Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Vatican and Islam

Lawrence A. Franklin

In Europe, Muslims are engaged in religious proselytizing; on the Arabian peninsula, all proselytizing for any faith other than Islam is forbidden. This lack of reciprocity grates on the Vatican. In the Muslim chant, "Allah-hu Akbar" ["Allah is Greater"], what is left implied, is: Greater than the Hebraic or Christian Gods.

All About Rocks

"Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam"
You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.[1]
"Glorified and exalted is He (Allah) who took His slave Muhammad for a journey by night from al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca to the farthest mosque (al-Aksa) the area which we made holy."[2]
"Evven Hashesiya" (cornerstone of the universe) is on Chosen (Mt. Moriah). The site of Adam's creation, the rock upon which Abraham bound his Son Isaac, the altar upon which Noah offered thanksgiving after departing the Ark. Historically, within yards of the "Holy of Holies" of Solomon and post-exilic Temples. Here rested the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the Commandments (forged by God on Mt. Sinai and given to Moses), Aaron's rod, and manna that fed the Hebrews in the desert.[3]

Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, "Commander of the Faithful" and second successor to Muhammad, upon entering Jerusalem following its bloodless surrender in 692 A.D., proclaimed the raising of the Kubbat al-Sakra (Dome of the Rock). He issued that command after having ordered an aide to measure the exact height of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church was built over the presumed place of burial of the Christ, once a garden tomb donated by the Pharisee who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. This classic example of architectural dominance was constructed to a height of 95 feet; it remains today the most outstanding structure on Jerusalem's skyline.
This edifice seems to be meant to serve the theological politics of supersession. It appears calculated to submerge into historical twilight the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as the nearby remains of the retaining wall of Temples of the Hebrews. The message seems clear: Islam is the seal on divine revelation, rendering religiously passé the "Peoples of the Book."
"The Dome of the Rock"[4] appears to have been the initial model for contemporary examples of the use of architecture in Islam to underscore its growing presence within "infidel" societies. The Papacy is, no doubt, cognizant of the political motive that seems to underlie the many efforts to erect towering minarets attached to new mosques throughout West Europe. Despite convivial statements from various Vatican media organs about common Abrahamic roots and the need for dialogue between Catholicism and Islam, the Holy See is under no illusion about the underlying antipathy that many Muslims bear Christianity -- a hostility that is evidenced by the abrasive attitude which produces offensive inscriptions as those officially inscribed on monuments such as the Dome of the Rock: "The Unity of God and the Prophecy of Mohammad are true. The Son-ship of Jesus and the Trinity is false." [5]
The Dome also boasts of specific military triumphs, including carvings of both the Byzantine Crown of Christendom's Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid dynastic crown of Zoroastrian Persia. Both imperial domains lost their territorial expanse to Muslim military conquests. Still another inscription on the Dome is one that celebrates Saladin's recapture of Jerusalem on 27 Rajab 583 (2 October 1187) the anniversary of Laylat al-Miraj, or Mohammad's night journey from Mecca to the al-Aksa Mosque.[6]

Catholic-Christianity and Islam: Universality and Supersession

The Vatican is not oblivious to the declared ambitions of Islamists. The Vatican recognizes in Islam a challenge of civilization-size dimension, a rival true-believer which also lays claim to universality. You do not need to be Catholic to grasp the ironic similarities. Both the late author, Oriana Fallaci, former President of the Italian Senate, and Middle East Scholar Bernard Lewis understood this. Princeton Professor Emeritus Lewis, who was an occasional guest of Pope John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Popes, pointedly asserts that the interests of both Christianity and Islam will continuously "intersect" -- that is, clash -- as both have universal missions.[7]
The decision by Rome's first Christian Emperor Constantine to affix a crucifix atop the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter's Square inside Vatican City might have been both political and religious. The era of pagan emperors throwing Christians to lions was over; the obelisk had been brought back from Egypt after the Roman conquest there: this also was the politics of supersession, practiced by the Vatican and its newly crowned champion, Constantine. The Square of St. Peter and its environs are the traditional sites of the execution of Peter and Paul in 64 A.D., during the reign of the Emperor Nero. He may have reckoned that the execution of this Jewish Sect's leader (Peter) and its chief propagandist (Paul) would extinguish this Nazarene-Christian heresy. Nero had hoped to affix responsibility for the fire -- which almost consumed Rome, and was most likely ignited by the emperor himself -- to the Christians.[8]
Two millennia later, in a contemporary supersession moment, on 6 November 2007, Protector of the Two Holy Sites, Mecca and Medina, King Abdul-Aziz became the first Saudi King to visit a Pope. Abdulaziz was on European tour visiting the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Turkey to accelerate the phenomenal growth of Islam in West Europe, once the heart of Christendom, and to distribute gifts. The leader of Sunni Islam's most extreme sect, Wahhabism, was in Europe to distribute financial gifts to Saudi-controlled Islamic institutes, and might have felt pressured by protocol to seek a papal audience.
The king presented Benedict XVI with a bejeweled sword. There is little doubt that the Benedict immediately grasped the implied meaning of the gift. Benedict is said to have rubbed the fingers of his right hand down the blade, without comment, before placing the sword aside. Popes have been artful practitioners of diplomacy and theocratic statecraft for many centuries. Benedict undoubtedly knows that the historical struggle between Islam and Christianity continues, that this contest is timeless and universal, and that it is about supersession, and disagreement on the divine revelation of the fullness of truth. The Holy See is fully cognizant that Muslim triumphalism guarantees future acrimonious relations on a grand scale. However, Vatican spokesmen are loath to utter such sentiments in public.
