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Nov 23 15 6:00 AM
'Ours is a religion of peace'The stark reality is that most religions are not'Ours is a religion of peace.'That is religious adherents' programmed response to criticisms of violence perpetrated by their fellow believers. The assertion neither erases nor excuses the reality.Twenty centuries of Christian influence in the West have not resulted in a culture that epitomizes the teachings that Christians claim to follow. While we have had our saints and sages, any honest Christian must confess that our history is marked even more by bloodshed, intolerance, cruelty, willful ignorance and oppression.The most violent century in human history was born in the no-man's land between the trenches of opposing "Christian" nations in World War I. That was followed by the Second World War that took tens of millions of lives in combat as well as in concentration camps, terror bombings and in the disruption of economies and societies.Even in areas where Christian influence was marginal, as in Asia, violence used and uses weapons developed in the part of the world with the longest sustained Christian influence.In China and Cambodia, to give but two examples, ideologies developed in the Christian West cost the lives of millions. Even though the individuals who developed those ideologies might not have been Christians themselves, their culture was profoundly shaped by Christianity and therefore should have immunized them against inhumanity.Since World War II, the West has experienced an unprecedented period of peaceful development and social justice. While Christians have been part of that, the fact is that it is largely the fruit of efforts by secularists who have abandoned or at least marginalized Christianity. It was they, fed up with nearly two millennia of Christendom, who put an end to the violence and injustice that had seemed normal for centuries.Now, it appears to be Islam's turn. In every part of the world where there are Muslims, we see bloodshed, intolerance, cruelty, willful ignorance and oppression. After every outrage perpetrated by Muslims, the chorus rises, "Islam is a religion of peace." In its best teachings and among its saints and sages and as lived by the majority of Muslims, Islam is, indeed, a call to peace and justice.The challenge facing Muslims todayBut, is a religion solely its formal teachings, or is it the reality lived by its adherents, especially the most fanatically committed? To claim that only the first is true is to ignore reality. To deny those teachings and say that a religion is only what its worst adherents do is to despair of humanity.Just as we Christians must confess that Christianity has been a religion of evil deeds, Muslims must admit that Islam, too, has been a religion of evil deeds. In neither case do those deeds invalidate the religion, but nothing can be done about extirpating the evil until its presence, its deep roots and its pervasiveness are recognized.That is the challenge facing Muslims today. Their religion has been hijacked by a minority who would turn it into an ideology of intolerance and ignorance, ignorance of even their own religion. Muslims must reclaim it.At present, the prospects for that happening are not good. News reports from Paris describe a woman who, along with another, recognized a wanted terrorist in her neighborhood. But they were too afraid to report their sighting to the police. Multiply those two women by the millions of Muslims in places less safe than France, and it becomes clear that the intolerantly violent minority will control the story of Islam for a long time.Most Muslim violence by such groups as ISIS or Boko Haram is directed at other Muslims. That is likely to remain the case, since outer-directed violence is too costly. Recent terror bombings in Beirut and Nigeria drew little international attention, but attacks in Paris brought missiles and fighter bombers against terrorists' bases.Will Muslims succeed where Christians failed? Will they be able to unite across sects, ethnicities, languages and nations to extirpate the evil that now controls the worldwide image of Islam and destroys the lives and livelihood of so many Muslims?Islam seems to be repeating the history of Christianity, as when inquisitions tortured and abused people with impunity, and wars of religion raged across Europe because the majority who were aghast at the violence perpetrated in Christ's name could not find effective means to retake the religion for Christ.If, as seems likely, history will repeat itself, we are facing a century of increasing violence by Muslim fanatics mainly within the Muslim world. That violence will likely produce such overwhelming revulsion that more and more people will renounce the religion and become a force to defang it. That has happened before; it happened to Western Christianity.
Nov 24 15 6:52 AM
Depriving Isis of a home is key to victory, but the West must avoid humiliating Muslims in defeat A Muslim friend once told me that it was impossible to understand how people like him felt about the West unless one took into account their deep sense of humiliation.Partly this was the legacy of colonialism – in the last century or two, few places in the Muslim world had escaped being ruled as part of someone else’s empire.But it was also profoundly theological.Fundamentalist Muslims believe that the Quran contains all the answers about how to run a society in accordance with the will of God; and that it was God’s will that such a society should come about. Indeed, if Muslims are faithful to the Quran, Allah will help them achieve it.“But we have to admit that Western non-Islamic societies are far more advanced than anything we have to offer,” he said. “All the Muslim-ruled societies we can see are backward or dysfunctional or both.”The fact that many such societies only reached the level they had because of the accident of oil wealth compounded that painful sense of inadequacy.A significant part of the appeal of the phenomenon called Islamic State, which now occupies substantial areas of Syria and Iraq, is that it offers to correct that humiliation. It tries to show Muslims that Allah’s way, as set out in Islamic teaching, is right after all. It also offers a theological explanation of what went wrong before.That is why it is very misleading to say that Isis is un-Islamic. It is an interpretation of Islam, and it can even claim to be a purer interpretation than some others.Where it differs is in bringing to the fore the eschatological narrative embedded within Islam and insisting it is relevant to the present day. We are, says Isis theology, in the End Time.It is true other religions including Christianity and Judaism talk about an eventual apocalypse, initiating the rule of God on earth. Like Isis, some Christian fundamentalists expect it to happen soon. The primary reason many American Evangelicals support Israel is because their version of the conditions necessary for the Second Coming, based on Scripture, include the return of the Jews to the Promised Land.Nor should the English feel superior. Oliver Cromwell, usually hailed as the father of English Parliamentary democracy, believed the Millennium was imminent and all mankind’s achievements were about to be swept away by God’s hand.Isis’s primary precondition for the onset of the apocalypse is the establishment of a caliphate, that is to say territory governed directly and exclusively by God’s Law, the Sharia.But the story does not stop there. The Islamic prophetic tradition, as Isis understands it, goes on to predict that God’s enemies - known as ‘Rome’ but usually interpreted as the United States – will intervene with military force to challenge the growth of the caliphate. After one glorious victory over Rome at a place called Dabiq in Syria, the final act of this eschatological drama takes place in Jerusalem where the caliphate is defeated and its forces slaughtered.At the end of this Armageddon, when only 5,000 are left, Jesus returns to earth to lead the Muslim forces to their final triumph, and his reign begins. The role of Jesus, the second most important prophet in Islam after Muhammad, shows an extraordinary overlap with Christian eschatology.Needless to say, most Christians, like most Muslims, deal with these predictions either by allegorising them – “the kingdom of God is here among you” – or by postponing expectations of the Second Coming indefinitely.Neither Al Qaeda nor the wider Salafi movement, though having some overlap with Isis, supports these prophecies of doom and final triumph. The great majority of Salafis, including those called Wahhabis, leave the outcome of history in God’s hands.Al Qaeda - whose appeal to Muslims is also a manifestation of the “humiliation” thesis and also has a strong theological programme - is nevertheless opposed to the caliphate and sees the battlefield between good and evil as worldwide.It is unclear whether Isis, in supporting terrorism globally as it has recently done, is moving towards this position itself or is merely fighting its enemies wherever they are perceived to be.To be a follower of Al Qaeda one has to fight the global war against “the Great Satan”. To be a follower of Isis, on the other hand, one needs to live under the caliphate.That is why so many Muslim women, once they are seduced by Isis’s fundamentalist theology, want to move to Syria. They are not necessarily terrorists themselves. And this is why they often report back home that they are happy. All the petty irritations of being a Muslim in the West, and especially the feelings of humiliation from being on the losing side in the clash of histories and cultures, are behind them.Clearly Western strategy towards Isis must not ignore this theological-prophetic scenario. One thing that stands out is that military defeat would call in question the belief that Allah wills Isis to win, and is helping it do so.Military victory in Syria and Iraq so far has fuelled this ideology/theology; and this is part of the case for decisive Western intervention. Even more to the point, Isis needs to hold physical territory in order to justify its claim to be a caliphate. Deprive it of that and its raison d’être collapses.If the civilised world is to commit itself to the defeat of Isis, as the Security Council resolution last week implies, it needs to understand what defeat would look like.And another part of that would be to tackle and if possible reverse the humiliation narrative that drives many young Muslims into the arms of Isis or Al Qaeda and their associates.We have to make room for them to be proud of what they are. Not so difficult, once one considers that it was Islamic civilisation which pulled Christian Europe out of the Dark Ages, and gave us the basis for our medicine, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, architecture and philosophy.We would be nothing without Islam.
Nov 24 15 12:26 PM
The head of the Syriac Catholic Church has accused Western governments of betraying Christians in the Middle East and said it was “a big lie” to suggest Islamic State could be defeated with airstrikes.In an interview with Le Messager, an online Catholic magazine in Egypt, Syriac Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said: “All Eastern patriarchs, myself included, have spoken out clearly to the West from the very beginning: be careful, the situation in Syria is not like that of Egypt, Tunisia or Libya – it’s much more complex, and conflict here will create only chaos and civil war.“They listened and responded: No, the Assad regime will fall in a few months. As I predicted, that hasn’t happened, and five years later, innocent people, especially Christians, have no support. The West has betrayed us.”French and US warplanes stepped up attacks on Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq after terrorists killed 129 in Paris and dozens in Beirut. But the patriarch said airstrikes were ineffective at targeting Islamic State leaders because its religiously indoctrinated operatives were well financed and armed and had infiltrated local populations.Patriarch Younan, a native of the Syrian province of Hassake, served for 14 years as bishop of the New Jersey-based Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada. He was elected patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church in January 2009 and is based in Beirut.He said Catholics had lived for centuries in eastern Syria and had “understood the horror of the situation” following the 2003 Western invasion of Iraq. He said Western nations said they wanted to bring democracy to the Mideast, but “since there’s no real separation of religion from the state, our nations do not easily accept democracy”.“Western democracies have conspired against Syria and produced the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure, the demolition of houses, towns, villages, monuments and archaeological sites,” Patriarch Younan said.He said Western politicians, especially in the US, Britain and France, appeared to favour “an endless conflict in Iraq and Syria,” while Western media had proved “silent, cowardly and complicit” by failing to “defend truth and justice”.“It’s a shame the West has abandoned Christians to this situation,” said the patriarch, whose interview was also carried by the Rome-based AsiaNews agency.The Syriac Catholic leader praised the Pope for being a “defender of justice” and appealing for solidarity with Middle East Christians, but said threatened Catholic communities now needed “not words but deeds”.In a separate statement, the patriarch expressed sorrow that seven Syriac Catholics drowned last week en route by sea from Turkey to Greece. They were members of two families from Qaraqosh; only a 10-year-old boy was rescued.Qaraqosh fell to the Islamic State in August 2014, uprooting some 50,000 Christians overnight.“It is so sad to notice that all this is happening under the eyes of the so-called developed and powerful Western countries,” the patriarch told Catholic News Service.
