The latest salvo in Benedict XVI’s crusade against
Islam has misfired.
Violent protests have included burning Benedict in
effigy complete with red crusader cross. Recent remarks by the Pope on Islam
were in line with a crusade against Muslims, said Iran’s Ayatollah Ali
“Benedict XVI has gone down in history, but in the
same category as Hitler and Mussolini. He seems to have a mindset that comes
from the darkness of the Middle Ages,” says the Deputy Leader of Turkey’s ruling, Islamic‑based party, adding for good measure, “It looks like an
effort to revive the mentality of the Crusades”.
The Muslim reaction must be much greater than Benedict
or his advisers reckoned on. The speech (see Box) that triggered the furore
was delivered on 12th September during the Pope’s German tour, on what he
thought was friendly ground. Speaking to intellectuals in the Great Hall of
Regensburg University, where he was formerly professor and vice rector, Pope
Benedict’s guard was down.
The Pope apologises
After the shooting of an Italian nun in Somalia, threats of suicide attacks on the Vatican, and, at the time of writing, at least five churches
firebombed or attacked across the Middle East, the Pope had to stop hiding
behind his aides. His apology, expressing “deep regret”, given at the Angelus
on Sunday 17th September, was transmitted live by Al‑Jazeera, the Arab
But the Jakarta Post, concerned for the safety
of some 20 million Roman Catholics unevenly scattered amongst 180 million
Muslims across the vast archipelago, where the East Timor crisis has barely
abated, commented, “The Vatican has been engaged in damage control. But, with
the Internet, people around the world have immediate access to the full
transcript of the speech, and not all of them will feel that the Vatican’s clarification is adequate.”
Reading the Pope’s speech, this seems to be fair
comment, even apart from the particularly inflammatory sentence.
The Vatican has insisted that Benedict was simply
inviting Muslims to engage in dialogue concerning violence, not just about
Jihad and terror cells, but such things as the importation of Shari’a law to
the West, stoning couples for adultery and killing converts to Roman
The Vatican is in a bind since it cannot
ignore the Islamic question. Roman Catholics number some 1.1 billion, according
to the 2004 official statistic, whereas Muslims are said to number 1.3 billion,
but not being centrally organised they are harder to count. One has to include
the other, non‑Roman Catholic denominations, particularly Orthodoxy, to
put Christianity ahead of Islam in the numbers game.
The popes see themselves as the rightful overlords of
the Middle Eastern Bible sites which are widely occupied by Muslims, who have
the power to block the access of Christ’s vicar, the king of kings, to his
heritage. This irritates the Vatican far more than most people realise.
Secondly, Rome is in major competition with Islam in
the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This so called “global south” is the area
that will dominate Christianity in the next 50 years and where Rome must win the upper hand. Experts differ on how Rome will fare, particularly in Africa
Avoid making converts
Benedict puts Roman Catholics at great risk in Muslim
lands in pursuit of his ends. Sandro Magister in a 2003 article in the Rome
magazine Chiesa (Church), speaking of Egyptian converts from Islam, says that
when converts “prepare for baptism” they are catechised according to
instructions issued by the Italian (RC) bishops conference published in 2000.
“The first (instruction is), ‘From the
initial greeting, it is important to guarantee discretion’.” Magister
continues, “clandestine life is the rule almost everywhere in the world. And
on the part of the Catholic Church, there is a widespread tendency to respond
to this situation simply by refusing to create the problem; that is, (not) to
proselytize among Muslims”. However the hierarchy are determined to stamp out
Magister reveals, “An Italian director of the
Fondazione Migrantes, who asked to remain anonymous, has worked for years with
Tunisian Muslims and says, ‘We decided not to encourage conversion to
Christianity in any way no matter what Cardinal Giacomo Biffi thinks about
Apparently “the bellicose cardinal” has exactly the
opposite conviction: “Preaching and baptizing are statutory duties of the
Church, for all. Jesus did not command us to preach the gospel to all
creatures except for the Muslims, the Jews, and the Dalai Lama.” Rome is running scared in Italy as the Muslims are now the second largest coherent
spiritual group, exceeding all the non RC Christian churches put together.