When the sacred months are past, then slay the Mushrikin (idolators) wherever you find them and besiege them, and wait for them in every ambush. If they repent, perform salat (public prayer), pay zakat (alms), leave their way free to them.[9]
A year later, Abdulaziz was back in Europe, this time in Spain. He was to be keynote speaker at a July 2008 conference in Madrid on religious tolerance – an event made possible by Riyadh's substantial financial support. While in Spain, Abdul-Aziz visited the first mosque built in that country in over five centuries. The edifice, the Great Mosque of Granada, was inaugurated on 19 July 2003. Symbolically, it stands close to the Alhambra, the focal point of the last bastion of Muslim power in Spain. It was here in Granada that the Catholic re-conquest of Spain was made complete. It was from here that the last Caliph of Muslim Spain, Boabdil, departed in tears. The Saudi monarchy has placed high value on reviving Islam on the Iberian Peninsula. This is what that visit actually concerned. The al-Saud house has given generously to increase the influence Islam in Spanish society. Some, like Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command leader Ahmad Jibril, will not be satisfied until al-Andalus returns to the Islamic world.[10]
Consequently, Saudi-financed religious proselytizing in Spain by Muslim Imams is in high gear -- an Islamic surge fueled by immigration from North Africa, a high Muslim birth rate, converts to Islam, and aided by substantial Spanish emigration due to a depressed economy.
During the thirty-minute private session, Benedict apparently pressed Abdulaziz on the issue of reciprocity. While mosque minarets spring up like weeds all across "Christian" Europe, not a single church exists in Arabia, nor is allowed to. While in Europe Muslims are energetically engaged in religious proselytizing, on the Arabian Peninsula all proselytizing for any faith other than Islam is forbidden. This lack of reciprocity grates on the Vatican.
The Saudi smiled a lot, nodding his head, but makes no firm commitment. In keeping with Muhammad's final dream of an infidel-free Arabia, there are no churches or synagogues on this "island of the Arabs" (Jazirat-al-Arabiyah). His Holiness should not expect change any time soon. Despite the presence of a million Catholics serving as guest workers on the Peninsula, Riyadh continues to oblige the Prophet's alleged wish. Benedict lost little time in reminding the Saudi King that he expects "acta non verba," actions not words, regarding implementation of the "principle of reciprocity".
It is certain that within the confines of the curia, there was incredulity and sarcastic commentary concerning the incongruence of the Wahhabi standard-bearer sponsoring a conference on religious pluralism. Cardinal Jean-Louis of France, President of the Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue, who has cautioned Catholics not to become "obsessed with Islam," represented the Vatican at the conference on religious tolerance, in Madrid.
With hopeful confidence, he pointed to the bridgehead of a Catholic Church in Qatar as well as convent of nuns teaching school there. Nevertheless, the Cardinal is no dreamer. He was Papal Nuncio to Lebanon during the mid-1970s, where he experienced the worst of Muslim-on-Muslim violence. But these few small examples of reciprocity are in stark contrast to the advance of Islam in Europe. Perhaps the Cardinal takes the long view. But this inspires little optimism. A few short years after the Saudi monarch's visit of tolerance to Spain, two Spanish language television channels, financed by Arabian money, were broadcasting hate-filled anti-Semitic programming throughout al-Andalus. Sanctioned anti-Semitism apparently exists there under the cover of pro-Palestinian sentiment. This is the case among some leftists in Spain, particularly within the former governing Socialist Party.[11]
As a former Papal Nuncio to Washington mentioned, "The Vatican has a duty not to be naïve." The Holy See's institutional memory dates back millennia. The Papacy has been witness to several past drives for Muslim supremacy. There are several historical examples of Popes personally intervening at critical moments when Western civilization appeared threatened by a seemingly irresistible force. Centuries before Islam, Pope Leo (St. Leo the Great), personally went out to meet Attila the Hun, turning him away from Rome in 452 A.D. Also, Pope Urban II mobilized the pride of Europe's Christian knighthood, launching a series of interventions in Palestine to protect caravans of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land from marauding Muslim gangs. Pope Pius II, and later St. Pius V, cobbled together coalitions of volunteers to defend Central Europe against the Ottoman Caliphate, which twice stormed the gates of Vienna.[12] Most recently, Pope John Paul II survived an assassination plot orchestrated by Communists, complete with a would-be Muslim assassin.[13] Pope John Paul II recovered to help bring down the empire of the world's latest totalitarian superpower, the Soviet Union.
The Vatican has often demonstrated that it is no neophyte when it comes to nuanced diplomacy, intelligence collection, or energizing a zealous remnant physically to defend civilization. This seems precisely what Pope Benedict has in mind today. He appears determined once again to deflect this contemporary version of militant Islam off a path of confrontation, conflict and conquest that John Paul II realized was upon us, but was peaking too late in his Papacy. The unfinished business was left for his successor and confidant, whose concept of the West is decidedly Old Europe; Benedict, however, seemed to know that this Europe is fatally flawed: the continent has endured two spirit-killing global wars, the depredations of two totalitarian juggernauts, and Satan's finest hour, the Holocaust.

Ratzinger on Islam

Pope Benedict is deeply schooled in Christian metaphysics, more so than his predecessor, who was from "a far country" (Poland). He notes that a dimension of the West's saving grace is the inquisitive dimension of Greek classical philosophy. He evidently does not see the same intellectual rigor in Islam, and might well agree that Islamic philosophy and theology are "distinctions without differences."
If, however, one wants to discover what Benedict, the European historian, thinks about the Islamic ascendancy, he should probably consult the writings of the late Italian atheist-author, Oriana Fallaci. When he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he was an avid reader of this far-sighted writer.[14] After also reading "Eurabia" by Bat Ye'or, he arranged to meet Fallaci.[15]
There were other encounters, before and after Regensburg, when Ratzinger commented on a possible clash of civilizations between Christendom and Islam. One occasion occurred in his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, where, with a few of his favorite theology students, all specialists on Islam, Benedict had several intense discussions, the contents of which can be found in his insightful treatise, "Without Roots", co-authored with the former President of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera.