Dec 5 15 7:22 AM
We know how to reform Islam – it's time to actually do it, Muslims sayWashington D.C., Dec 4, 2015 / 04:14 pm (CNA).- Islam needs a “reformation” that can only be achieved by Muslims speaking out against extremism and promoting human rights, said a panel of Muslim public figures on Thursday.“If Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries are to be protected, we must demand the protection of non-Muslims within Muslim-majority countries,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, former member of the Pakistani Parliament, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. Ispahani was part of a panel of Muslims speaking out against ISIS and Islamist extremism. The panel agreed that Muslims and Western democratic countries must not deny that Islamist extremism is behind acts of terrorism and human rights abuses worldwide, but rather work to counter that ideology.“As Islamic extremists gain power and rule, human rights abuses including oppression of women, homosexuals, and religious minorities, as well as governmental tyranny, sectarian warfare, and bigotry inherent in Sharia law come to the fore,” Ispahani said. Muslims should promote “modern pluralistic values” and “human rights” as established by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, she added. “Right now there is no clear ideological campaign to fight ISIS and to fight Islamism.” “We have all heard ‘Where are the Muslim voices?’” that are speaking out against ISIS, she noted, adding that “here we are, and we have others like us.” While some have wrongly blamed all Muslims for Islamist terrorism, members of the D.C. panel said, others have wrongly failed to make any mention of Islam in condemning such acts. “Too much deflection has been happening on this issue,” said Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Muslims must acknowledge the fact that radical Islam has fueled human rights abuses and must push for a reformation that involves a “separation of mosque and state” with religious pluralism and respect for human rights, he said. When Islamist extremists commit acts of violence, Muslims must resist the temptation to simply say the extremists “are not Muslims,” emphasized Naser Khader, a member of the Parliament in Denmark of the Conservative People’s Party. Simply denying that the extremists are true believers excuses the moderates from having to advocate for reform in Islam, he explained.“We cannot say that the Islamic State are not Muslims. That is what they call themselves,” he said. ISIS has a state built on a “jihadist vision of Islam,” he said, murdering and enslaving other people “with the Koran in their hands.” “If we the Muslims do not face the problem of violence that links to Islam in our time, how will we ever succeed in ripping Islam out of the hands of these destructive powers and lift our religion into the 21st century?” he asked. The rights of women and religious minorities in particular should be central to an Islamic reformation, the panel insisted. Many Islamists, including ISIS, hold centuries-old standards for women that ignore “progressive changes” that have happened since then, the panelists said. They argued that misogyny is rampant in these Islamist sects, which insist upon segregation of women at mosques and schools and the role of a woman being only to fulfill a man’s needs. Islamist literature is “full of statements” against women’s rights, Ispahani said.The Islamist concept of jihad also needs to be refuted, said journalist Asra Nomani. Chapter 9 verse 5 of the Koran instructs to “kill the Mushrikun,” or those who equate someone else with God, she explained. ISIS members used this word when they beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya in February.“Common sense prevails that that is both unethical, immoral, and illegal,” she insisted, adding that critical thinking will show that verse was from the 7th century when Mohammed was surrounded by enemies intent upon destroying him.“It is not a timeless verse that exists forever until today,” she said. “We now reject this literal reading so that it cannot be used any more as a sanction for murder.”“Our jihad is a struggle for reformation,” she continued. “We are in a struggle for the future of our world…it is a struggle of ideology.”
Dec 14 15 4:21 AM
Detroit archbishop denounces proposals to bar Muslims from U.S.Without mentioning Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump by name, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron has blasted proposals like Trump’s that would specifically bar Muslims from the U.S., saying the idea “fractures the very foundation of morality on which we stand.”Vigneron’s denunciation, in a letter he sent on Thursday (Dec. 10) to his priests, is significant because Catholic leaders have been strong defenders of religious freedom in recent years but have been largely quiet in the wake of Trump’s controversial pitch earlier this week to bar all Muslims from the U.S.“While the Catholic Church refrains from weighing in for or against individual candidates for a particular political office, the Church does and should speak to the morality of this important and far-reaching issue of religious liberty,” Vigneron wrote in the letter, which he also sent to imams in his state.“Especially as our political discourse addresses the very real concerns about the security of our country, our families, and our values, we need to remember that religious rights are a cornerstone of these values,” he wrote.“Restricting or sacrificing these religious rights and liberties out of fear — instead of defending them and protecting them in the name of mutual respect and justice — is a rationalization which fractures the very foundation of morality on which we stand.”In the wake of recent attacks by Islamic extremists some political leaders, principally Republicans, have floated a number of proposals that would seek to limit the entry of refugees from Syria or provide an explicit religious test to refugees in an effort to reduce the chance that Muslims would enter the country and to favor Christian refugees.Catholic organizations have been among the faith groups that have defied the orders of governors in some 30 states — including Michigan — against resettling Syrian refugees.On Monday, Trump took the issue a giant step further by proposing a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the U.S. “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”That prompted strong condemnations from leaders of both parties.Yet while many religious leaders also decried Trump’s plan, some, like Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, supported Trump. And religious leaders who have been especially outspoken on religious liberty have not been as vocal on this episode as they have on others.Vigneron’s appeal was also notable because southern Michigan is home to a large Muslim population, and metropolitan Detroit has the fourth-largest population of Syrian refugees among US cities, with about 3,000.The archbishop began his letter by noting the Catholic Church’s teaching on respecting Muslims and their beliefs, and by stressing the “warm relations marked by a spirit of mutual respect and esteem” between Catholics and Muslims in southeastern Michigan.Vigneron concluded by saying that his views on religious freedom were “not only Catholic sentiments” but “are the sentiments of all Americans.”A national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday showed that nearly six in 10 Americans oppose Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the U.S., but it also shows Republicans are evenly divided on the idea.
Dec 17 15 12:48 AM
Dec 26 15 2:39 AM
Arab Christians integral to Middle EastMawlid al-Nabi, the birth of the Prophet Mohammad, and Christmas coincide in 2015Arab Christians "are an integral part" of the Middle East's past, present and future, Jordan's King Abdullah II told Christian leaders Wednesday, Jordan News Agency reports.King Abdullah made his comments on the Islamic holiday of Mawlid al-Nabi, the birth of the Prophet Mohammad which was also celebrated on Dec. 23 this year, according to the lunar calendar.The last time the Islamic and the Christian Christmas celebration coincided was 457 years ago, Fides notes.Right from the beginning Christians "have been an essential partner in building our culture and civilization and in defending Islam," King Abdullah said, adding that Jordan stands out as a role model for coexistence between Muslims and Christians."The family of Jordan, Muslims and Christians, stand shoulder to shoulder" in the face of regional challenges, the King continued.Defending Islamic and Christian holy shrines in Jerusalem in conjunction with other stakeholders was also a Jordanian historical, religious and political duty, he said.In a speech, delivered on his behalf by Fr Issa Musleh, Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem stressed that Jordanian custodianship of the holy sites continues the trusteeship, coexistence and protection of the Treaty of Umar, and a renewal of the pledge of Jerusalem and Palestine's notables, scholars and Rabbis to Al-Sharif Hussein Bin Ali.The Latin Patriarch and Archbishop of Jerusalem, Fr Fouad Twal, praised the King's efforts to preserve the holy sites of Jerusalem, while noting that the Christian celebrations coincide with the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him.Other Christian figures spoke at the meeting, where they highlighted coexistence in Jordan. They also noted the coexistence is further boosted by both Christians and Muslims congratulating each others' on the occasions of Christmas and Prophet Mohammed's Birthday.
Dec 26 15 9:51 AM
Jan 4 16 6:27 AM
Agreement between Holy See and Palestine comes into forceThe agreement, which was signed in June, “regards essential aspects of the life and activity of the Church in Palestine, while at the same time reaffirming the support for a negotiated and peaceful solution to the conflict in the region”The bilateral agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine, signed last 26 June and ratified at the instigation of both parties, has now come into force. The official announcement issued by the Holy See Press Office on the afternoon of Saturday 2nd, reads: “With reference to the Comprehensive Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine, signed on 26 June 2015, the Holy See and the State of Palestine have notified each other that the procedural requirements for its entry into force have been fulfilled, under the terms of Article 30 of the same Agreement. The Agreement, consisting of a Preamble and 32 articles, regards essential aspects of the life and activity of the Church in Palestine, while at the same time reaffirming the support for a negotiated and peaceful solution to the conflict in the region.” In an interview published in recent months by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, when the agreement was signed, Mgr. Antoine Camilleri, Undersecretary for Relations with States and head of the Holy See delegation participating in the meeting, said: “Like all the agreements that the Holy See signs with States, the current one aims to facilitate the life and activities of the Catholic Church and its recognition at the judicial level, including for it to better serve society.” In particular, “the text has a preamble and an initial chapter on the principles and fundamental regulations that are the framework in which the collaboration between the parties involved occurs, that express, for example, the hope for a solution to the Palestinian issue and the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians as part of the two-state solution and international community resolutions. Following is a very elaborate and detailed chapter on freedom of religion and conscience, and ones on several different aspects of the life and activities of the Church in Palestinian Territories: freedom of action, personnel and jurisdiction personal status, places of worship, social and charitable activities and social communication means. One chapter focuses on fiscal and ownership issues.” The agreement “is the result of a basic agreement between the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that was signed on February 15, 2000. The official relations between the Holy See and the PLO were established in October 1994, and after that came a permanent bilateral working Commission charged with carrying on the negotiations towards the 2000 agreement,” Camilleri recalled. Negotiations resumed in 2010 and led to the current agreement being drawn up. The aim of the latter is to complete the agreement signed in 2000”. The accord reached in 2000 was signed by the Holy See and the PLO, while the latest agreement was signed between the Holy See and the State of Palestine. The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution on November 29, 2012 recognising Palestine as an observer non-member state,” Camilleri explained, “and the same day the Holy See, which also has the observer status at the United Nations, issued a statement. The Holy See welcomed the result of the vote, which focused on attempts to provide a definitive solution - with the backing of the international community – to the question that was already dealt with, through UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947, which recommended the creation of two states, only one of which has thus far seen the light of day. Furthermore, it was pointed out that an adequate response to existing problems in the region could only come about if there is a concrete commitment to building peace and stability, in a spirit of justice and respect for the legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike, with good faith in the negotiations being restored. The reference to the State of Palestine and all that is stipulated in the agreement, are therefore coherent with the position of the Holy See so far.” The Holy See has not yet sealed a corresponding bilateral agreement with Israel, which, on that occasion, expressed disappointment through a foreign ministry spokesperson, highlighting that such a decision “is not conducive to bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table”. Could the agreement encourage other potential agreements with other majority Muslim countries? Camilleri responded that: “in this case, given that the Church is present in the land where Christianity was born, the agreement takes on a very unique meaning and significance”. The “clear recognition” the agreement gives to “the Church’s character, to religious freedom and to the freedom of conscience, could be granted by other countries with Muslim majorities and shows that this recognition is not incompatible with the fact that most of the country’s population follows a different religion”.
Jan 8 16 6:14 AM
Hungarian Abbot: Refusing Muslim refugees does not defend Christian Europe'More about defending our affluence, comfort and security than about defending Christianity'One of Hungary’s most respected Catholic prelates, Benedictine Archabbot Asztrik Varszegi, has blasted those who claim Europe must refuse entry to Muslim refugees in order to defend its Christian character. “(This stance) is presumably more about defending our affluence, comfort and security than about defending Christianity,” said Varszegi, a former auxiliary bishop of Esztergom and head of the famous 10th century Archabbey of Pannonhalma since 1991.“Politicians cannot justify their refusal to take in Muslim refugees on the need to defend European Christendom,” he said in an interview in the Christmas edition of the Hungarian economic magazine HVG.“A Christian Europe and a Christian Hungary are utopias and illusions,” he emphasizedWhile Europe’s traditions were indisputably Christian, he said, that was a “far cry from concluding that we are actually Christian as far as our deeds and attitudes are concerned”.Archabbot Varszegi, who will be 70 later this month, said it was imperative to critically examine what was behind such a stance.He said the present situation could not be reduced to the contrast between Christianity and Islam. More information, knowledge and rationality, especially more reasonable tones, were called for.“Political influence on the Church and insufficient information on the Church’s part strengthen each other mutually and provide a breeding ground for one-sided thinking,” he warned.Asked to describe the relationship between politics and the Church in Hungary, Archabbot Varszegi said the complicated secularization process the country was going through meant that people’s relationship to the Church and religion was multifaceted.He added that it was part of the very nature of politics that politicians should want to harness everyone for their own purposes.“But politicians here do not even know how strong or weak the Church is and, unfortunately, that also applies, vise-versa, to the Church,” the Hungarian bishop and abbot said.“I have this fixed idea that politicians should be enrolled in a theological course on what is essential in the Church – a course which emphasizes that the Church of God is a great gift for human beings. That is its focal message, not the Church’s influence, structures or traditions,” he said. “The Church is in dire need of genuine dialogue and must not be dependent on anyone,” Archabbot Varszegi added.He said it took a very long time for changes to take place in the Church but he could sense a greater sensibility on the Church’s part for modern people and for the modern age.“Churchmen are genuinely looking for the right answers and, in this respect, Pope Francis’ letter on the Jubilee of Mercy was truly groundbreaking. In it, one can immediately ascertain an incredible shift of emphasis,” Varszegi observed.He said the aim was to lead people back to a merciful God who demonstrated His infinite love through Jesus.“We, too, must talk about this God who uplifts, liberates and endows us human beings. I am full of hope even if I know that the Church with its cumbersome apparatus can be exceedingly sluggish”, he concluded.The Archabbey of Pannonhalma opened its doors to refugees regardless of their religion last summer when the first big wave of migrants crossed from Hungary into Austria. But Hungary and other eastern European countries have been extremely reluctant to take in refugees from the Middle East and usually, on principle, they accept only Christians. Many Church leaders and Catholic parishes in these countries have defended the policy, insisting that they want to protect their Christian heritage.
