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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Pope Benedict XVI

Rome and Islam: Benedict’s XVI’s Crusade Is Faltering

British Church Newspaper – 29 September 2006
British Church Newspaper

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 Khamenei.

“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 television channel.

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 Catholicism.

Rome’s problem

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 and Asia.

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 such prudence.

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 it’.”

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 cartoons affair.

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 experience.

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 bloody persecution”.

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.

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