The future Pontiff's comments on Islam in "Without Roots" are not as acutely accusatory as those of the medieval Emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, whom he quoted in the Regensburg lecture. They do, nonetheless, question the efficacy of Islam's contribution to mankind's spiritual enrichment. Ratzinger, in the winter of 1996, nearly a decade before his selection as the 265th Pope, laid down his marker on Islam. In a candidly presented analysis of Islam, Ratzinger states that Islam and Democracy are not compatible, and indicts Islam with German bluntness. "Islam," he states, "is not simply another denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society."[16] He also cautions his colleagues in the Church hierarchy not to be tempted to define Islam as analogous to Christianity. To sum up his views on Islam, he might well have echoed U.S. General Rowny's response, when asked his opinion of his Soviet counterparts, "that they are more unlike us than like us."[17]
Ratzinger describes Islam as having a "total organization of life, completely different from ours, it embraces simply everything."[18] He claims that it is impossible to assess this multifaceted reality of Islam, as Islamists "do not permit separation of Muslim religion, culture and politics."[19] Ratzinger's comments are congruent with his analysis of the 20th century state absolutism as expressed in Nazi fascism and Soviet communism. He blames the 19th century philosopher and fellow German, Hegel, for these state cult excesses and says he believes that Islam's concept of Sharia embodies the potential for another re-sanctification of the state under a theological aegis. Iran's current regime is perhaps most illustrious of this tendency He criticizes advocates of Sharia as those who can cynically "exploit our liberal constitutions"[20] while seeking to replace them with a totally different, far less liberal, order of their own.
The Pope, one suspects, has spent a good deal of time thinking about a period beyond our own. He appears to have made an assessment that a well-financed and newly energized Muslim world may usher in an age of triumphalist Islamism, at least in Europe. Benedict states that Muslim leaders have concluded that their hour -- the historical moment of supersession -- has come.
There is, in fact, abundant commentary by some Muslim spokesmen that Islam is now in the process of overtaking Christianity; that theirs is the victorious religion: it is supersession time.[21] Although Benedict encourages the Vatican's diplomatic machinery to proffer dialogue with Muslims, he is not optimistic. He calculates that Muslims have assumed there is no longer in Europe an opposing ideology or religion that can issue a "call to arms" in time or with sufficient impact. Neither is Benedict certain that if a belated "aux armes" were issued by the Holy See, that enough of a faithful remnant would mobilize as they have in the past.[22]
Ratzinger, as the designated "Defender of the Faith" during Pope John Paul's Pontificate, implied that the jury is still out on Islam. He equivocates on whether the ongoing Islamic resurgence is fueled by a truly religious force, and warns that if its motive force is driven by pathological developments, then, "there exists the threat of horrifying things."[23]

Throwing Down the Gauntlet at Regensburg

When the Holy See wants to release a policy initiative, it will often choose an obscure location. The event is never, however an impromptu performance, as can be witnessed by Benedict's 12 September 2006 address before an audience of seminary students, professors, and theologians in the lecture hall of Regensburg in his native Bavaria. Despite subsequent revisions by Vatican advisers, the Pope did not retract the substance of his challenge to the Muslim world. Vatican media expressed regret that his statements had, by some, been found offensive. The Holy See's press noted that unfortunately, a few had chosen to display their disagreement with violence. There, Islamic spokesmen are correct in their analysis: the Pope's follow-up statements were less than a full apology. They were no apology at all.
It also is no coincidence that the Pontiff chose the fifth anniversary period of the 9/11 assault on America by Muslim terrorists to include in his lecture, the offending language. The events of 9/11 are watershed moment for Benedict. Five years later on the 10th anniversary in 2011, Benedict sent a letter to Archbishop Dolan of New York. In this missive, he condemned those who implore God's name in the killing of innocents. Daily reports of religiously-inspired violence by Muslim radicals against Christians reinforced his fear of a more massive confrontation between Islam and Christianity.
Militant Muslims, expressing their confidence in the ultimate triumph of Islam, boast that they think in terms of centuries. They have, however, met their match in the Vatican. The Vatican is the one institution in the West that does not invent policy on the run. Pope Benedict's critical analysis of Islam and of its Prophet was drawn long before the Regensburg lecture. The Church of Christ's "Rock," Peter predates "the Prophet" by more than half a millennium.
Generally, the media and its consumers are surprised when shifting tectonic plates result in an earthquake. For laymen, to monitor the indicators would be like watching snow melt. The task would require patience and vigilance, virtues in short supply in the West. The attacks on 9/11 should not have been a surprise to analysts of radical Islam. Osama bin-Laden had declared war against the U.S. long before the attack on America. He did so on 23 August 1996. The same is true regarding Iran's Islamic Revolution. The Islamic Republic has been at war with the "Great Satan," America, since 1979. Iran's true believers among the Mullahs and their praetorian protectors, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), intend to eliminate the Little Satan, Israel, as well.
A full quarter of a century prior to Benedict's address at Regensburg, Pope John Paul had already signaled to the "Catholic World" a low-key but nonetheless definitive admonition regarding Islam. This signal was transmitted to the faithful when he visited the Italian port city of Otranto on Italy's Adriatic coast the country's easternmost city. The occasion was the 500th anniversary of the slaughter of 800 Catholic men on Mt. Minerva. The "offense" was their refusal to renounce their Catholic faith. The choice they were given was conversion to Islam or death by decapitation, as befits all infidels. Their Muslim executioners were only happy to oblige: all but one refused to convert.[24] John Paul, upon departure from Otranto, added an oblique but instructive remark: "Let us not forget today's martyrs, pretending that they do not exist."[25]
In one of his last acts as Pope, Benedict moved along the cause to sainthood for those murdered at Otranto. The Vatican would make more direct references in the future. It is clear that the Vatican will not allow the Muslims to monopolize martyrdom. Every young Catholic boy and girl attending parochial school in the 1950s remembers lines from sermons and hymns celebrating martyrdom. Every day at Mass, the priest recites the names of a score of the more famous martyrs of Roman persecutions. The martyr fountains of Iran, sprouting plumes of red-tinted water, pale in comparison with the martyrdom culture of Catholicism. Pope Benedict XVI on 6 July 2007 laid down his marker in unambiguous terms when he authorized the publication of the decree of authentication for the martyrdom of blessed Antonio Primaldo and his lay companions at Otranto. He remarked that they "who were killed was out of hatred for the Faith" on 14 August 1480.[26] Vatican journalists were quick to underscore the similarities w medieval and contemporary victims of Islamic triumphalism suffer. One publication was even more blunt and specific in comparing the decapitation of the Otranto martyrs and that by Muslim terrorists of American businessman Nick Berg in 2004. The journalists wrote that both events included the same gruesome post-mortem display of the head as trophy along with almost the same triumphalist phrase -- as if deities are in competition -- shouted by the executioners: "Allahu Akbar," or "Allah is Greater."