Jan 15 16 3:33 PM
These are fierce theological times. It should come as no surprise that the Vatican and Islam are not getting along, or that their problems began long before Pope Benedict XVI made his unfortunate reference to the Prophet Muhammad, in a speech in Regensburg last September, and even before the children of Europe’s Muslim immigrants discovered beards, burkas, and jihad. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world, and more than a billion Muslims. And what divides the most vocal and rigidly orthodox interpreters of their two faiths, from the imams of Riyadh and the ayatollahs of Qom to the Pope himself, is precisely the things that Catholicism and Islam have always had in common: a purchase on truth; a contempt for the moral accommodations of liberal, secular states; a strong imperative to censure, convert, and multiply; and a belief that Heaven, and possibly earth, belongs exclusively to them.It is well known that Benedict wants to transform the Church of Rome, which is not to say that he wants to make it more responsive to the realities of modern life as it is lived by Catholic women in the West, or by Catholic homosexuals, or even by the millions of desperately poor Catholic families in the Third World who are still waiting for some merciful dispensation on the use of contraception. He wants to purify the Church, to make it more definitively Christian, more observant, obedient, and disciplined—you could say more like the way he sees Islam. And never mind that he doesn’t seem to like much about Islam, or that he has doubts about Islam’s direction. (His doubts are not unusual in today’s world; many Muslims have them.) The Pope is a theologian—the first prominent theologian to sit on Peter’s throne since the eighteenth century. He views the world through a strictly theological frame, and his judgments about Islam, however defiant or reductive they sometimes sound, have finally to do with the idea of Theos—God—as he understands it. Those judgments have not changed much, in character, since he left Germany for the Vat-ican, twenty-six years ago.In 1997, when the Pope was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and beginning his seventeenth year as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, otherwise known as the Holy Office, or the Inquisition, he told the German journalist Peter Seewald, “Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything. . . . One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of pluralistic society.” In 2004, the year before his election to the papacy, he elaborated on that dismissive thought for the German secular philosopher Jürgen Habermas, during a long recorded conversation in Munich. Talking about the “normative elements” in human rights—rights that in the West, by consensus, are not subjected to “the vagaries of majorities”—Ratzinger brought up Islam. He said that “Islam has defined its own catalogue of human rights, which differs from the Western catalogue” and from the West’s understanding of the “self-subsistent values that flow from the essence of what it is to be a man”—values that may not be readily apparent beyond “the Christian realm” or “the Western rational tradition.” What he does seem to admire about Islam is its insistent presence at the center of most Muslims’ lives.Islam has been in Europe for thirteen hundred years. Arab armies were at the gates of Poitiers, in central France, in 732—only a hundred years after the Prophet died and more than three hundred and fifty years before the start of the First Crusade—and southern Spain was still under Islamic rule in the fifteenth century, some two hundred years after the knights of the Ninth Crusade straggled home. But Benedict is the first Pope to have developed what could be called an active theological policy toward Islam, as opposed to, say, a military or political one—“the first really functioning Pope in the post-September 11th world,” Daniel Madigan calls him. Madigan, who is one of the Vatican’s most prominent, and liberal, advisers on Christian-Muslim relations, runs the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Jesuits’ Pontifical Gregorian University, arguably the most intellectually independent of Rome’s Catholic institutions. It is probably safe to say that many of the faculty had been hoping for a more doctrinally liberated Pope. They acknowledge Benedict, though, as an intellectual, and, from a critical distance, recognize his purpose in what Madigan calls “laying down challenges to Islam, telling Muslims, ‘We need to do some hard talking.’ ”Still, not even a Jesuit could explain what the Pope intended when he addressed a group of theologians at the University of Regensburg in September, beginning a speech that could best be described as a scholarly refutation of the so-called Kantian fallacy—Kant’s distinction between rational understanding and apprehension of the sublime—with a question posed by a fourteenthcentury Byzantine emperor to a Persian guest at his winter barracks near Ankara. “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new,” the emperor asked the Persian, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”The problem for people who actually read the speech (by most reports, very few did) was that the Pope chose not to dispute the emperor’s statement. He allowed that the emperor had spoken with a “startling brusqueness,” but he did not say whether he disagreed, nor, for that matter, did he acknowledge that Christianity had contributed its share of inhumanity to history. He quoted from the emperor’s argument against violent conversion—“God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature”—and contrasted that with a modern scholarly reading of the Islamist argument for it: “In Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories—even that of rationality.” After that, he did not mention Islam again. Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica, who heard the speech, says it was “like a typical Protestant Sunday sermon, with the quote as the proposition, the passage to be examined—only it wasn’t examined.”People at the Vatican quickly covered for Benedict. Some said that he must have been talking a Regensburg shorthand; he had taught at Regensburg for most of the nineteen-seventies, and it could be argued that, in such a familiar academic context, his disclaimer was implicit. A few joked that, being an academic, he had simply given in to a professionally irresistible temptation to show off with an obscure citation. But many of the Vatican correspondents who, like Politi, travelled to Regensburg with Benedict doubt that there was anything accidental or inadvertent in the citation. They had received copies of his speech at six in the morning of the day he gave it, and, at ten, they assembled in the university’s makeshift pressroom and informed the Vatican spokesman, a Jesuit priest and Vatican Radio director named Federico Lombardi, that the passage was going to be incendiary. “The point is that at 10 A.M. somebody got the message that the text was explosive,” Politi told me, adding that when the Pope had gone to Auschwitz to speak, last May, “we got copies of that speech, too, and it never mentioned the Shoah, so we said, ‘Hey, where is Shoah?,’ and he changed it.” Putting aside the obvious question of whether reporters should be in the business of saving Popes from embarrassment, the question remains whether Benedict got the message.Father Lombardi, a soft-spoken man who at the time was only two months into his job as the Vatican’s official spinner, told me, “I don’t know the intentions of the Pope. I do know that his Regensburg speech was directed to the culture of the West; it wasn’t given to engage Muslims.” But, of course, it did. Within a day of the speech, riots and protests had broken out across the Muslim world. Before the worst of them ended, a week later, Benedict XVI had been burned in effigy in Basra; an Anglican church and a Greek Orthodox church had been fire bombed in Nablus; and an Italian nun had been murdered in Mogadishu, in front of the children’s hospital where she worked. In Europe, young Muslims took to the streets, calling for the Pope’s death and waving placards that said “Islam will conquer Rome” and “Jesus is the slave of Allah.”The loudest voices, not surprisingly, were the first heard. Sheikh Abu Saqer, the head of the Salafiya Jihadiya movement in Gaza, called angrily for the conquest and conversion of Rome: “This is a crusader war against Islam, and it is our holy duty to fight all those who support the Pope. . . . The green flag of Allah and Muhammad will be raised over the Vatican. . . . Until they join Islam, Hell is their destination.” In Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that the Pope’s speech was the “latest link” in the “chain of a conspiracy to set in motion a crusade.” And Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told Iranians, “The Muslim outcry will continue until he fully regrets his remarks.”The Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, at Oxford, described this “counterproductive game” in late September, when he wrote that Muslim leaders who lend their voices to an angry mob protesting a “perceived insult to their faith” might well reflect on the consequences of “manipulating crises of this kind as a safety valve for both their restive populations and their own political agenda.” Ramadan has roots in Egypt (where his grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood) and in Europe (where he was born and raised), and he has cultivated a reputation as a kind of mediator between the Muslims of those two worlds, an interpreter of one to the other. He said that crises like Regensburg, with their “uncontrollable outpouring of emotion, end up providing a living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception.”Joseph Ratzinger and his predecessor Karol Wojtyla were the first “foreigners,” as Italians still call them, to be elected to the papacy since 1522, when a priest from Utrecht began twenty uneventful months as Pope Adrian VI. The forty-five Pontiffs who followed Adrian were not only reliably homegrown; they were rarely driven to extremes of Christian ardor, and Italians liked them that way—for their self-interest and their discretion. Popes were not expected to transform Catholicism. Their job was to look after their land, their coffers, and their clergy, support the wars against Protestants, and dazzle Europe’s Catholic peasants with earthly displays of the heavenly pomp awaiting them once the misery of their indentured lives was past. The Church lost the last of its Papal States in 1870, with the Risorgimento, and, after years of wrangling with the capricious new entity called Italy, it settled into a fairly comfortable role. It delivered the Catholic vote to the Christian Democrats and kept the Communists at bay, and in return was assured that no unseemly new laws would disturb the patriarchal sanctity of the Catholic family. (It eventually lost on contraception and divorce.)The received wisdom has been that the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today was born—or reborn—in 1962, with the opening ceremonies of the ecumenical council known to the world as Vatican II. The presiding Pope was the irresistibly benign Angelo Roncalli, or John XXIII, and, in calling that council, he had managed to crack a stifling papal mold, both in the huge pleasure he took in bringing together three thousand bishops from around the world and in the promise he made of opening the Church not only to the different voices of Catholicism but to the voices of the other great religions. “What do we intend?” he said, flinging open a Vatican window. “We intend to let in a little fresh air.”The council sat for three years, and while John XXIII died less than a year into its four sessions, one of the key documents it produced—Nostra Aetate, or “In Our Time”—did revise Catholicism’s formal relationship to those religions. John had wanted to leave a strong statement about the Church’s history of antiSemitism, and in Nostra Aetate the “spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews”—the roots of Christianity in the Jewishness of Christ, and even the dim possibility of Jewish salvation—was finally acknowledged. Nostra Aetate also acknowledged, for the first time in Church history, if not what theologians call “the salvation status” of Islam—put simply, do Muslims go to Heaven?—then at least the humanity of Muhammad’s followers. “The Church regards with esteem . . . the Muslims,” it said. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of Heaven and earth.”It wasn’t a lot. “You could say that Islam entered Vatican II through a Jewish door,” the historian Alberto Melloni told me. But it held out the possibility of a revolution in relations between two religions that (as John Paul II remarked twenty years later, on a trip to Morocco) had spent more time offending each other than embracing. The assumption, perhaps naïve, was that this was a revolution that Islam would welcome, and a new Curial office, for interfaith dialogue and relations, was opened by the Vatican. At first, it was known simply as the Secretariat for Non-Christians, or Pro Non Christianis. In 1988, it became the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.Giovanni Montini, the cardinal who became Pope Paul VI a few weeks after John’s death, signed off on Nostra Aetate in 1965. Ten years later, he withdrew the Church’s long-standing objection to the construction of a Grand Mosque for Rome. He did it quietly, mindful, perhaps, of the fact that, for most Italians of his generation, the question of Islam belonged where Dante had left it—in the “schismatics” corner of the Eighth Circle, with Muhammad eternally disembowelled or, in the words of the poet, “rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.” (It should be remembered that John of Damascus, the eighth-century saint and last Father of the Church, considered Islam to be a Christian heresy; today, by strict Catholic definition, any religion that postdates and rejects the divinity of Christ is heretical.)Paul also left the new interfaith office pretty much to its own devices, thus avoiding the theologically sticky question of who, from the point of view of “dialogue” with a religion without hierarchies, could properly be said to speak authoritatively for Islam. This obviously pleased the priests who were off serving small Catholic communities in the Muslim world, but permission to talk about God with imams was not exactly the “fresh air” that liberal lay Catholics had expected from the first ecumenical council in a century. Despite the mythology that surrounds it, Vatican II was meant to open the Church to the world, not to liberalize its doctrine, and its most enduring legacy may have been not Nostra Aetate but the conservative backlash that Nostra Aetate inspired.Thomas Michel, the Secretary for Interreligious Affairs at the Jesuit Curia, calls Vatican II “the 1968 of the Catholic Church”—a magical liberating moment that, like ’68, frightened as many people as it freed. Conservatives in the Church saw it as a step toward ecumenical license, if not doctrinal collapse. Paul himself seems to have thought so. Within three years of the council’s closing session, he produced the encyclical letters Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which affirmed the doctrine of clerical celibacy, and Humanae Vitae, which, despite the best efforts of the theologians on his papal commission on birth control, who after three years of scrutinizing the Gospels had tried to persuade him that contraception was morally acceptable, affirmed its sinfulness. It may prove that, in the end, the ecumenical council that really transformed the Church was not Vatican II but Vatican I, which sat from 1869 to 1870 and enshrined the doctrine of papal infallibility. The Church that Karol Wojtyla and, after him, Joseph Ratzinger inherited is in some ways as old and as new as that.Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, had been one of the young theological advisers at Vatican II. He was thirty-five then, a full professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bonn, and on his way to a chair in dogmatics at the University of Tübingen, where he taught with Hans Küng, Germany’s premier Catholic theologian. Tübingen’s Catholic theologians were famously progressive, closer, in some ways, to Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, in Switzerland, than to their own bishops. Ratzinger, at the time, considered Küng his friend. The upheavals of 1968 changed that. Ratzinger, by his own account, was so repelled by the anarchy around him that he fled Tübingen for the conservative Catholic fiefdom of Regensburg’s new theology department—a move I have heard described as “going from Harvard to Idaho State.”He had already written dissertations on Augustine and Bonaventura, and even a book arguing for a decentralized Church. But it was at Regensburg’s theology department that he honed his belief that the discourse of Christianity is a fundamentally rational discourse—as the West, grounded in Greek philosophical inquiry, understands reason—and as such not ultimately comprehensible, even for argument’s sake, outside the JudeoChristian tradition. That certainty, drawn from his reading of John’s Gospel, of the inextricability of Theos and Logos—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—was the heart of his speech in Regensburg nearly forty years later.Ratzinger and Wojtyla shared this: an exceptionally narrow view of what constitutes a morally acceptable Christian life. That view is reflected in the daily decisions of bishops who in the past few years have denied the sacraments to pro-choice politicians (St. Louis); refused to allow Muslims to pray at a church that was once a mosque (Córdoba); and denied Catholic burial to an incurably ailing man who, after years of suffering on a respirator, asked to die (Rome). But the resemblance ends there. Ratzinger did not really think that theological dialogue with non-Christians was useful, or meaningful, or even possible. John Paul II did. His papacy, he said, was going to be a peace papacy—a papacy of bridges. Unlike Ratzinger, he was not much concerned about whether a Trinitarian faith with an anthropomorphic God was “comprehensible” to a Muslim whose God is never manifest. He would talk to anyone about God. In twenty-six years as Pope, he made a hundred and two trips abroad, many of them to Muslim countries, and it didn’t matter whether the understanding of God was the same from one airport to the next.“He decided that he wouldn’t govern—he would go” is how Mario Marazziti, one of the founders of the New Age Catholic movement called the Community of Sant’Egidio, describes those years. “Whereas Benedict governs through the Word.” Father Michael Hilbert, a professor of canon law and the dean of faculty at the Gregorian, puts it this way: “For John Paul II, the faith was a given, something to celebrate and proclaim. Ratzinger wants to explain it. His question is, Why did the Holy Spirit choose me? What message should I be giving now?” And Marco Tosatti, the Vatican correspondent at La Stampa and an admirer of Benedict, says simply, “John Paul was not a theologian.”John Paul was not popular with the Church hierarchy. His freewheeling embrace did not include it. “He paid great lip service to the spirit of Vatican II,” a priest close to the Curia told me. “But, in fact, wherever he went he sat on the local bishop’s chair and said, in effect, ‘I am the bishop of this church.’ And one by one he reeled in the theologians, the bishops, the orders, everyone who believed that the celebration of the Word is adults living their faith as adults.” He stripped the bishops’ conferences of their authority. He suspended the Jesuits’ constitution for two years. He raised the reactionary lay order Opus Dei to the status of a “personal prelature”—the only personal prelature in the Church—directly responsible to him. The Old Guard of the Vatican and the priests of the most progressive orders were equally bewildered by John Paul’s populism. They complained endlessly, if privately, about his style, which was famously demonstrated on a trip to Paris, in the early eighties, when he raced through a High Mass at Notre-Dame in order to stop at a pilgrimage shrine and chapel on the Rue du Bac, where he kissed the ground and started praying. The same conservative bishops who later applauded his insistence that abstinence, not condoms, was the answer to Africa’s AIDS crisis considered the embrace, or “dialogue,” that he extended to the world, including the Islamic world, to be, at best, naïve or messianic and, at worst, theologically irresponsible or indifferent.Ratzinger is never theologically indifferent. He deals in truth—in “the Catholic ‘om,’ ” as Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet, calls it—and has little tolerance for a church of broad, grand gestures. He worries about the illiteracy in the faith. He wants Catholics to be clear and strict about who, precisely, they are. Many people who know Ratzinger call his severity “shyness.” Mickens, who was educated by Benedictines, prefers “passive-aggressive.” He says, “John Paul II was always making exceptions. Benedict is a Neoplatonist. Everything is ‘order.’ When he says that homosexuality is a disorder, that divorce and remarriage is a disorder—he can’t find any exceptions to ‘order.’ ” (Catholics still argue about the role he played, as Archbishop of Munich and Freising in the late seventies, in the Vatican’s decision to strip Hans Küng of the right to teach Catholic theology, on the ground of what could be called Küng’s “doctrinal disorder.”) He made an exceptionally effective Grand Inquisitor at the Holy Office, censuring outspoken priests and literally silencing the liberation theologians who were reviving the Church in South America. His loyalty, as he saw it, was to Christianity and not to (to his mind) errant Christians.God’s intentions tend to wobble from papacy to papacy, and the Church adjusts to the contradictions. Benedict, for all his doctrinal rigidity, remains extremely forthcoming as a scholar, and he is much more careful than his predecessor to distinguish between opinion and “truth.” John Paul II was untroubled by that sort of distinction, and, curiously, Benedict did very little to discourage his conflations of doctrine and what the Church calls “definitive teachings”—perhaps because, during the last years of the Pope’s long illness, those teachings were “guided” by Benedict himself. (“Ratzinger has been Pope much longer than you think,” Robert Mickens says.) Eventually, John Paul’s relations with other religions, especially with Islam, were also guided by Ratzinger, although this was obvious mainly to Rome’s vaticanisti, who could trace the change.A case in point is the two big prayer gatherings for peace that took place in Assisi during John Paul’s papacy, the first in 1986 and the second in 2002, two and a half years before the Pope died. The first gathering, known today as Assisi I, was a common prayer: a hodgepodge of interfaith holiness convoked by the gurus of the Community of Sant’Egidio, blessed by the Pope, supervised by the head of his Commission for Justice and Peace, the French cardinal Roger Etchegaray, and including among the faithful a Crow medicine man named John Pretty-on-Top, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, the president of Morocco’s High Council of Ulemas, and the Dalai Lama. (John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said that there were probably more religions represented at Assisi that day than women.) For John Paul, it was an irresistible, ur-ecumenical occasion, with everyone praying together in what was described by a spokesman for Sant’Egidio as “an unconditional opening to the religion of the other.” Justo Lacunza-Balda, a Spanish brother who until last year ran the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, told me, “The Pope’s reasons for Assisi I were maybe a little fuzzy . . . but he knew that Muslim-Christian relations had become fundamental for peace.”It was not, however, the sort of occasion that appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger. “This cannot be the model,” he told an Austrian paper. Word came down from the Holy Office to the organizers at Sant’Egidio that Assisi I had been too folkloric and, worse, that it had carried a risk of religious relativism and “syncretism” (which, to be fair, it did). Assisi II was what you might call a highly negotiated outpouring. The Pope was failing, and Ratzinger had already delivered his own position paper on the uniqueness of Catholic salvation. (It said that the situation for non-Catholics was “gravely deficient.”) He called itDominus Iesus, and it was a triumphalist document—not, in any event, an “unconditional opening” of the gates of the Vatican, let alone the gates of Heaven. “We sort of reinvented Assisi after that,” Mario Marazziti, from Sant’Egidio, told me. “The religions would pray one beside the other. Not together but beside.” This time, John Paul II was installed on a big throne, surrounded by other Catholics, and the religions prayed alone.Many of the people who found themselves praying beside but not together with the Pope at Assisi II that day—January 24, 2002—were distressed by the change, though only four months after the attack on the World Trade Center there wasn’t much faith left in Assisi in the power of prayer for peace. Alberto Melloni says that there was certainly “consciousness in the Curia, after 9/11, of the possible uselessness of such an event.” By the eve of his election, in the spring of 2005, Ratzinger was warning Catholics about the “waves” battering at the boat of the true faith, including among them mysticism, “sects,” and Turkish Muslims in Christian Europe.In February last year, ten months into his papacy, Benedict removed the much admired British archbishop who presided over the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and dispatched him to Cairo as a papal nuncio. The archbishop, Michael Fitzgerald, had a particularly warm interest in Islam, and the Vatican called this a key appointment to the Arab League. But it amounted to exile. The council itself was turned over to a conservative cardinal named Paul Poupard, and, to some extent, folded into the Pontifical Council for Culture, which Poupard heads. In today’s Vatican, “cultural dialogue” is a code for relations with religions that, by Benedict’s definition, cannot sustain a theological relationship with Catholicism. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of cultural dialogue. It can mean that you start focussing on very concrete problems, and even try to resolve those problems. (Lacunza-Balda says that the Pope, if anyone, has the right to challenge Muslims to reflect on “their use of God as an umbrella to cover violence.”) On the other hand, it can mean that, in shutting the last theological windows of Vatican II, you are dismissing Islam as one more “gravely deficient” sect.There are more than twenty Muslim ambassadors to the Holy See, although there is no official ambassador representing “Islam.” (The only religion with a permanent delegation to the Vatican is the Church of England.) Some of those ambassadors say Benedict is right, when it comes to the limits of conversation. Muhammad Javad Faridzadeh, the Iranian Ambassador, told me, “After Vatican II, the ‘dialogue’ was obligatory, it was written, and John Paul had to have it. The difference today is not in the obligation but in the way of having it. Theological dialogue between religions is no sooner born than it dies. Theological language is not Socratic. It becomes militant, it is the arm with which you defend your religion. You do not come to a friend to talk bearing arms. You leave theology at the door and come with flowers—which can be ‘culture.’ ”Faridzadeh is a philosopher—a Platonist, he says, like the Pope. He has studied not only Islamic philosophy but also phenomenology, Continental philosophy, and medieval scholasticism. He reads Kant and Nietzsche and Heidegger and is given to quoting Hans Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Michel Foucault. It is as a philosopher, he says, that he doubts whether a Christian could “defend” the relation of Theos and Logos to a Muslim, who has no image of God, any better than a Muslim could defend Islam to a Christian, who does. Many Catholics with an intimate understanding of Islam share this doubt. Priests who have worked in orthodox Muslim countries like to point out that “dialogue” with fundamentalists is, almost by definition, impossible. James Puglisi, a Franciscan friar who runs the Center for Christian Unity, in Rome, told me, “You need competence on both sides. And it’s not just Islam. I was in an ‘official conversation’ with some Seventh- day Adventists. I said to them, ‘We need to write our common history.’ But how do you do that, when they don’t even accept the critical interpretation of our common texts?”Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, a Jordanian diocesan priest who worked with Michael Fitzgerald at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue—and who remains one of the council’s leading Islamic experts—said that, to his mind, the best argument for the Pope’s campaign to concentrate on Christian identity, rather than on theological incursions into other people’s faiths, is that, “with a weak identity, you are unqualified for any kind of ‘interreligious’ dialogue . . . especially in the face of a strong and sometimes radical Islam.” He told me, “Knowing who you are, as a Christian, can be a preparation for dialogue, not a confrontation.”Benedict, who is nearly eighty, is said to have set himself two goals for what he knows will be a short papacy. Neither of them involves Islam theologically, but they do involve it in very practical, political ways. His first goal is ecumenical. It has to do with reinvigorating, and perhaps enforcing, what he sees as Christianity’s nonnegotiable moral precepts. In other words, he wants to temper and constrain Western secularism with his own brand of Christian morality; he wants the leaders of other Christian fellowships to join him; and he wants to put the world on notice that, with more than fifteen million Muslims living in Western Europe, the only analogous mission in the West today is an Islamist one.Moral unity doesn’t sound like a lot to ask of Christians, but it is. For one thing, Anglicans and Protestants and Orthodox Christians are hardly eager to take their moral marching orders from a man who holds Catholicism to be the one true articulation of Christian faith—and who is demonstrably more at home discussing moral imperatives with secular intellectuals like Habermas than he is with any of them. It is a matter of theological status. R. William Franklin, an Episcopal priest and a fellow of the Anglican Center in Rome, says that, from an ecumenical standpoint, “we make intellectual but little practical progress on questions of authority, and of course on the ‘sticking points.’ ” (He means the role of women and homosexuals in the two churches—subjects on which this Pope sometimes seems to have more in common with Qom than with Canterbury.) Franklin says that, given the goal of “real and full communion, the best possible scenario would be for the Vatican to say, ‘Get your best theologians together and we’ll duke it out.’ ” But, for Benedict, the Anglican schism remains, if not a heresy, an unacceptable rejection.Of course, the Pope’s real interest is in numbers, and apart from the various Pentecostal and evangelical sects, with whom he does not do serious ecumenical business, the big numbers for his Christian moral crusade lie in some sort of reconciliation between the Eastern and the Western Churches. This has been a papal imperative since the Eastern Church broke with Rome, in the eleventh century, and it is especially important now, with Orthodox Christians being the first line of defense against radical Islam. Benedict’s visit to Turkey, in late November—two and a half months after his Regensburg speech—was originally intended to be the public face of the Vatican’s private negotiations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who, from his seat in Istanbul, remains the titular head of an Or-thodox communion of three hundred million people. The trip had been in the works since 2004—which is to say that it was going to be John Paul’s visit, and it was going to be pleasant. Turkey not only was a friend to the West—the prototype of George W. Bush’s friendly Muslim state—but officially considered itself the West, and was still confident of a European welcome. That welcome has pretty much been withdrawn by the European Union. And, because of it, Turkey’s handful of Christians—not much more than a hundred thousand in a country of seventy million people—feel particularly abandoned. (The Ottoman massacre of more than a million Armenian Christians, early in the last century, is for them a living nightmare.)Turkey, by constitution and military oversight, remains Atatürk’s secular state. There are no laws limiting Christian practice, but the particularly volatile new mixture of Islamic internationalism and Turkish nationalism could make the country a very uncomfortable place for Christians practicing their faith outside the big, cosmopolitan cities, like Istanbul and Izmir. “The Pope now sees this visit as a moment to contribute to their serenity,” Father Lombardi, Benedict’s press secretary, told me the day before they flew to Ankara. Cardinal Etchegaray, who joined Lombardi and Benedict on the papal plane (on what was Etchegaray’s first trip to the Muslim world since John Paul sent him on a “peace mission” to Saddam Hussein, in 2003), explained it this way: “Don’t forget, the primary reason for this Turkish visit is ecumenical. We have had enormous difficulties with this trip, but we are going for this reason.”It was classic Vatican understatement, given that Turkish nationalists had been rioting to prevent it; the Army was virtually occupying Istanbul to keep them from rioting again; and the country’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was fleeing to a NATO meeting in Latvia—and only at the last minute announced that he might have time for the Pope at the Ankara airport just before his flight. (He had twenty minutes.) Not even the Patriarchy was altogether happy about Benedict’s impending visit. The Orthodox Church had been counting on Turkish membership in Europe as a kind of protection, and Benedict’s earlier statements about Turkey being “in permanent contrast to Europe,” along with the local fury over Regensburg, had left all Christians in the East vulnerable. As it happened, the trip went peacefully, and by all accounts it was successful. Benedict made his spiritually fraternal gestures. He held hands and prayed—beside but not together—with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul in the Blue Mosque. No one seemed offended by his obvious unease, perhaps because most Turks, Muslim and Christian, were just as anxious. “We are praying for this blessing to be over,” an Orthodox friend I phoned in Istanbul that day said.Benedict’s second goal is reciprocity with Islam. He wants to use his papacy to restore to Christian minorities in Muslim countries the same freedom of religion that most Muslims enjoy in the West. The question of reciprocity is hardly new, but it was never a priority at the Vatican before Benedict’s reign. John Paul II avoided it, on his travels, by saying, in effect, “I go for the country, not the religion.” Benedict has pretty much made it a precondition for relations between the Vatican and the Muslim world. He clearly thinks that the JudeoChristian West has been self-destructively shortsighted in its concessions to the Islamic diaspora, when few, if any, concessions are made to Christians and Jews in most of the Middle East.In countries under Islamic law, conversion to Christianity (or any other religion) is an apostatic crime. In Saudi Arabia, churches are forbidden. In the marginally more open sheikhdoms, Christian practice is strictly controlled. In Iran, where Christians and Jews are officially tolerated as “people of the Book,” the President not only denies the Holocaust but wants Israel “wiped off the map.” In Iraq, as many as half the country’s Christians have fled in the past three years—because of the war, but also because of the religious hatred that the war has unleashed. It is hard to imagine any of those Muslim states being so eager to please a Catholic Pope that they would bow to the sensitivities of Christians or Jews the way the West bowed to Muslim sensitivities when the Tate Britain removed a sculpture involving a tattered Koran from an exhibition; or the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten apologized for twelve cartoon drawings of the Prophet; or the Deutsche Oper stopped production of an “Idomeneo,” because of a scene in which the severed heads of Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and Poseidon were set on chairs. (The opera was eventually performed, though it has to be said that the Pope agrees with Islam when it’s a question of art versus God.)But it may be that the price of reciprocity with militant Islam is unacceptable, given that it now seems to involve a demand that Christians recast Islam’s jihadist past and its particularly bloody present into something spiritually savory. Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, of the Islamic institute at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, spoke for many of his colleagues when he said, after Regensburg, “Islam is innocent of everything mentioned by this Pope. . . . He is the only one adding fuel to the fire of hatred and division among the religions.” He threatened to “boycott the Vatican” and added that “stopping the interfaith dialogue is the least that can be done.” In Europe, the Islamist threats are far more serious, and certainly more inclusive; the fatwas arrive by e-mail, and the police count among their everyday duties the job of guarding people, most of them Muslims, on jihadist hit lists. Justo Lacunza-Balda, the former head of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, told me that the Pope had every reason to say to Islam, “Excuse me, we are not the same.”For some Catholic theologians, the issue isn’t Benedict’s idea of Islam, or his notion of a purer Church, or his dismissal of the possibility that doctrine can evolve. It is his conviction that Christian faith is demonstrably “rational.” That was the argument of his Regensburg speech, and, much more impressively stated, of his long dialogue with Habermas about reason, religion, and the “dialectics of secularization.” Habermas has always maintained that secular morality—morality negotiated in and by civil society—can, and should, provide humanity with a governing ethos. Benedict, in the course of their conversation, maintained that “the rational or ethical or religious formula that would embrace the whole world and unite all persons does not exist; or, at least, it is unattainable at the present moment.” By that definition, almost any dialogue that does not include a shared definition of the rational, the ethical, or the religious becomes impossible. And it precludes any attempt at theological dialogue with Islam.It is worth remembering that Manuel II Paleologus, the Byzantine emperor who got the Pope into so much trouble in Regensburg, was having a theological dialogue with his Muslim guest—or thought he was. That dialogue went on for the better part of a long winter, in the middle of a war, and the Emperor enjoyed it enough to fill two volumes trying to preserve it. At the time, Orthodox Christians like Paleologus had almost as much to fear from Catholic armies as from Muslim ones; and his Persian friend had certainly as much to fear from Ottomans as from Christians. Some clerics believe that Benedict’s unexamined reference to the words of an obscure emperor under siege in the fourteenth century was, in fact, less an attack on Islam than a kind of coded message to those Orthodox Christians, a misguided step on his ecumenical mission, a way of saying, in effect, Let’s stop arguing with each other—we have a new enemy now. Feisal Abdul Rauf, a well-known Egyptian Sufi imam who sits on the board of New York’s Islamic Center and leads an interfaith initiative “to heal the relations between the Islamic world and America,” told me, “I read that speech, and reread it, and it was not very philosophically coherent. So I asked myself what it was. . . . The real enemy, for the Pope, isn’t Islam. It’s the secular West. He sees that, in the West, religion is banished from the boardroom of society—that it has no place at the table in the public debate on how to build ‘the good society, the ideal society.’ And he sees that in Islam religion is not only at the table; it’s in some ways at the head of the table. He’s jealous.”Rauf was one of the few Muslim leaders who appealed for calm and tolerance after the Regensburg speech. Some moderate Muslims who publicly addressed the Pope were more concerned with refuting his argument than with condemning the violence it inspired. Thirty-eight Muslim theologians from around the world produced an open letter praising Benedict’s “efforts to oppose the dominance of positivism and materialism in human life” but respectfully pointing out “some errors in the way you mentioned Islam” (his understanding of compulsion in Islam, for one, and of transcendence, and jihad, and conversion) and even the errors of an eleventh-century Muslim scholar he had cited as his expert. A few wrote to remind him that, as far as “reason” was concerned, it was Arab rationalists like Avicenna and Averroës who, with their commentaries on Aristotle, had saved Greek thought from obliteration during Europe’s undeniably dark Dark Ages. Most mentioned that they missed the ecumenical embrace of John Paul II.The Pope, in his way, apologized: he announced that he was “deeply sorry” that anything he said had upset Muslims, though not that he was sorry to have said it. In the course of the next weeks, the Vatican Web site doctored a few phrases of the Regensburg speech. A short footnote was added, saying that the Pope did not agree with the Emperor’s “things only evil and inhuman” vision of Islam. He met with the Muslim ambassadors to the Holy See, hoping to appease the rulers they represented. His biggest success was with the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sent his “respect” to Benedict and noted his satisfaction in seeing that he had “modified the remarks.”St. Paul was born in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey. He was a Roman citizen—a Jew with an education—and he knew Greek. It has been said that if John the Evangelist put the Word into Christianity, Paul put Greece into our understanding of John. People have been arguing about the meaning of the Word for nearly two thousand years—it is one of the beautiful mysteries of Christianity. But as the Catholic Encyclopedia said, in 1910, in its chapter on Logos, “Hellenic speculations constitute a dangerous temptation for Christian writers”—even when the writer happens to be Pope. Christianity, like any faith, changes with the language that describes it.The Muslim anthropologist Talal Asad puts it this way: “Theology, being inlanguage, is part of culture”—which is to say that, if “culture” is open to discussion, so is God. Asad’s mother was a Saudi. His father was an Austrian Jewish convert to Islam—a journalist who wrote one of the great English translations of the Koran. Asad himself grew up in India, studied in England, teaches in New York, and is married to an Englishwoman. It isn’t surprising that he finds Benedict’s distinction between theological and cultural dialogue bewildering. He told me, “This notion of ‘theological dialogue’ is a very modern, liberal idea in some ways. But they had it in Spain once, where there was as much of a mix of different religious cultures as human beings seem to be capable of. And today—take the idea, in Islamic tradition, of the ‘inconceivable and unrepresentable God.’ I would assume each side would be interested in investigating that further, in talking about it more. To say no to that is simply not very interesting intellectually.”Daniel Madigan, who is leaving the Gregorian this year to teach at Georgetown, says his colleagues are worried about the pressure that the Council for Interreligious Dialogue is under now to restrict itself to “political, cultural, and human-rights issues,” with no theological component to the discussion. He thinks they are right to worry. But he also says that there is no way, really, to monitor, let alone separate, theological and cultural exchange. “The idea that social and cultural dialogue won’t be theological—it’s not really true,” he told me. “You can’t separate religious ethics from the concrete ethical decisions that people make. Interreligious dialogue has been going on since Vatican II, but that doesn’t mean that under John Paul II people were just sitting around discussing the nature of the Holy Trinity. At the Gregorian, the idea has been to train people to work in interreligious dialogue. We teach the theory and fundamentals of the anthropology and sociology of religions: how each religion—Islam, say—sees itself. But interreligious dialogue, theological dialogue—we have it every day. We struggle with our texts in each other’s presence.”And Khaled Akasheh, at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told me, “The Pope’s message is that there will be more attention to the cultural dimension of theological dialogue—well, every religion is born in culture. That’s fine. But the very important point for me is that the dialogues we have take place through local churches and mosques all over the world. The council exists to encourage these dialogues, and, whatever its criteria, they were never about universals.” The larger problem, of course, is not friendly Christian and Muslim clergymen talking about God. It is radical Islam, which has nothing to say to Christians beyond, at best, invective and, at worst, threats. Marco Tosatti, at La Stampa, told me, “The big meetings have been organized by the Christians, not by the Muslims. I’m wondering more and more if most Muslims are even interested.” Maybe. But it would seem that today, for moderate Muslims, the argument for embrace is particularly strong. They are as much at risk, in radically Islamist countries, as Christians are. They are frightened and isolated, and if there is no dialogue with the Church they will be more isolated. The idea of interreligious dialogue may have no meaning for fundamentalists, but it does for most Muslims—waiting, in some alarm, for the jihad to pass.
