An unfortunate traveller: Pope again stirs controversy
May 12, 2007 - 8:15:21 AM

Sao Paulo, May 12 - Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Brazil once again demonstrated his knack of stirring up hard feelings when he steps outside Italy for foreign trips.

Even on his home turf, in Germany, things did not go quite right - in the Bavarian town of Regensbuurg - two months before he was preparing to visit Turkey - he made controversial comments about Islam, provoking violence that ricocheted around the Muslim world.

This time, he caused uproar in Brazil - the country considered 'the most Catholic' in the world with remarks on abortion even before he landed. Instead of the cheering crowds he probably wanted, Benedict set himself up for tiresome debate.

Not even the weather helped the pope upon arrival - it was raining when he landed.

However, that was not all. Benedict was not immediately met with thousands of flag-waving faithful or even with national anthems.

Brazilian commentators their disapproval of the fact that leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who met the pontiff when he got off the plane, did not offer his 80-year-old guest so much as a chair.

To close off his first day in Brazil, only some 10,000 people greeted Benedict in the streets. The question remains whether this was only due to the bad weather.

However, the clouds can be expected to get ever darker. The pope met with former trade-union leader Lula Thursday, in what was billed officially as 'only a polite visit.'

Following the pontiff's not-very-diplomatic words on abortion, Brazilian Health Minister Jose Gomez Temporao - who recently worked with Lula towards a liberalization of the abortion legislation - fired back.

No church, no religion should impose its dogmas and precepts on a society, the minister said openly. One should listen to women, he noted Wednesday, adding that 'unfortunately men do not get pregnant - if they got pregnant this question would have been solved a long time ago.'

Once again, Benedict was probably not cautious enough in his comments. The intention, however, was good. The pope held a proper press conference on the flight to Brazil and for the first time allowed every journalist to ask 'real' questions.

But then everything went wrong. One reporter asked about the recent liberalization of abortion legislation in Mexico City and legislative efforts to do the same in Brazil, and about the threats of excommunication for politicians who back abortion.

The pope's answer was long and complicated, with abundant intertwined propositions. However, it was also supportive of threats of excommunication, insofar as Benedict never denied the possibility.

Just as last year in Regensburg, the pope does not appear to heed signs that he is about to set off an avalanche. And yet his advisors have developed a sharper eye for such dangers.

Immediately after Benedict withdrew from the press conference, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi entered the scene to fine tune the pope's message.

The chief of Vatican Radio - who already has ample experience in difficult media missions, insisted that the pope 'had never intended to excommunicate anyone.'

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