The Otranto landing was not the first of many Saracen sallies against the Italian coastline with the prize of Rome in mind. In 846 a flotilla of Arab pirates left North Africa, eventually disembarking at the ancient Roman seaport of Ostia. From there, they proceeded west toward Rome. They raided Vatican holy sites, pillaging the monuments to St. Peter and St. Paul, and desecrating the Basilica built by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. The assault took place during an interregnum when a retiring and ill Sergius II had been elected, following the death in 844 of Pope Gregory IV. After the death of Sergius, the succeeding Pontiff, Pope Leo IV, ordered the raising of a defensive perimeter known as the Leonine walls, a barrier that remains intact to this day.
Pope Benedict uttered no retraction of his Regensburg lecture's central themes. He asserted that, "No God can be the enemy of reason. No deity who desires but does not command the worship of free willed creatures could operate outside the realm of logic."[27] Moreover, such a God would eschew violence done in His name. In addition, a loving, just, but merciful God would not be capricious in exercising His almighty power. The Muslim street reacted only to the superficial: the Pope's academic referral to a 13th century Emperor's disparaging description of Muhammad and Islam. However, Muslim theologians must have been more concerned about the substantive challenge that Pope Benedict issued regarding principal tenets of Islam. The now famous missive from 138 Muslim notables to the Pope complains only of the "insensitivity" of the Regensburg lecture. Nevertheless, the sting for them must have been in Benedict's willingness publicly to dispense with diplomatic rhetoric that often serves to mask a profound theological chasm between Catholicism and Islam.
The Vatican is not unnerved by the Muslim reaction to the Regensburg lecture. Nor are the words of Benedict viewed as a faux pas by the Curia: after the Papacy's recent public remembrance of Chinese Catholic martyrs who had been murdered by anti-Western revolutionaries during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, the People's Republic of China bitterly complained. A government spokesman charged that the Pope's public act was hostile in nature. Beijing complained that the selection of the first of October as the date for the canonization of these martyrs was meant to offend China. The first of October is the day that the People's Republic celebrates its revolutionary victory. There should be little doubt that the Vatican fully intended the "coincidence."
The message of Regensburg will resurface often in the future, albeit without the "offending" historical reference. However, the intellectual and theological context in which similar themes are recast will shape the Holy See's relations with Muslim countries, as well as those of countries contiguous to the blood-soaked borders of Islam. The Papal charge to Muslim leaders is to have the common sense and intestinal fortitude to guide their flocks through an enlightenment (if not a Reformation), to embrace science as ally, and to develop the self-confidence which makes it no longer necessary "to burn" heretics, execute apostates, or stone homosexuals and women suspected of being loose. Those Muslims who made their god a monster must also be publicly scorned by pious Muslim leaders before the Vatican will accept their protestations of peaceful intent as sincere.

Post-Regensburg Temperance

Despite his own German bluntness, Benedict has cautioned Church theologians not to be too hasty in judgment. He also rejects the employment of terms like "fundamentalism" as being cause for obfuscation rather than understanding. He implores the use of terms that would serve facilitators to better understand each other. Despite mounting incidents of the abuse of Christian-minority rights in Islam-majority societies, the last several popes have avoided a general condemnation of anti-Christian violence. There has yet to be a recognition of what Samuel Huntington referred to as Islam's "bloody borders".
Pope Benedict has urged senior churchmen to engage Muslims in the spirit of Christ's demand to love your neighbor, in the sentiment of the Beatitudes. Early in his Pontificate, he set the tone for others to emulate when, addressing the Muslims of Cologne on 20 August 2005, he said, "Let the Second Vatican Council's Document "Nostra Aetate" be the Magna Carta between we and thee."[28]
Benedict's realistic assessment of the state of the world, particularly of Europe, seems pessimistic, even fatalistic. Although his worldview might appear Spenglerian, it is neither defeatism nor appeasement. Illustrative of his world outlook is Benedict's take on the Arab/Israeli divide. He is a firm advocate of negotiated peace whether on a bilateral or regional dimension, specifically between Israelis and Arabs or on a universal level vis-à-vis Islam. However, he is not a proponent of a peace at any price. He and the Church he leads are in resolute opposition to those in post-Christian Europe who would favor an imposed peace on Israel, utilizing international organs, economic boycotts, and diplomatic pressure to achieve it. Benedict is aware that Church in Western Europe has been eclipsed by secularism. Nonetheless, he speaks almost nostalgically about a "Church of the Catacombs." He muses that there may again come a time when the Church "becomes a minority which will be forced into a closet." It seems sometimes that he almost welcomes such a time, as it would be "our redemption." Again the memory of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Soviet-occupied Poland who later became John Paul II is called to mind: never was the Church stronger than when the Pope directly challenged Soviet power in Poland through his support of human rights encapsulated in his endorsement of the labor union "Solidarity".
Curia officials are dispersed throughout several Vatican-based Councils and Commissions, even where they are not the primary experts on the principle subject matter. This is a millennial-old Vatican practice to foster temperate judgment and analytical objectivity. There is, for instance, a good deal of cross-fertilization between those hierarchical personalities who are charged with following developments in the Muslim world and interlocutors with Jews. This Pope's predecessor found particularly worrisome the increased violence -- much of which was perpetrated by recently arrived immigrants from Muslim countries -- against outwardly religious Jews in Europe.