Muslim believers do not separate “real life” and religious life (and neither, for that matter, do most Christians). Priests with experience of Islam know this, and so do the many Catholic intellectuals who say that the trouble with the Pope’s “no” to theological dialogue isn’t simply its dismissal of Islam; it is what that dismissal says about Christianity. The certainty that Greek philosophy is part and root of Christianity—one Muslim philosopher called it God having “a Greek friend”—seems almost diminishing to those Catholics. “We have to remember that Jesus wasn’t Greek,” Daniel Madigan says. “ John was a Jewish document, not a Greek one.” Thomas Michel says, “Asian Catholics say, ‘We’re Catholics, but we’re not Greek.’ ” And Robert Mickens says, “Ratzinger is Eurocentric. To him, Europe means Christianity.” It may be that in reducing Islam to a “culture,” an artifact of its time and place and circumstances, Benedict ends up reducing Christianity to a culture, too. Alberto Melloni, the historian, thinks that the Pope’s idea that “there is nothing of me in the other and nothing of the other in me” doesn’t even do justice to the idea of culture—Talal Asad would certainly agree with that—let alone to Christianity. Melloni told me, “The fact remains that Catholicism exists within other cultures. Take Arab Catholics. They can be as militant about Israel as any other Arabs, and this has to open some very deep questions for Benedict. . . . Talking about culture as the bottom line of religious dialogue brings the question of culture within the Church. It’s a contradiction.”Marco Politi put it this way: “There’s not just the Greek Logos in Christianity. There’s been violence and irrationality and literalism. O.K., that may be what Islam is in this century. But for centuries it was us.”
Jan 22 16 8:41 AM
Back in the late 1960s, the rock band Crosby, Stills and Nash released a catchy tune titled “Marrakesh Express,” referring to the renowned Moroccan city. Today, moderate Muslims are preparing to unleash a new Marrakesh Express, hoping it will do far more than sell records and get people tapping their toes.From Jan. 25-27, some 300 Islamic scholars and jurists, muftis, and government ministers of religion from Muslim states will gather in Marrakesh, representing nations such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, in addition to the host country of Morocco.The aim is to issue a declaration insisting that the protection of religious minorities, including Christians, is deeply rooted in traditional Islamic law, and thus that ISIS and like-minded forces are an aberration. Organizers claim that Marrakesh will be the first summit of its kind on Islamic law and religious minorities in the 1,400-year history of Islam.The gathering intends to make the case that the celebrated “Charter of Medina,” issued by the Prophet Muhammad in 622 AD and believed by some to be the first written constitution in the history of the world, requires the protection of religious freedom and minority rights.The gathering is sponsored by the Kingdom of Morocco and theForum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, an organization based in the United Arab Emirates and led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a Mauritania-born scholar known for arguing for tolerance by drawing on traditional Islamic legal texts.Organizers held a media conference call on Thursday to discuss the initiative.Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, and a student of Bayyah, emphasized the importance of his leadership.“In the Sunni world, he’s probably the foremost scholar on constitutional law, how legislation occurs in the Islamic tradition,” he said, noting that Bayyah was among the authors of the Mauritanian constitution.“He’s been deeply troubled by what’s been happening in Muslim world,” Yusuf said, pointing in particular to the oppression of Yazidis in Iraq, Jews in Yemen, and Christians in Syria and Egypt.Quite often when so-called “moderate Muslims” stage initiatives like this, the concern is that their message plays well in the West, but doesn’t cut much ice within Islam because the key figures don’t have much standing in the Muslim “street”.In the case of the Marrakesh summit, that’s a slightly harder case to make. Aside from the King of Morocco, the lineup includes a former justice from Pakistan’s Supreme Court and the head of the department of Islamic studies at Iran’s Academy of Sciences.Granted, neither Pakistan nor Iran would top most lists of model societies in terms of respect for religious freedom.Pakistan has stern blasphemy laws often used to suppress and harass non-Muslims, including Asia Bibi, an illiterate Catholic farm worker and mother of five currently facing a death sentence. In Iran, despite the moderate profile of a government under Hassan Rouhani that came to power in 2013, Christian pastors face death sentences under a new criminal charge of “spreading corruption on earth.”Yet there’s never going to be any serious movement within Islam toward greater pluralism that doesn’t involve those two nations, which makes the presence of serious representatives from both at the Marrakesh gathering encouraging.Also encouraging is the fact that representatives of religious minorities within predominantly Muslim societies will also be on hand in Marrakesh, to ensure their voices are heard. They include a Sabean Christian and Iraqi government minister named Khalid Amin Roumi, and Bishop Munib Younan, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Palestine.From the Catholic side, retired US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who often acts as an informal diplomatic trouble-shooter and who’s been a leader in inter-faith dialogue for decades, will attend. Organizers say they’ve briefed French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and they expect to have representatives from the Vatican.“It would be great if we could have a meeting with Pope Francis to present the declaration to him,” said Imam Mohamed Magid of the Adams Center in Northern Virginia, who voiced thanks to the Catholic Church for “sticking with Muslims in the most difficult times, addressing Islamophobia.”Before getting carried away, let’s grant three points.First, moderate Muslims have been organizing meetings and issuing declarations like this for some time, without notable effect. One thinks, for example, of the “Common Word” initiative launched by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan after Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial 2006 lecture in Regensburg, Germany, which was perceived as linking Islam with violence.Despite wide media coverage and an impressive cross-section of Muslim participants, that initiative hardly prevented the rise of ISIS or the further spread of Islamic radicalism, and it’s not clear that the Marrakesh gathering will do so either.Second, and meaning no disrespect, Morocco is not one of the true centers of power in the Muslim world. If it were, say, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Iran sponsoring this effort, it probably would be more head-turning.Third, the Charter of Medina may be a problematic foundation for 21st-century concepts of religious freedom. While it did enshrine the right of minorities in Muslim lands to practice their faith and to live in peace, some historians see it as a precursor of the dhimmi system that consigned those minorities to a permanent second-class status.(Yusuf said Thursday that Bayyah does not share that view, arguing that the charter represents a more “egalitarian” alternative to the dhimmi system, one that has “never been abrogated.”)As if another reason for skepticism were required, one could also note that Morocco’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and good PR from an initiative such as this could boost its reputation as a safe haven for foreign visitors.All that said, the fact remains that every time some ISIS or ISIS-inspired atrocity unfolds, whether it’s terrorist attacks in Paris or a slaughter in Syria, Westerners almost uniformly demand that moderate Muslims, those who claim Islam is a religion of peace, do something.In Marrakesh next week, such Muslims will try to do something, and surely that deserves to be both known and encouraged.
Jan 28 16 5:42 AM
An ayatollah to walk the corridors of the Pope’s universityThe Pontifical Lateran University opens its doors to its first ever visiting professor, the director of the Institute of Shiite Studies in Qom. The visit is a result of an agreement that was signed in the sacred Persian cityThe studious, turban-clad, serious yet tranquil-looking man with the grizzly beard and glasses is soon to walk the lecture theatres and corridors of the papal university par excellence. The Ayatollah Mahmood Taghizadeh Davari will be the first visiting professor to tread the grounds of the Pontifical Lateran University, where he will be working on a comparative research project on social Shiite and Catholic theology. Professor Davari, who is director of the Institute of Shiite Studies in Qom, a sacred Shiite city south of Teheran, is expected to arrive at the university soon and to stay there two whole years, the minimum duration of an academic research project. His presence among the teaching staff and his relations with the students attending the pontifical institution will undoubtedly be culturally enriching: an expert on Islamic Studies and a sociologist, Davari has a long career as a professor and scholar of social Islamic theology in general, with a special focus on the cultural and social aspects of Shiite communities. Iranian by birth, he speaks fluent Arabic and English thanks to specialist studies completed in England. He has taught at the University of Teheran, in the faculties of Social Science and Law as well as Philosophy and Communication given the links between social studies and mass media studies. During the course of his career he has published dozens of essays and texts, as well as 30 or so articles published in prestigious academic journals. He has also taken part in important assemblies and international conferences. He expressed an interest in comparative Muslim-Christian studies as early as 2003, when he contributed to an essay collection published in London, titled “Catholics and Shia in dialogue”. Davari is a prominent figure on an institutional level (he was a permanent member of the Committee of Islamic culture and civilisation in the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council) as well as an important media figure – he is accustomed to giving interviews and has directed some scientific magazines. The Shiite professor’s visit to the Pontifical Lateran University is one of the latest fruits of the agreement signed last April by the Rector, Enrico dal Covolo and Seyed Abolhassan Navvab, Chancellor of the University of Religions and Denominations (URD) in Qom. The first initiative following the signing of the agreement, was a joint academic event celebrated at the start of the Jubilee of Mercy in Rome: professors from the Lateran University and the University of Qom met and reflected together on the theology of mercy in Christianity and in Islam.The agreement stipulates that there is to be an exchange of professors and students between the two universities. For Dal Covolo, the understanding represents “a fundamental step along the path of interreligious dialogue on an academic level”. Hence, in support of this cultural exchange, the pontifical university is opening its doors to representatives of Shia Islam, to make this Jubilee year a year of “reciprocal collaboration”. Cooperation on an academic level is part of a positive framework and “constructive dialogue” between the Holy See and Iran, explained the Apostolic Nuncio to Iran, Leo Boccardi, who facilitated relations between the Catholic and Shiite universities. The high level scientific discussion between Catholic and Islamic thought, philosophy and theology is seen as a “mutually enriching venture that can foster an exchange of knowledge among professors and students as well as in published texts,” Boccardi said. In this context, there is already a remarkable interest in Christian culture and tradition: research centre and Shiite university libraries are full to the brim with Catholic theology texts translated into Farsi. Starting with big works such as those of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. Notably, thanks to a team of researchers at the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom, one very important project was completed: the translation of the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church into Farsi. The project went ahead with the approval of the Nunciature Teheran and following consultation with the Salesian priest Franco Pirisi who has been working in Iran for over 40 years. The text includes an introductory note by Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. There are many among the more than 2,000 students enrolled at Qom’s modern university who are keen to learn about the Catholic faith, culture and theology. Now Rome and the Vatican is opening its doors to these committed individuals.
Feb 3 16 11:18 AM
At a recent conference held by Muslim scholars to confront violence in the Islamic world, a representative of the Yazidireligious minority in Iraq and Syria said his people desperately needed protection from the Islamic State.“Please help us,” said Hadi Baba Sheikh, the Yazidi representative. “They are killing us and kidnapping our women and children.”The gathering here of about 300 muftis, theologians and scholars last month responded far more broadly by issuing the Marrakesh Declaration, which calls for Muslim countries to tolerate and protect religious minorities living within their borders — among them Christians, Jews, Hindus and Bahais as well as Yazidis and Sabians.They cited the Charter of Medina, established by the Prophet Muhammad after he fled to Medina, in what is now Saudi Arabia, from Mecca in the seventh century to escape an assassination plot.“The Medina Charter established the idea of common citizenship regardless of religious belief,” said Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian religious scholar and a professor of Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia who helped convene the meeting, in a speech. “Enough bloodshed. We are heading to annihilation. It is time for cooperation.”Since it was issued last Wednesday, the declaration has been welcomed by many, though with some skepticism, and it is only now beginning to gain wider circulation. Some experts said they doubted that the meeting would have lasting impact because it did not include representatives of more extremist movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood. They also said the groups that did attend do not have great sway over young people.“These efforts are compromised from the get-go because of their association with states that don’t have legitimacy among young, angry, frustrated Muslim youths in the Arab world,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World,” who did not attend the conference. “It’s something that appeals to Western governments, but what’s the follow-up?”“The targeted audience should be people who are predisposed to radicalism,” he continued. “A young Muslim who is intrigued by theIslamic State of Iraq and Syria would be more likely to listen to a Salafi scholar than a traditionalist scholar.”Yet for the representatives of persecuted religious minorities who attended the meeting or followed the proceedings from afar, the gathering and the document it produced were a hopeful sign that influential Muslim leaders and scholars were grappling with a serious problem.“I think the declaration is important because it sets a standard for accountability,” said the Rev. Susan Hayward, director of religion and inclusive societies at the United States Institute of Peace and a minister in the United Church of Christ, who attended the conference. “This is a call for action.”She said those who took part in the conference had the clout to cultivate sustainable peace efforts in their homelands. Muslim participants came from 120 countries, and the conference also drew representatives of many other faiths. It was sponsored by King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, which is based in the United Arab Emirates.“Conditions in various parts of the Muslim world have deteriorated dangerously due to the use of violence and armed struggle as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one’s point of view,” the declaration said.“This situation has also weakened the authority of legitimate governments and enabled criminal groups to issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals in ways that have seriously harmed the population as a whole.”President Obama hailed the conference last Wednesday at a ceremony held in Washington to honor recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations Awards, which honor non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.“We know that there were Muslims — from Albanians to Arabs — who protected Jews from Nazis,” Mr. Obama said. “In Morocco, leaders from Muslim-majority countries around the world just held a summit on protecting religious minorities, including Jews and Christians.”The conference did not address tensions within Islam itself, or the discrimination and persecution Muslims sometimes face at the hands of other Muslims. It also did not address the concern that many of the participants represented countries with poor human rights records.Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor of The Islamophobia Studies Journal, was doubtful that the declaration would amount to much. He did not attend the conference, but followed it closely via the Internet.“Overwhelmingly, Muslim populations will be in agreement with this declaration,” he said. But “the overall picture is that civil society discourses have been captured by extremists across the board.”
