One outcome of President Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has been to further inflame the world’s Muslim populations against Christians, particularly Christian minorities residing among them.
Islamic animosity predates Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, and traces back in recent years to the intifada in the 1980s. Since then, however, as The National Catholic Reporter noted, “There has been a steady exodus of Arab Christians out of the Middle East, fleeing conflict, economic collapse, and a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.”
The Catholic population of Baghdad, for example, had already shrunk from 500,000 in 1991 to 175,000 by the time of the U.S.-led March, 2003, invasion. But this exodus swelled as the war progressed. According to reporter Jane Kramer in the April 2 issue of “The New Yorker,” “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.” Turkey’s 100,000 Christians also live in fear, particularly since the European Union rejected Turkey’s bid for membership.Tensions were further exacerbated by Pope Benedict XVI’s slighting reference to the Prophet Muhammad in his Regensburg, Germany, speech last September, igniting waves of protest and rioting among the world’s 1 billion-plus Muslim believers. Churches were burned and one nun was murdered in Mogadishu. Although the Pope said he was “deeply sorry” if he had upset Muslims, he only modified his remarks. Sheikh Mahmoud Ashour, of the Islamic institute at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, responded to the Pope’s comments stating, “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.”
In her article titled, “The Pope and Islam,” author Kramer noted Benedict, who came to his post in April, 2005, removed Michael Fitzgerald, a British Archbishop as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Benedict sent him to Cairo as papal nuncio. 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” and Fitzgerald’s job was turned over to a conservative cardinal, Kramer wrote. Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, a Jordanian diocesan priest who worked with Fitzgerald, said the Pope prefers to concentrate on Christian identity as “with a weak identity, you are unqualified for any kind of inter-religious’ dialogue…especially in the face of a strong and sometimes radical Islam.”
The two key goals of Benedict’s papacy, Kramer says, are to reinvigorate, and perhaps enforce “what he sees as Christianity’s nonnegotiable moral precepts” and “reciprocity with Islam,” that is, “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,” Kramer points out. “He clearly thinks that the Judeo-Christian 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 other religions is an apostatic crime. It is hard to imagine Muslim states such as Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia “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,” Kramer writes. The larger problem involving relationships between the two faiths “is radical Islam, which has nothing to say to Christians beyond, at best, invective and, at worst, threats.”
Marco Tosatti, at La Stampa, is quoted as saying, “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.”
That may be, but for moderate Muslims, the case for “embrace” is 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,” The New Yorker reports.
Many Catholic intellectuals, Kramer continues, say 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.”
If the Pope is not open to such dialogue it may be his attention is turned elsewhere. According to Feisal Abdul Rauf, an Egyptian Sufi imam at New York’s Islamic Center, “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 after the Regensburg speech. Another Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, at Oxford, 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 said 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.
That may be, but President Bush’s invasions are living proof some Western nations think only of force to achieve their ends and have no regard for the Muslim populations being slaughtered in the process. If the Vatican could not stop President Bush from invading Iraq (it did speak out against the war), it has a moral obligation to make the extra effort at this time to heal its widening schism with Islam that war has produced. Considering the victims of President Bush’s invasions are overwhelmingly Muslim, it behooves Muslim leaders to work for embrace if only in the interest of self-preservation. If religious leaders cannot stand together to bring pressure against the purveyors of violence, what hope is there for a peaceful future? # (Sherwood Ross is an American columnist who covers political and military affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org).