A brusque reply
Magister also mentions, “The complaint of a Maghreb
woman (a Muslim from North Africa from the Atlas Mountains who had converted to
Roman Catholicism), named Nura, (which) made its way last September all the way
to the Vatican”. The woman said, “We feel abandoned. After our conversion, we
have no one to support us. We ask the Church for help, protect us, defend us.”
According to Magister, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald,
president of the Pontifical Council for Interrelations Dialogue, responded with
mistrust saying, “One must always ask for the reasons for this change. It
often presents itself as the desire to be a real Italian. But one can be
Italian and Muslim at the same time…………”.
This brusque reply is surprising as Fitzgerald was
John Paul II’s Islamic guru in the Pontifical Council for Interreligious
Dialogue, lauded for his vast practical missionary and academic expertise,
resulting in a much trumpeted softly‑softly approach. Furthermore, his
early removal in February from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious
Dialogue to the post of papal nuncio to Egypt was widely seen as a demotion,
particularly as it was Benedict’s first major move and followed the Danish
Pope's worst decision
Many saw the sidelining of a soft liner as a prelude
to scrapping the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Thomas Reese,
a Jesuit scholar and Vatican insider, told BBC news in April, “The Pope’s worst
decision so far has been the exiling of Archbishop Fitzgerald…... He was the
smartest guy in the Vatican on relations with Muslims. You don’t exile someone
like that, you listen to them…….If the Vatican says something dumb about
Muslims, people will die in parts of Africa and churches will be burned in
Indonesia, let alone what happens in the Middle East……It would be better for
Pope Benedict to have Fitzgerald close to him.”
Now Reese’s predictions have come true. Benedict is a
less charismatic man than John Paul II, who had a strong Vatican inner circle.
And yet John Paul still suffered two Muslim attempts on his life despite being
the first pope to visit a mosque, and to overtly favour the Arab world against Israel in foreign policy. Benedict’s inner circle is harder to define, but whether this is
sinister or just a sign of his weakness is not clear.
Bring back the Jesuits
So what might the Vatican do now? Even if Benedict is
not keen, others may perceive one possible solution ‑ rehabilitate the
Jesuits. They were sidelined by John Paul II since their suppression over
their Liberation Theology in the early 1980’s. They have a masterfully subtle
presence in Islamic countries with an approach honed over centuries of
Fitzgerald’s background was as a member of the
Congregation of the Missionaries of Africa or White Fathers which he joined at
the age 20. The Jesuits have the showcase Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center
for Muslim‑Christian Understanding in Georgetown’s traditionally Jesuit University. Fr Thomas Michel S.J. based in Rome is Ecumenical Secretary of the
Federation of Asian Bishops Conference Interfaith Dialogue and has wide
contacts. Jesuits and Muslims meet regularly throughout the Islamic world at
grass roots level in numerous venues.
And although the Jesuits may appear “placid” like
Fitzgerald, Benedict must know that they can attack fiercely at times. Their
prestigious magazine La Civilta Cattolica, edited by Jesuits in Rome, is so influential that, “every one of its articles is reviewed by the Vatican secretary of state before publication”.
La Civilta Cattolica 3680, October 18, 2003 published, “a strikingly severe
article on the condition of Christians in Muslim countries. The central thesis
of the article is that in all of its history, Islam has shown a warlike and
conquering face; that for almost a thousand years, Europe lived under its
constant threat; and that what remains of the Christian population in Islamic
countries is still subjected to perpetual discrimination, with episodes of
But unlike Benedict they got away with it.
The Pope's offending speech
" . . ....a colleague had said there was
something odd about our university: It had two faculties devoted to
something that did not exist: God... I was reminded of all this recently,
when I read ... the dialogue carried on ‑ perhaps in 1391 in the
winter barracks near Ankara ‑ by the erudite Byzantine anperor Manuel
II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject, of Christianity and
Islam, and the truth of both ... The emperor must have known that sura
2:256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ It is one of the sums
of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat].
But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and
recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war...
He turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely
with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence
in general, in these words: Show me just what Mohammed brought that was
new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his
command to spread by the sword the faith he preached...
The emperor goes on to explain ... why spreading
the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is
incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God is not
pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (“syn logo’s is contrary to
God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body.