Mar 28 16 10:01 AM
CWN - L’Osservatore Romano published a column on the front page of its Holy Saturday edition cautioning against one-sided media portrayals of Islam.
In the column, Zouhir Louassini, a Muslim journalist who works for Italy’s state-owned 24-hour news channel, argued that Western media fail to cover diverse views of Islam that “fill the Arab public square.”Louassini cites a Moroccan professor’s statement that the Qur’anic phrase “people of the book” really means “family of the book,” with the implication that Judaism and Christianity are worthy of the same respect as Islam.A one-sided Western portrayal of Islam, Louassini continued, fosters fear and hatred, hinders dialogue between cultures, and helps lead “to an Orwellian world from which the critical spirit is banished.”
Apr 29 16 6:15 AM
Muslim theology faculties develop an ‘Islam for Germany’(RNS) While Germany’s politicians are loudly debating whether Islam is compatible with democracy, five of its state universities are quietly developing pioneering new Islamic theology faculties to try to ensure that it is.The five universities — in Muenster, Osnabrueck, Frankfurt, Tubingen and Erlangen-Nuremberg — recently passed their first official evaluations by Muslim and Christian experts and were granted 20 million euros (or $22 million) to continue for another five years.The programs now have a total of over 1,800 students and plan to grow. The largest program, in Muenster, has 700 students in its three-year bachelor’s program and received more than double that number of applicants this academic year alone.Their example has been such a success that Berlin decided to introduce Islamic theology at one of its universities, even though it will not get federal funds for it.The practical approach these faculties have taken towards training Muslim religion teachers, conducting research into Islam and fostering interfaith dialogue contrasts sharply with the increasingly shrill declarations coming from Germany’s far-right, especially the Alternative for Germany party.The party will hold a convention April 29-30 to agree on its new platform. Its deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch, said Islam violates Germany’s democratic constitution and its public symbols such as minarets, muezzins (people who call Muslims to prayer) and full-face veils should be banned.Johanna Wanka, Germany’s federal minister for education and research, struck a different tone in January when she approved the renewed funding for the five theology centers.“With these centers, the Muslim faith has found a home in Germany’s academic and theological debates,” she said. “This is an important contribution to interreligious dialogue.”German state schools have religious education classes that students attend according to their beliefs. Instruction in the majority Protestant and Catholic faiths are available countrywide and a few areas also offer Jewish education.With the growing number of Muslims in Germany, four states have introduced regular Islamic education for their Muslim public school students. The courses need university-trained teachers, so some universities had to start offering academic programs in Islam.The faculties teach standard courses on the Quran, Islamic law and classic Muslim philosophy, as well as Arabic and pedagogy.Marrying traditional Islamic learning with German academic standards has not been easy.Muslim associations like DITIB, the local arm of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Department that runs mosques and employs imams around Germany, have a say in hiring professors. They have rejected or opposed some candidates they thought were too liberal.But the universities insisted Islam had to be subject to the same critical approach as any other subject and academics must be able to do research and publish freely.Conservative guardians of Muslim tradition have some reason to be wary.German theologians developed the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship in the 18th and 19th centuries, an approach most Islamic scholars have resisted because they view such analytical methods as undermining the faith.If Islamic theology faculties followed this example, some conservatives worried, they could become hotbeds of heresy spreading a reformist Islam unfit to teach to young Muslims. (Goodness, sounds rather like the Catholic arch-conservatives, who break out in hives at the mere mention of the word "reform".)In Muenster, Muslim groups led a bitter campaign against the faculty’s director Mouhanad Khorchide, who received several death threats and was given police protection. But the university stood by him and the criticism eventually ebbed.The Lebanese-born son of Palestinian refugees, Khorchide, 44, has irritated conservative Muslims with popular books such as “Islam Is Mercy” and “God Believes in People,” and appearances on German talk shows where he is treated like the new spokesman for Islam.He speaks out clearly against the ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims, who have a tiny but growing following among young German Muslims, and call for Shariah to be the law of the land.“It is not the job of religions, including Islam, to pass laws,” Khorchide said. “The real concern of Islam is that people perfect themselves, both as individuals and as a society, in order to reach the community of God.”In nearby Osnabrueck, Bulent Ucar said the faculty he heads taught neither an outdated faith nor a kind of “Islam Light” to its 300 students.“We try to match tradition to today’s situations. But we can only change the understanding of Islam if we are accepted by Muslims in their congregations,” said the 49-year-old ethnic Turk born in Germany.His faculty has widened its horizons by launching projects such as one with the Catholic theology and sociology faculties to study social work among immigrants. It has also joined with a Protestant college and a rabbinical seminary to coordinate curricula for their students.Like several other Islam professors, Ucar has become a regular commentator in the media on Muslim issues. In a recent interview, he compared the Alternative for Germany party with the ultra-orthodox Salafis. “Both assume that Islam is not made for democracy,” he said.Frankfurt faculty head Bekim Agai, 42, was born in Essen to a German mother and Macedonian father. He says his faculty wants to develop an “Islam for Germany” that “makes traditions useful for their context.”One of its leading professors, Omer Ozsoy, came from Ankara University’s theology faculty in Turkey, known in the Muslim world for its modern interpretation of the Quran.Harry Harun Behr, a German convert from Catholicism to Islam who teaches religious education, says the faculties have “brought about an anthropological shift in Islamic theology … with less traditionalism and more attention to the situations in which Muslims live.”“Islam in Europe will have its own stamp on it,” he said. “This is very attractive for Islamic theologians from many different countries. They can do their research here without political pressure.”The rapid expansion of the five faculties reflects their popularity among German Muslim students, many of whom will go on to become teachers of Islam, hospital chaplains and social workers among the growing minority.Not all of them are ready for the traditional rigor of German academia, though.“They want to have their faith confirmed, but a university is a place to think about one’s faith,” Khorchide said. (And therein lies one fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam. A Christian is encouraged to think about his faith - in fact, Christianity teaches that God gave man an intellect and free will.) He thinks it will take one or two generations of students before most approach Islam as an intellectual subject. (Hopefully, it will not take that long - perhaps when Muslims are encouraged to really think about their faith, Islam may yet be liberated from the terrorists and murderers who wreak destruction and cruelty in its name.)
May 2 16 1:43 PM
Twenty years have passed since seven monks from the Trappist Priory of Our Lady of the Atlas at Tibhirine, Algeria, were kidnapped by members of the Armed Islamic Group, victims in the Algerian civil war. American moviegoers know the story of their vocation from the award-winning 2010 film "Of Gods and Men" ("Des hommes et des dieux").There is confusion over the conditions of their death. Two months after the kidnapping the monks were found, apparently executed and beheaded, but knowledgeable sources contend that they were killed not by their captors but in a failed rescue attempt by the Algerian Army.The monks of Tibhirine and Christian De Chergé, their prior, belong to a tradition of French Catholic engagement with North African Islam. The earliest of these was Blessed Charles Eugène de la Foucauld, the early 20th-century hermit of Tamanrasset in the Algerian Sahara and the inspiration of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.The others are the distinguished Islamist Louis Massignon and his disciple Mary Kahil, who initiated the badaliya, a movement of Christian-Muslim prayer-support groups.Foucauld, a one-time soldier, fell under the spell of the Sahara after doing a cartographic exploration of Morocco for the French government. In1901, after ordination to the priesthood, he returned to the desert, first to Bene Abbès and then at Tamanrasset, where he lived as a hermit dedicated to prayer and adoration but also tirelessly served his Tuareg neighbors.Originally hoping he might find converts among the Tuareg, Foucauld lived out his time with a life of presence and service to his Muslim neighbors. "God continues to come to us and live with us in a close and a familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the Holy Eucharist," he wrote. "So, too, we must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way."To a Protestant visitor he said, "I am not here to convert the Tuareg at one go, but to try to understand them ... . I am sure God will accept into heaven those who are good and virtuous ... . You are a Prostestant, Tessière is a nonbeliever, the Tuareg are Muslims. I am convinced God will accept us all."Blessed Charles desired to be "the universal brother." His home, which doubled as a house of hospitality, he called a "fraternity."For a number of years Foucauld hoped that Louis Massignon, a scholar of Islam and like him a lover of the North African desert and its Muslim peoples, would join him at Tamanrasset and be his successor. After much hesitation, Massignon made a life in scholarship and marriage.Towards the end of his life, Massignon received permission to be ordained a priest in the Melkite rite, which has married priests. His spiritual legacy is to be found in the practice of (spiritual) "substitution" in which Christians and Muslims offer their lives for one another's spiritual growth.After a period of youthful exploration and unbelief, Massignon had been led back to the faith of his Catholic birth by the devotion he encountered in Muslim people. His return to faith deepened with his study of the 10th-century Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, for whom sacrificial love stood at the heart of the spiritual life.In that spirit with Mary Kahil, an Egyptian Christian involved in Muslim charities, Massignon took a vow to give their lives for the Muslim people. To a Jesuit in Cairo, Mary explained, "We have offered ourselves for the Muslims. Not to convert them, but so that the will of God be done in them and through them. We want to make our prayer theirs, our lives theirs, and present them to the Lord." Massignon pioneered the way for a new Catholic openness to Islam sanctioned by Vatican II's Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate.Many monastics and lay people in Europe joined them in this self-dedication, and in 1947 the Vatican approved the statutes of the "badaliya." Today it represents a spiritual path to peacemaking between Christians and Muslims. A badaliya meets at Saint Paul's Church in Cambridge Mass., led by Dorothy C. Buck, a Massignon scholar.Christian de Chergé, the martyred prior of Thiberine, began his spiritual odyssey with a lived experience of substitution. He was a French soldier in the Algerian War of Independence, and his life had been saved by a Muslim policeman named Mohammed. The rebels spared De Chergé, but the next day Mohammed was found slain, executed as a collaborator with the hated occupier for interceding for Chergé.De Chergé gave his friend's death a Christic interpretation: "There is no greater love than this: to give one's life for a friend." Mohammed had offered his life for Christian, and ever after, Chergé's vocation was to explore the relation of Muslims and Christians in the plan of God.Another time, as he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer, first a Sunni, then a Sufi Muslim, inexplicably joined him in three hours of shared prayer. He became convinced of the spiritual kinship of Christians and Muslims, and in years of prayerful monastic theology, he elaborated a Christian theology of Islam.Because the fullness of that plan will only be realized at the end of times, Christian Salenson, Chergé's spiritual biographer, calls Christian's view of Islam "a theology of hope." Again and again, Chergé longed for the day when Muslims and Christians would appear before God united as one in the communion of saints.In Teilhard de Chardin's cosmic Christ, he found a way to articulate the convergence of people of the two traditions in "the Greater Christ," so that one day all would be bathed in the light of glory.It has been a century since the death of Blessed Charles and 20 years since Chergé and his fellow monks gave their lives in substitution for their Muslim neighbors and in hope of that final consummation. In the last few years they have been joined by two Jesuits who gave their lives in Syria in service to Muslims.Paolo dall'Oglio re-founded a ruined monastery at Mar Musa as a center of Muslim-Christian dialogue. In 2013 he disappeared in eastern Syria in territory controlled by the so-called Islamic State on a mission to negotiate release of their captives.Frans van der Lugt, who had spent more than 50 years in Syria, was murdered by an assailant in Homs, after he chose to remain and suffer with the people of that besieged city.The monks of Tibhirine, Charles de Foucauld, Louis Massignon and Mary Kahil, along with Paolo dall'Oglio and Frans van der Lugt, pioneered Muslim-Christian peacemaking. Their charisms are needed today wherever jihadis sow fear, demagogues stir up hatred and love of Muslim neighbors is in scarce supply.
