A little over two weeks ago Pope Benedict had an "historic" meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
What was really said between these two men, through interpreters of course, has not been fully disclosed although stories reporting the event are full of the usual phraseology such as "it occurred in a cordial atmosphere".
You can read a report of this meeting carried in the Boston Globe here.
If you follow the link right from the get go you get the impression the Pope is atoning for the "faux pas" he made at his old alma mater,University of Regensburg, back in September 2006.
In the highly unlikely event you have forgotten about this, let me remind you. in a speech on the development of Western thought the Pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor, Michael Palelogus, who wrote
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached
The usual outrage followed, fanned by the media who naturally took the quote completely out of context and ensured it was propagated as quickly as possible to places where it could do the most damage. Places like Kabul and Islamabad where anti-western sentiment runs high at the best of times and close to the source of many of the Islamic terrorist attacks in recent times.
The story concludes with a reminder of the "peace overture" made by 138 Islamic religious leaders from 43 nations, appealing for more dialogue between Christians and Muslims. You might also come to believe from a reading this story that the Vatican has been dragging the chain in responding to this initiative.
But in truth Pope Benedict XVI is, amongst many other things, a great scholar, a man who values our Western heritage including the role Christianity has played in our development towards a humane and just society - something which many of of modern intellectual elite bend over backwards to deny and this attitude reflected fully in the linked report of the meeting between Pope Benedict and King Abdullah.
Unmentioned in the report that I have linked to but covered in other reports is the dialogue between the Pope and the King over the plight of the million or so Catholics and other Christians residing in the Kingdom. These people are not allowed to worship publicly, cannot wear their baptismal crosses, in fact even bibles are illegal. Who are they? Mostly they are people from other countries working in menial and some not so menial tasks that Saudis are too proud to do. Some of their stories can be read here.
Why I am bringing this up now is because of a story from Egypt, a country far more liberal than the kingdom but nevertheless far from a paradigm of religious tolerance, unlike Europe or the United States, where the concept of religious freedom and tolerance was one of the fundamental founding principles.
This story involves a 47 year old woman, Shadia Nagui Ibrahim, who has run afoul of the law by "fraudulently" stating on her papers she is a Coptic Christian.
According to Egyptian law she is a Muslim even though both her parents were Copts. How did this happen? Apparently 45 years ago Shadia Nagui Ibrahim's father left her mother and coverted to Islam. A few years later he reconciled with his wife and returned, illegally, to Coptic Christianity and using forged identity documents to record his religion a Christianity.
Since her father is by law a Muslim, under Egyptian law so is she. Even though by faith she is a Christian and was totally unaware of her fathers brief flirtation with Islam over forty years ago.
To compound her problems she married another Copt, a crime since it is not legal for a Muslim woman to marry a Christian man, although the reverse is fully acceptable and the offspring of such a union will be by definition Muslims.
All of this came to light in 1996 when a man who forges identity documents recording the FAITH of the owner rather than their religion under law was caught and gave up some names of people for whom he had forged documents, including Shadia Nagui Ibrahim's father. The authorities extended their inquiries to his daughter and found her 1982 marriage certificate stating her religion as Christian and then charged her with fraud.
And for those who deny that there is a clash of civilizations this story encapsulates many of the reasons why they are wrong.
Christianity itself is a Faith of choice - anyone fully familiar with Christian Doctrine will be fully aware that human beings were granted free will as a gift from God and that extends to the freedom to reject Christ and the Christian Faith. And although in Christian lands from time to time and from place to place this may have been temporarily lost from sight, generally speaking freedom of conscience has been acknowledged from the earliest days of Christianity until now. And I suggest to you that it was the Christian concept of free will that gave birth to the ideas of personal freedom and liberty that most of us cherish.
And when it comes down to it my four children who have all been baptised as Christians will each in their own time choose for themselves what their own faith or lack thereof should be according to their individual conscience.
One just might adopt Islam but if so I still want them to live in a world were they are free to change their mind and one in which they haven't submitted their descendants (and mine) to that religion in perpetuity.
So if dialogue is to be the way forward in averting a clash of civilizations then the subject of apostasy from Islam and freedom of religion must be the very first item on our agenda.
Because if Islamic nations cannot compromise on this then all the freedoms we have won, sometimes at great cost, may well soon be lost.