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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
British cleric's mission to Islam
By Peter Gould
BBC News

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
Archbishop Fitzgerald's new role has prompted speculation

As Pope Benedict honoured his new cardinals, one familiar Vatican face was not in the line to receive the coveted red hat.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, for years the most senior British cleric in Rome, has been moved to a new job.

As head of the Vatican department promoting dialogue with other religions, it was widely expected he would join the College of Cardinals.

But the Pope has re-assigned the Walsall-born cleric, naming him as papal nuncio to Egypt and delegate to the Arab League.

The decision by the German-born pontiff has caused a stir.

Vatican-watchers are trying to work out whether the move is a demotion, or recognition of the special talents of the archbishop.

'Universally admired'

"It is certainly not a question of personality - nobody dislikes Fitzgerald," says John Allen, Vatican correspondent of the US-based National Catholic Reporter.

"He is universally admired for his graciousness, his work ethic and his expertise. He is probably the best mind working on Christian-Islamic relations among the senior leadership of the Church."

After years of dialogue with Islamic leaders - and as a fluent Arabic speaker - Fitzgerald is certainly well qualified for his new role in Cairo.

"The Church is fortunate indeed in having someone of his expertise and prestige in this sensitive post," says the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

The Vatican's desire to maintain good relations with the Muslim world was given new impetus in the days after the 9/11 attacks on America.

And recent days have seen renewed tension, following the publication by Western newspapers of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.

My background in Arabic and Islamic studies is probably considered useful at this moment
Archbishop Fitzgerald

Pope Benedict has said that religious leaders have a responsibility to "work for reconciliation through genuine dialogue".

The Englishman now has a key role in that process in Cairo, where the 22 members of the Arab League meet.

Archbishop Fitzgerald has not commented on the speculation surrounding his move, simply telling reporters: "My background in Arabic and Islamic studies is probably considered useful at this moment for the development of relations with Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world."

Following the appointment, the Pope placed the running of the archbishop's department under the control of a French cardinal who heads the Vatican's council for culture.

This may be more than just a streamlining of Vatican bureaucracy. Some observers believe the new Pope wants to take a tougher line on the issue of "reciprocity".

Out to pasture?

It means that if Muslims benefit from religious freedom in the West, then Christians should have an equal right to follow their faith in Islamic states.

But while there is speculation that Pope Benedict may be looking for changes in the Church's approach to Islam, it should not be assumed that the English archbishop has been sidelined.

"Fitzgerald is not being sent out to pasture," insists the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen.

"Cairo is home to the Al-Azhar University and Mosque, arguably the closest thing in the Muslim world to a Vatican, and hence Fitzgerald will remain a privileged interlocutor with Islam.

"In fact, one could make the argument that his skills will be better utilized in Egypt than they were at the Vatican, where much of his work was ceremonial and administrative."

And the cleric from Walsall could find himself in the reckoning for another top job in the not too distant future - one that would bring with it the red hat of a cardinal.

Cairo detour

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, is now 73. In line with Church practice, he will be expected to submit his resignation to the Pope when he reaches the age of 75.

Could the 68-year-old Archbishop Fitzgerald step into his shoes? Vatican-watcher John Allen thinks it is a possibility.

"Given that Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is closing in on retirement age, some observers believe that Fitzgerald could eventually end up in Westminster as his successor," he says.

"Fitzgerald's familiarity with religiously pluralistic environments would be well suited to the United Kingdom, and his cautious moderation would, at least in the eyes of some, be a good fit with the English episcopacy.

"In that sense, Cairo may prove to be a detour, rather than a dead-end."

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