May 10 16 2:27 PM
At different times, two celebrated German prelates have offered radically different opinions regarding Islam’s compatibility with Western civilization.One, the current cardinal archbishop of Cologne, has argued that Islam is as compatible with the European culture as Christianity or Judaism. The other, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has contended that the Judeo-Christian organization of society “contradicts the essence of Islam.”This question involves more than a merely academic dispute.With more than a million migrants entering Europe in 2015—most of them Muslim—and as many or more expected for 2016, the issue has real, on-the-ground consequences for Europe’s future. How neatly will growing numbers of Muslims assimilate into Western democracy based on a Christian-inspired vision of the person and human society?A provocative article appearing in The Atlantic this month reminds modern readers that the very idea of Europe as a continent grew out of a Christian cultural identity in “inevitable opposition” to Islam.“Islam had defined Europe culturally, by showing Europe what it was against,” writes Robert D. Kaplan in his article “How Islam Created Europe.”In his acceptance speech for the prestigious Charlemagne Award on May 6, Pope Francis offered his own contribution to the migrant question. “Time is teaching us that it is not enough simply to settle individuals geographically: the challenge is that of a profound cultural integration,” he said.The question is whether such integration can reasonably be expected and if so, how it is to come about.In late April, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, publicly criticized leaders of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party for their statements against Islam, insisting that “whoever says ‘yes’ to church towers must also say ‘yes’ to minarets.”The cardinal responded directly to statements made by AfD deputy leader Beatrix von Storch, who told the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that “Islam is in itself a political ideology that is not compatible with the constitution.” In his response, Woelki suggested that all religions are equally well suited to German culture and law.“The religion of Islam is compatible with the German constitution just as much as Judaism or Christianity are,” he contended.Woelki was not speaking in a void, but also in the context of Germany’s historical narrative, noting that it is “especially our painful German history” that compels an openness to other religions.But this perspective does not exhaust the contribution of German prelates to the question of Islam and Western democracies. Many are familiar with Pope Benedict’s now famous “Regensburg address,” which he delivered in 2006.But Benedict’s considerations on Islam and the West go back much further, and indicate years of research and reflection.Over and over again, Benedict insisted that all religions are not the same, and do not integrate equally well into Western society. In his 2009 encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), Benedict argued that not all religions contribute equally to the development of individuals and societies. Some, in fact, may obstruct it.“Religious freedom does not mean religious indifferentism,” he wrote, “nor does it imply that all religions are equal.”Benedict also proposed that in order to safeguard the common good, political authorities must in some way distinguish among different religions.“Discernment is needed regarding the contribution of cultures and religions,” Benedict stated, “especially on the part of those who wield political power.”Even before becoming pope, Joseph Ratzinger had writtenextensively on the differences between religions, noting that there are “deviant, esoteric forms of religion on offer” as well as “pathological” forms of religion. He wrote of religions that are “obviously sick” and religions that are “destructive for man,” especially when they become detached from reason.More to the point, in his critiques of Islam, Ratzinger suggested that the Muslim understanding of the human person and society has little in common with the Judeo-Christian worldview that undergirds Western society.Ratzinger wrote that the interplay “of society, politics, and religion has a completely different structure in Islam” than it does in the West. Moreover, in their ignorance of the tenets of Islam, many in the West make erroneous assumptions because they project a Christian worldview onto Islam.Much of today’s discussion in the West regarding Islam, he wrote, “presupposes that all religions have basically the same structure, that they all fit into a democratic system with its regulations and the possibilities provided by these regulations.”Yet this is not consistent with the facts, Ratzinger argued, but rather, it “contradicts the essence of Islam, which simply does not have the separation of the political and the religious sphere that Christianity has had from the beginning.”Ratzinger went on to explain in what this difference consists.“Islam has a total organization of life that is completely different from ours; it embraces simply everything. There is a very marked subordination of woman to man; there is a very tightly knit criminal law, indeed, a law regulating all areas of life, that is opposed to our modern ideas about society,” he said.While obviously never suggesting that Muslims should not be welcomed in Europe, or that their right to religious freedom should be in any way curtailed, Ratzinger did warn that Westerners must have a clear understanding that Islam “is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.”As Europe’s immigration crisis continues to boil, these and related questions must be debated by men and women of good will. If Western democracy is to survive as we know it, something more than a precarious cultural consensus concerning “self-evident” truths may be needed to sustain it.
May 21 16 2:00 AM
Pope Francis on IslamI really like to see, amidst the populist appeals of many politicians to the lowest – the very lowest – common denominator in humanity, that a public figure has the courage to talk sense about religion. The figure is (I am tempted to say again) Pope Francis. The occasion: his interview with the French newspaper La Croix. And the religion is Islam, with a thoroughly appropriate dig at the excesses within Christian tradition and modern secularism as well.It is really a pleasure, at a time when rabble-rousers try to trump reason (pun intended), to hear the Pope calling us back to a more balanced perspective on Islam. He is quite right I think in his intuition that Western home-grown Islamic extremism is a product of ghettoization, and that further marginalisation of Muslims feeds the lunacy that is Islamic State. This in turn plays into the hands of cynical populist politicians who manipulate legitimate fears of violence to gain power. This further intensifies Muslim feelings of being marginalised and oppressed, giving its lunatic fringe the ‘justifications’ it seeks.As an outsider I find much about Islam with which to disagree. On a theological level the idea of a literal reading of sacred scriptures seems to run counter to the historical and critical approaches that are second nature to my way of thinking. Such a reading opens itself to reading things into a text that aren’t there; at worst it can open religion to demagoguery.Aspects of the social and ethical dimensions of the faith also worry me, particularly where it’s used to enforce gender inequality, treats other religions with less than equal respect, or encourages religious conquest.But, as Francis noted, Christianity itself is also not blameless with regard to religious conquest. Nor, I would add, have we been models of tolerance or paragons of gender justice. Many Christians also have literal readings of the Bible and are fundamentalist when interpreting doctrine. Much of the progress we’ve made in becoming more accepting of religious difference is the result of the rise of secular democracy, often despite the resistance of many Churches.So is secularism the answer? Well, it depends what one means by secularism. If by secularism we mean deliberately marginalising religion in society, often treating faith with disdain: No. This creates ghetto mentalities that breed resentment and religious extremism. If it means that the state adopts a neutral policy to religion, both protecting the right to express faith – without any faith using the state to further or police its beliefs – and defending the right to differ within faiths, and even the right not to believe: Yes.Francis rightly rebukes the French state for leaning too far towards the former model of secularism. Many Christians will agree with him.I suspect many Muslims share his view too, detest religious extremism and welcome the opportunity to live as believers in a tolerant state that embraces pluralism. Before we Christians get swept away by anti-Islamic demagoguery, we should remember this.
May 23 16 5:03 AM
When I was a child, as I vaguely remember, there was some official Vatican publication known as “The Pope Speaks.” When I look back, I recall it to be entirely sober and cautious, written by speech-writers, vetted by the curia, printed in the pope’s name. Pope Francis is different, of course, and his interviews ever promise something new and unexpected. His latest, the interview with the French Catholic magazine, La Croix, with Guillaume Goubet and Sébastien Maillard, is no exception. It is extraordinary in many ways, and I recommend that you read the whole of it here.Two points are particularly striking — Francis' rather novel view of “Europe” in relation to Christendom, and his analysis of fearful responses to Islam.When asked about the “roots” of Europe and why he did not talk simply of Europe’s roots in Christianity, Francis says, “We need to speak of roots in the plural because there are so many. In this sense, when I hear talk of the Christian roots of Europe, I sometimes dread the tone, which can seem triumphalist or even vengeful. It then takes on colonialist overtones. John Paul II, however, spoke about it in a tranquil manner. Yes, Europe has Christian roots and it is Christianity's responsibility to water those roots. But this must be done in a spirit of service as in the washing of the feet. Christianity's duty to Europe is one of service. As Erich Przywara, the great master of Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar, teaches us, Christianity's contribution to a culture is that of Christ in the washing of the feet. In other words, service and the gift of life. It must not become a colonial enterprise.” As always, Francis points us to practice, works of charity, what we are to do. However “Europe” came to be, we Christians are here to serve.Benedict, by contrast, had a very strong sense of the roots of Europe in Christianity. For example, in his 2006 Regensburg address, he evoked a nearly mystical sense of the interdependence of “Europe” and “Christianity:” “Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” (His emphases.)The interviewers also asked Francis about “fear of Islam:” “The fear of accepting migrants is partly based on a fear of Islam. In your view, is the fear that this religion sparks in Europe justified?”Francis replies to this question in at least three steps (which here I present out of order). First, a reflexive, self-scrutinizing turn is necessary: “In the face of Islamic terrorism, it would therefore be better to question ourselves about the way in which an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed. Or in Libya, where a tribal structure exists. We cannot advance without taking these cultures into account.” Perhaps we in the West are at fault, trying to make over other nations in our images and blaming them when our efforts fall short.Second, Francis argues that good relations between Muslims and Christians are possible because they have already been happening: “I come from a country where they co-habit on good terms. Muslims come to venerate the Virgin Mary and St. George. Similarly, they tell me that for the Jubilee Year Muslims in one African country formed a long queue at the cathedral to enter through the holy door and pray to the Virgin Mary. In Central Africa, before the war, Christians and Muslims used to live together and must learn to do so again. Lebanon also shows that this is possible.” What has happened, can happen; harmony is the ordinary and most typical relation of Muslims and Christians.Third, and most surprisingly, he balances a rather absolute claim about Islam next to a surprising but candid reading of Jesus’ mandate at the end of St Matthew: “I don't think that there is a fear of Islam as such but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam. It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam. However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.” (My emphasis.)Conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam? When I posted some entries on the Study Qur’an a few months ago,one post was devoted to violence in the Qur’an and, as some readers will recall, I (ever the academic) found the topic to be complicated, requiring textual interpretation—even before we get to realistic judgments that are to be made in any given social situation today. The complexity of the matter makes it very unlikely that one could assert that “conquest” is inherent in the “the soul of Islam,” however one might go about identifying that soul. Thus far, it is hard to understand what Francis means, and one wishes there had been follow-up questions that pushed him a bit.We know that the great mandate in Matthew 28—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28.19-20a)—was not literally calling for conquest of all the nations of the earth. Jesus was not sanctioning empire. But we also know that this text has been taken to support, perhaps even fuel, the European colonial expansion throughout the world in the sixteenth century and thereafter, in that unparalleled and largely unfortunate era when European Christians decided, rather disastrously, that they had the right to rule the world. At least some colonizers were inspired by the possibility of bringing the Gospel to all nations, supported by the colonial venture. We Christians cannot blithely blame others for conquest, when we have done a lot of it ourselves.I have spoken with many Hindus over the years who point to passages such as Matthew 28, and read along with Dominus Iesus (2000) and with John Paul II’s Ecclesia in Asia (1999), which boldly states, “With the Church throughout the world, the Church in Asia will cross the threshold of the Third Christian Millennium marveling at all that God has worked from those beginnings until now, and strong in the knowledge that ‘just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent.’” My Hindu friends have wondered: are you not militarizing the Gospel? Is the pope not calling Christians to a new conquest of Asia?Francis knows this, and shifts our attention, by admitting that the mandate can be reduced to the work of conquest, and at times has fueled colonialism. He highlights a difficulty lying deep “in the soul of Islam” only to pair it, humbly, with a difficulty lying deep “in the soul of Christianity.” The deep truths and values of the two traditions are not denied, but neither is the problem of the historical record covered over. The logic seems to be: if we admit the militaristic history of the Christian nations, linked even to the spread of the Gospel, we might be in a better position to talk candidly and humbly with Muslims, who have their own problems in this regard.The pope speaks. He is definitely not infallible in such an interview, and has not given any definitive new turn to Christian-Muslims relations. But in his candor, he frees up the issues, pushing us to think anew about things we had thought we understood.
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