Pope Benedict's General Approach to Islamdom
Benedict, early on in his papacy, gave a few clear signals how he would proceed with the Vatican's international responsibilities and in what manner they might impact upon the Holy See's ties to Muslim societies. The Holy Father has already de-emphasized the diplomatic dimension of the Papacy relative to that of his predecessor. Benedict wants to press on with the Church's spiritual mission as perhaps being more fruitful than past efforts to solve mankind's problems through diplomacy. This profile is to be less pronounced in international affairs, probably due in part to a sober recognition of the Vatican's decreased political muscle in the world. It might also be a reflection of the present Pontiff's less flamboyant personality in contrast to the charisma of John Paul II. Benedict, now 85, was considerably older than John Paul II when he was elevated to the Papacy. He seems less inclined to travel than his predecessor. Nevertheless, Muslim zealots, especially those with a political and social agenda are likely to find Benedict more than a match. They have already had a foretaste of his resolve when he failed to submit and issue a litany of "mea culpas" after the noisy Muslim reclama to his Regensburg lecture.
The Curia's Islamists and the Pope's Islamic Experts
It has been frustrating at times to engage entities within the American Catholic Church regarding the core concerns of the relations between the Vatican and Islam. There has seemed an inordinate desire not to offend, and therefore to speak in vague generalities or conciliatory pleasantries. Many senior clerics seem disinclined to address the issue at all. These careful careerists defer to the Vatican Curia in matters of diplomacy concerning dialogue with non-Christian faiths, especially within lands where the church faithful are persecuted. In former French colonial North Africa, for instance, despite the antagonism displayed by the Algerian regime, the Catholic Order of Augustinian priests is inordinately accommodating to Algiers. The conservative, thuggish military regime has reached an arrangement with "moderate" Muslim clergy severely to limit foreign missionary presence in return for these "moderates'" support for the government against radical Islamists.
A less obvious indicator on how Benedict views the Islamic world are the personnel changes he has made at the apex of the Holy See's diplomatic service. He replaced career Curia diplomat Cardinal Sodano with the relatively apolitical Cardinal Bertone, as Vatican Secretary of State. It seems clear that Benedict wants to handle many diplomatic issues himself, particularly when it comes to the Holy See's relations in the Mideast. This has earned him some critical commentary from both Jew and Arab, although some of this criticism now has been blunted by subsequent clarifications of papal statements by the Vatican's media outlets. Probably the most definitive move by Benedict is the replacement of the "Arabist" Cardinal Fitzgerald with the more diligent and nuanced Cardinal Jean Louis Tauron as Prefect of the Commission on Inter-Religious Dialogue. Fitzgerald had supporters for his approach within the Curia but several lurid examples of anti-Christian violence throughout the Muslim world rendered his approach less tenable.[29] Nonetheless, his removal is indicative of a more cautious approach to the world of Islam.
One shrewd maneuver by the current Pontificate in dealing with the Muslim world was Benedict's embrace of the first Muslim columnist, the erudite Sufi scholar, Khaled Fouad Allam, for the pope's own newspaper, the "Osservatore Romano." Of course, for most Sunni Muslim notables, Allam, or any Sufi, will not serve as a valid indicator of the Vatican's good intent. However, Allam's insights into the seemingly unfathomable Christian-Islamic divide are worth a studied read.
The Pope also has given prominent space to an Islamic scholar and Egyptian national, the Jesuit Priest and journalist Father Samir Khalid Samir. Father Samir, an Instructor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, is also President of the International Association for Christian Arab Studies. In this role, he seems more of an apologist for building bridges to Islam than does Khaled Foaud Allam. Cardinal Tauron, on the other hand, who serves as the Vatican's official to Islam's most distinguished spokesmen, is less accommodating. He is a stereotypical Frenchman whose logic is unforgiving. His sphinx-like demeanor betrays neither emotion nor intent. He was the perfect stand-in for Benedict at the Saudi monarch Abdulaziz's disingenuous display of religious tolerance at the 2009 Inter-Religious Dialogue Conference in Madrid. As the reality on the Arabian Peninsula regarding religious liberty and freedom of conscience totally belies the King's rhetoric in Madrid, Abdulaziz received only tepid plaudits from the Holy See for what seemed like an insincere display of support for religious tolerance. The Vatican knows it is pure fantasy that Saudi Arabia could serve as a model for liberalizing reform, either political or religious. Christians are arrested in al-Saud's Kingdom for any public display of religious affiliation, including the wearing of a crucifix.
Despite the replacement of some high level, "soft on Islam" personnel, there are many in the Church hierarchy who insist that nothing has changed in the Vatican's outreach to Islam. These dissimulators can be found in the Curia and among the ecclesiastical orders such as the Augustinians. They cite various writings and speeches by Benedict in a disingenuous effort to support their contention. This appears especially true of Catholic institutions that have a history of dialogue with Islamic clerics: there is a pronounced effort by these ecclesiastics to demonstrate that there is a substantive continuity between the Pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They insist that even any perceived change in tone is illusory. But things smell not the same. One can easily detect it in Benedict's mournful and emotional tributes to the murdered clerics of Iraq and the slaughtered Catholics of Nigeria.
Benedict's Regensburg lecture has prompted much of the need by some Catholic institutions to demonstrate continuity in the Vatican's effort at dialogue with the world's Muslims. After Regensburg, Vatican watchers trolled for any signs of Papal disengagement or even a more cautionary approach to Islam. The failure of Benedict to address the world's Muslims in his first Mass after his selection has been cited retroactively by some commentators as a "sin of omission" – a charge made more pointed as Benedict did make reference to the world's Jewish people.
