked Muslim outrage, which is, inarguably, not the toughest trick in the book. In 2006, he was attacked following a lecture at Germany's University of Regensburg about the mutual dependence of faith and reason. In the course of his remarks, Benedict 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.
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 next week are favorably inclined toward Benedict 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 are being echoed in surprising places.
In the midst of Muslim protests over 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, 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, 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 Abdullah, want to talk about the shared love of God common to all monotheistic religions, 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 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 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, 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 inferred, 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.