New Pope must embrace unity as Benedict has

Pope Benedict XVI favoured robust, not rhetorical, dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Whoever succeeds him must carry on this tradition.

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'The Pope prays for all the Arabic-speaking peoples." That phrase, spoken in Arabic by Pope Benedict XVI in October last year, was part of a strategic push to connect with Arabic-speaking Christians across the region.

But it was also part of an effort to promote interfaith dialogue between two of the world's largest religions. And it is this work that must continue no matter who assumes the papacy.

Pope Benedict XVI, who announced his surprise retirement on Monday, will leave behind a deeply damaged institution, one scarred by a child abuse scandal among other challenges. Yet as Adrian Pabst writes on the opposite page, it was the Pope's work outside the walls of the Vatican that will be most lasting. The type of interfaith dialogue that the Pope favoured was robust, not rhetorical, a real - and sadly rare - attempt to debate the differences between two of the world's major faiths.

Benedict's predecessor John Paul II was widely admired and loved in the Arab world - Hosni Mubarak declared three days of mourning for the pontiff when he passed away in 2005. When Benedict XVI took over, there was hope that he would extend his predecessor's interfaith dialogue, which he did, the bumpy beginning of his infamous Regensburg address notwithstanding.

The Pope apologised for that and pursued positive relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. He involved himself in politics to an extent, praising the Arab Spring and making a three-day trip to Lebanon last year. When he met King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - who is Custodian of Islam's two holiest sites - he discussed the situation of Christians in the Middle East.

The next Pope will face many challenges, mainly inside the Vatican. But he is also a Christian leader: the Pope is the head of the Catholic church, the second largest religious denomination in the world, surpassed only by the number of Sunni Muslims. As such, he is someone who can speak for Christians worldwide and can push for genuine dialogue.

The forces unleashed by the Arab Spring - not all positive - and the shattering of Iraq's fragile sectarian structure have put Arabs at risk from many groups, and Arab Christians are among those who have suffered. The spiritual leadership of the next Pope can help restore some of the coexistence this region has long embodied and allow Christians to continue their integral part in the Arab story.