One tenet of the Vatican's strategic plan regarding the Islamic world is to press Muslim notables publicly to endorse the universal assumptions embraced in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, the official Muslim counter to the U.N. Declaration was already advanced, on August 6, 1990, when the Organization of the Islamic Conference sponsored the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which requires that all U.N. recognized rights be compatible with Sharia. The Papacy believes that this is where Muslim radicals are most vulnerable. It is here where the Pope believes he can influence the struggle within Islam by helping to marginalize extremist Muslims politically. While deeply committed to improving relations with the vast majority of the Muslim faithful, he will not cede the moral high ground to Islamdom, and the Vatican will not chase down every accusation of Islamophobia. The Holy See intends to take the fight to Muslims on issues of human rights, equality for women, and capital punishment. Human rights are the platform upon which the Vatican hopes to mobilize a critical mass of Christian believers and secular liberals committed to a revival of the European Christian ethos. Benedict's desire for a "spiritual counteroffensive" is usually accompanied by melancholy phraseology. The Pontiff's mood seems to suggest that he may have a longing for a pilgrim church, a remnant church, one purified by persecution. This sentiment is neither indicative of cynicism nor despair. His countenance does not evoke the darkness of a Christian twilight of the idols. He does, however, seem wistful at times -- an attitude that may reflect the general world-weariness displayed by some European elites, who appear to accept that a burdensome fate awaits a dispirited, exhausted Europe.
One should interpret Benedict's pessimistic near-term outlook for Europe as a prognosis divined after a period of sober reflection. It is not, nonetheless, a capitulation, but a necessary, painful cleansing before redemption. Benedict appears prepared to fight: "In my hands, I have a mustard seed and I am not afraid to use it." Benedict has also indicated that he will not sacrifice truth on the altar of peace. According to his statements, he does believe that there are ideas worth dying for. He also believes in just war. His moral clarity appears intact. He will do battle for Judeo-Christian Civilization, even if Europe fails to defend its legacy. He will do so under a righteous rubric, though this Europe may not be deserving of survival. Benedict has not abandoned hope but seems mindful that dusk approaches. He appears to remain hopeful but not confident that "a creative minority" can reverse polarity.
One Vatican insider has mused that if Christianity would again blossom among Europeans and traditional Christian virtue were the norm, Muslims might be less inclined to isolate themselves from a society that does not publicly recognize God's existence. This manner of thought, however, assumes that Muslim isolation is conditioned upon the behavior of non-Muslims. It ignores those within the Muslim communities of Europe who sincerely believe that they must protect their faith until the time is right for the establishment of majority Muslim societies throughout Europe.
This view, shared by some within the Church hierarchy, suggests that Muslims have chosen internal exile rather than live in the godless, materialist society of post-Christian Europe. This thinking reflects the "realist wing" of the Vatican's "Islamic Party," which believes that inter-religious dialogue can lead to an "era of good feelings." The Pope is not a member of this "wing." Juxtaposed to that view is the conclusion reached by some commentators, who assert that Muslim ghettos in Europe are the brainchild of bankers, real estate developers, and city planners. This narrative suggests that each European country has invited legions of their former colonial populations to perform menial labor jobs -- an invitation which is the product of neither goodwill nor regretful guilt. The welcome mat was put out because of the European country's declining and aging population, which sought people to perform services, but, as with the economic contingencies of many immigrant populations, not necessarily among the native breed.
Dialogue with Islam: Vatican Rules
In the decades that spanned the Pontificates of Pope Paul VI and John Paul II, the Holy See laid out some definite guidelines for dealing with Islamdom as both ally and rival. Paul VI instructed interlocutors from the Curia who would be meeting with Islamic officials to focus on a social action issues. Significant was Pope Paul VI's insistence that religious liberty always be raised in these meetings. Intrinsic in the Vatican's position is freedom of the individual conscience -- a difficult question for Muslim clerics; Sharia does not sanction apostasy. It is an unpardonable sin for a Muslim to convert to another faith, unless he later reverts to Islam. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith defines religion as the reaching out of the human soul for God, rather than God for man. This teaching underscores the Catholic Church's belief that religion is divinely inspired but not in essence divine. Religion is therefore subject to error and evolutionary change. For Muslims, the Koran is the eternal and unalterable word of God, and therefore divine. For many Muslims, especially Sunni sects, this provides little room for interpretation, much less for error.
Other common concepts and concerns that Pope Paul suggested would make for fruitful dialogue were: human brotherhood, education, culture, social welfare policies, and civic order. The issue of human brotherhood is crafted by the Vatican's desire for Islamic societies to embrace tolerance toward confessional (Christian) minorities in their midst. The Vatican finds unacceptable the limitations of dhimmitude (tolerated, second-class citizenship status), which Islam allots to non-Muslims. Likewise, "civic order" is a euphemism employed by the Vatican to urge Muslim states to encourage political democratization and foster social pluralism.
Centuries of Vatican parlance with petty dictators and would-be world conquerors have honed a unique style of communication, which combines directness with diplomacy. This tradition is best described in the Vatican encyclical Ecclesiam Suam as a tutorial for those engaged in dialogue with Islam.[30] The characteristics that must be adhered to are clarity and self-confidence. The encyclical further advises Catholics to maintain a meek approach while being sensitive to the psychological profile of the particular audience. Vatican veterans of discussions with non-Catholic entities have long been aware that meandering discussions with imprecise agendas risk misunderstandings and acrimony. Consequently, the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue has defined specific types of dialogue to avoid undisciplined discussions with non-Christian leaders. There is the "Dialogue of Life" category, in which the principal discussants share their personal experiences of belief. Then there is the "Dialogue of Work," in which the parties plan to implement common social projects. Examples of this common effort took place when Catholic charity organizations assisted earthquake victims in almost exclusively Muslim Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, in 2005. Another was a joint venture to aid starvation-threatened Somalis. There is similar cooperation with Islamic relief efforts in Catholic Haiti after its massive earthquake in 2010; and the "Dialogue of Experts," which features doctrinal theologians who discuss their separate spiritual traditions. Lastly, there is the "Dialogue of Faith," which occurs when panel participants share substantive explanations of their faiths. The Vatican enjoins its expert interlocutors with non-Christians not to sponsor these dialogues out of sequential order. The logic behind this directive is that there must be a base of good will and trust built up before delicate and potentially divisive discussions take place.
Vatican Endorses Political Detente, Not Theological Consensus, with Islam
Following decades of Post Vatican II communication with the Muslim world, both Catholic and Islamic leaders seem to have realized that the theological chasm between the two faiths was too wide to be bridged. The Vatican even appears to have decided that the conciliatory language of Pope Paul VI had reached the limits of diplomatic rhetoric; that to go farther would be descending into disingenuous doctrinal compromise. Pope Paul himself said he believed that these two universal religions would do better to cooperate on issues of social concern; that, in this way, an atmosphere of political detente could be maintained. His successors have evidently recognized these same limitations.
Muslim Tracking of Vatican Policy on Relations with the Islamic World
The UAE-based Tabah Foundation is unique in the Muslim world. This think tank translates works, published in the non-Islamic world, judged significant to the interests of Muslims. Tabah observed that it was the Papacy of John XXIII, and his convening of the Vatican II Council, which opened the Catholic Church to the wider non-Christian world.[31] The Foundation holds that it was Pope John's September 1963 encyclical, Gaudium et Spes [Joy and Hope], which opened the door to fruitful discussion between the two religions. The encyclical asserts that, "Christ has united himself with each human, even if an individual does not seek Him out."[32] This statement alleviates some of the concern of Muslims, who might fear the Church's proselytizing energy. However, the encyclical describes a God who is still too immanent for some Sunni Muslim sects. Nevertheless, the encyclical's embrace of personal divinity is appealing to most Shia Muslims and especially to Sufi Muslims. John Paul II, in his first encyclical as Pope, develops this theme recognized as an important development by the Tabah Foundation. In the April 1979 encyclical letter Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man), John Paul embraces a radical universality; he wrote that "Christ has divinely adopted every soul," an a priori judgment which could be recognized by every human. The Polish Pontiff here is expanding upon Pope Paul VI's concept of divine justice expressed in his August 1964 encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (His Church). In this letter, Paul posits that a "just God must offer each soul an equal opportunity to spend eternity with his Creator." Although some Muslim theologians view this generous description of the Divine Will by the leader of the Christian world as compatible with their understanding of Allah's will, others read it as a threat. Their interpretation of this passage is that every Muslim presents an opportunity for proselytizing by Christian missionaries. Both interpretations are correct: the Vatican continues to believe that the Catholic Faith possesses the fullness of divinely revealed truth.
Paul VI was the first Pontiff to call out to Muslims by name. He did so in his November 1964 Circular Lumen Gentium [Light of Nations]. However, the most often quoted encyclical by Muslim clerics is Nostra Aetate [In Our Age], also authored by Paul VI in October 1965. The references to Muslims and to the Islamic faith are known better by some Muslim theologians than by their Catholic counterparts.
"The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims…who adore one God… who is all-powerful and merciful…and worship Him as Creator…honoring Jesus as a prophet…revering Mary…who believe (like we) in a Day of Judgment … the resurrection from the dead ….a moral code which is helped by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving."[33]
It is true that some in the Vatican accept the premise that Muslim, Jew, and Christian worship the same one God. However, there are many who do not accept this but remain silent as it is deemed inflammatory and damaging to inter-religious dialogue to say so publicly. No Vatican document praises Islam or Muhammad; Papal encyclicals only note the Vatican as "esteeming" Muslims. Moreover, the Vatican's sensitivity to diplomatic niceties is not reciprocated by the Muslim rank and file whose populist chant, "Allah-hu Akbar," correctly translated, is "Allah is Greater" than (left implied) either the Hebraic or Christian gods. The contrary, at least, is the personage of God the Father Creator. He is the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Nevertheless, the Vatican has been ever so careful not to allow wishes for congeniality to fog the vast doctrinal differences between Christian and Muslim. Despite this theological chasm, the Holy See and Islamdom have found common ground on some subjects. For example, they have pooled their political resources to impede a United Nations rush to adopt a secularist agenda on population policy, abortion, and other ethical issues.
Islam and the Theological Divide
Despite occasional cooperation against common adversary, these two great faiths are a universe apart on key theological concepts. Most Muslim theologians hold that Christian revelation was corrupted and that it ultimately must accept the reality that it has been eclipsed; that Christianity has been superseded by Allah's revelation to Muhammad. One key doctrinal issue, which apparently cannot be digested by Muslims, remains the Christian dogma of the Holy Trinity. More pointedly, some Muslim theologians deny that Christianity is a monotheistic faith because of its Trinitarian doctrine. The more acrimonious aspect of this divide is that Christians, by giving God (the Father) partners, commit the unforgivable sin of shirk, or polytheism. This accusation was leveled at Christians by Caliph Abd al-Malik, who ordered the following inscriptions on copper plates affixed to the south and east gates of the Dome of the Rock:
"The unity of Allah and the Prophecy of Mohammad are true. The Son-ship of Jesus and the Trinity are false"[34]
Not enough for the caliph, he later ordered inscribed inside the Dome's octagonal arcade the following triumphal taunt:
"The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary is indeed a Messenger but stop talking about a Trinity. It is not fitting that Allah should beget or father a son."[35]
For a Muslim, every time a Catholic or Orthodox Christian makes the Sign of the Cross is testament to Christianity's polytheism. Carved in stone above many a mosque is the warning, not to commit shirk. Every Papal blessing, extended to a crowd is a reminder of how wide is the theological chasm. The Trinitarian motif is even intertwined in the Vatican's decision to defend its physical realm by the establishment of the Swiss Guard. Each new batch of Swiss Guard recruits is sworn in on the sixth of May, the anniversary date of the last invasion of the Vatican in 1527.[36] While taking the oath of enlistment, each novice raises his right arm and three fingers of the right hand, forming a Trinitarian salute.
Another theological irreconcilable is the Koran-based directive that denies the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (the Prophet Isa).
"As for their statement that we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of Allah, and they killed him not, nor did they cause his death upon the cross but he was made to appear to them as such…."[37]
Still another un-bridgeable divide is the Koran's assertion that Jesus was not Son of God, no part of the Divine entity that is the Father-Creator, The Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible.
"The son of Mary was only a messenger of Allah…so believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not Three-Desist … it is better for you…Allah is only One God, far be it from his glory to have a son."[38]
These differences are not negotiable. Consequently, as such discussions have the potential to engender more acrimony than good will, the Vatican prudently has avoided placing such items on agendas of official dialogue. These beliefs are immutable due to Islam's doctrine that the Holy Koran is co-eternal with the Creator and therefore infallible in every context. Muslim theologians maintain believe that the Koran, every word of it, is the dictated word of Allah; therefore not subject to change by man. In this sense, it is different from the Bible. Even the most devout biblical scholars readily admit that the books of the Bible, at least the Hebrew version (Old Testament), were compiled over centuries by divinely-inspired humans.
Muslim scholars also assert that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity fails the test of reason. They underscore the point by stating that such a belief is not congruent with modern science. Some suggest that St. Paul is the culprit for pluralizing the Godhead. This theory further suggests that the Apostle to the Gentiles made a tactical decision to present Christianity in a way that would be more appealing to polytheists, especially the Greeks, who embraced a whole pantheon of deities.
Islamic commentary on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is not as definitive. The gospel according to John, the youngest apostle, quotes Jesus after the Resurrection as promising to send "a Comforter." One Muslim theologian asserts that Christian teachers have erred in misinterpreting the Prophet Isa's foretelling of the coming of the final Prophet Muhammad. Others more derisively suggest that the appearances of a dove at the Baptism of Jesus and tongues of fire over the Apostles at Pentecost are minor missions, roles for an angel, not for a Holy Spirit.
Possibly seeking to strip the Christ of His divine nature, some Muslim commentators have written that even the Apostles looked upon Jesus as the very human son of Mary and Joseph. They also claim that Jesus was only one of the children of this physical union.[39] However, orthodox Muslims, keeping with the Koran, accept the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Discussions with learned Muslims on this issue reveal that they believe the claim of Jesus to be Son of the Father was merely metaphorical. One could view this cynically, as a clever device by Muslims to offer Christians an intellectual release from their doctrinal beliefs. After all, did not Jesus in dispute with the Pharisees employ a metaphorical reference by quoting the Hebrew Bible that all the faithful are sons of God? Moreover, they have insisted that Christian doctrinal accretions over the centuries have elevated the status of Jesus. A number of Muslim commentators, while testifying to the sanctity of Jesus, find it improbable that Allah would allow His prophet to die such an ignominious death as Crucifixion.
Muslim Views of the Vatican
Some Muslim clerical and lay leaders perhaps hope that better ties to the Vatican will ease Islam's acceptance in regions that were once Christian domains, such as Europe. Radical Muslims and Jihadists possibly only see Rome as the eternal enemy, the spiritual center of the Crusader camp. There have been many a conflict and much blood shed over the last fifteen centuries. Blood-soaked conflict between acolytes of these two universal worldviews was such that it is only logical that much suspicion remains. The apostolic imperative of the Catholic Church to evangelize all nations is the most prevalent apprehension of even those Muslim leaders who are in dialogue with the Vatican. This command, to teach all nations, was a divine directive from Christ to his Apostles as He departed from them for the last time before re-joining the essence of the Father (Yahweh). Pope John Paul II lends credence to this Muslim fear. The Pope informed his experts on relations with non-Christians that there is no contradiction between simultaneous evangelization and dialogue. The almost constant travel of the Pontificate of John Paul II underscores the reality that the Vatican more than ever is energized, even driven, by the command to evangelize on a universal scale. This divine directive of Christians remains in direct conflict with the similar prime command of Allah to bring all nations to Islam. John Paul in fact, chose his name after his election as Pontiff, in part, for a desire to emulate Paul, the premier apostle to the gentiles. John Paul personalized papal proselytizing as no other Pontiff before him. His personal diplomacy accelerated the growth of Catholicism in those regions where Islamdom's own proselytizing efforts were in full swing, particularly on the African continent, and was interpreted by some as a direct challenge to Islam in Africa.
Often obscured by superficial media coverage is the prerequisite honor given to local martyrs during all papal visits. For instance, during the visit to Uganda in August of 1969 by Paul VI, he gave much time to acknowledgement of the blood of Ugandan, Catholic martyrs. This dedication was performed during a visit in which he also paid tribute to the men and women of the Islamic faith martyred in 1848 at the hands of native animist adherents. Martyrdom is not a concept that the Vatican will ever cede to Islam alone. The very site of the Vatican rests above a necropolis of martyred Christians murdered by Roman Emperors. St. Peter's Square itself is near the traditional execution site of St. Peter, and is the exact site of the martyrdom of St Paul. Moreover, more than a few Catholics wryly point out that many, if not most, of the martyrs of Islam have been killed by their fellow Muslims. There is also, of course, the disingenuous misuse of the honorific appellation of "martyr" by terrorists, whose practitioners die in the act of killing others. However, the time-honored definition of martyrdom is to stoically "bear witness" unto death for one's religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the blood of martyrs is extolled by clerics of both persuasions. Muslim and Christian theologians evidently agree that martyrdom is a growth stimulant for the faith. Catholic Masses are frequently dedicated in remembrance of specific martyrs. In Shia Iran, there are fountains that spray crimson-colored streams of water to remind believers of the sacrifice of their "martyred" countrymen.
Some Muslims Demand Substantive Theological Dialogue
Most Muslim believers of good will favor discussion, over indifference or hostile silence, between leaders of Christianity and Islam. Some Islamic notables, however, have grown weary of this ever-so-careful dialogue. One Iranian, Ayatollah Sadiqqi,[40] a Shia interlocutor with Catholic Islamic scholars in the United Kingdom, has grown impatient with this delicate duet. His frustration is "possibly a product of the Vatican's employment of the diplomatic tactic of "hetero-description," a negotiating tool used by skilled State Department discussants with their Soviet counterparts during the Cold War, and in a religious context, describes the religious beliefs of another without rendering an evaluation or even the hint of one. Vatican diplomats are well trained in this art, and so are Iranian scholars in Islamic Shia seminaries in Qom. Both sides recognize in the other the same disciplined training in logic and rhetoric. In their Vatican counterparts, the Iranian Ayatollahs may finally have met their equals.

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