The Great Division

Yet for all the obvious forces pushing European Christians toward a rapprochement with Islam, the potential divisions are still daunting. Given its dominant position within European Christianity, the attitudes of the Roman Catholic Church are critical for future interactions between the faiths. Both at the Vatican level and within individual nations, we can see a continuing conflict between very different attitudes to Islam. Under John Paul II, the church demonstrated a real openness to Muslims as believers, and as allies in struggles against Western secularism. On several occasions, the Pope spoke of his Muslim "brothers." In 1985, he urged that "we have to respect each other and stimulate each other in good works upon the path indicated by God. . . . believers should foster friendship and union among humanity and the people who comprise a single community on earth." John Paul was also the first pope to enter a mosque, in Damascus in 2001.15

At the same time, the Church's global dimension gave its leaders an acute awareness of rising Muslim extremism and intolerance, reflected in conflicts and persecutions around the world. For some years, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was headed by Cardinal Francis Arinze, whose Nigerian background prevented him from succumbing to easy illusions about interfaith collaboration. After the high praise he accorded to Islamic virtues, Fr. Santoro carried on to note the obvious "shadows":

the fear of true liberty; the limits placed on a more interpersonal and intimate relationship with God, seen as too majestic to come down among human beings; an image of women still very much to be discovered and given value; an individual and public practice of the faith that has to be more thoroughly linked with interior life; and an overly fearful attitude concerning dialogue between cultures and religions.16

In 2000, Bologna's Cardinal Giacomo Biffi created a national outcry when he argued that while Italy definitely needed immigrants, a significant Muslim presence would simply be too likely to promote long-term conflict. Preference should be given to people of Catholic background. "And there are many," he said, "Latin Americans, Filipinos and Eritreans."17

Intensifying Catholic concern was the growing Muslim presence in Italy itself, symbolized by the sumptuous Saudi-funded Great Mosque of Rome. Opened in 1995, this mosque was at the time the largest in western Europe. From the late 1990s, Catholic churchmen became more public in their expressions of concern about the possible limits of Muslim ambition on European soil. After all, several of the greatest cathedrals of southern Europe—Toledo, Seville, Córdoba, Palermo— stand on the sites of ancient mosques, which Islamist radicals have pledged to see rebuilt. Even Mansur Escudero, president of the moderate FEERI, has requested the right of Muslims to pray in the area around what was once the great mosque of Córdoba. Responding to this request, Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, noted tactfully that "the Vatican has always been very careful not to ask for similar rights with regard to mosques which once were churches."18

Over the past decade, gatherings of European Catholic leaders have witnessed repeated conflicts between hard and soft approaches to Islam. Citing the expansion of Muslim communities in Europe, with evangelistic efforts fueled by Arab petrodollars, one Italian archbishop asked, "How can we ignore in all this a program of expansion and re-conquest?" Alain Besançon warned, "History teaches us that peaceful cohabitation between Islam and Christianity is precarious."19 Church leaders have demanded greater concern over the plight of Christians in Muslim nations and suggested a degree of reciprocity. In their view, Muslims could scarcely demand complete religious freedom throughout Europe if Christians were allowed limited rights of worship in Islamic lands, and even relatively liberal Muslim nations never accepted a Christian right to evangelize Muslims. As John Allen summarizes the view of leading churchmen,

If the Saudis can spend $65 million to build the largest mosque in Europe in Rome, in the shadows of the Vatican, then Christians ought to be able to build churches in Saudi Arabia. Or, if that's not possible, Christians should at least be able to import Bibles, and the Capuchin priests who serve the Arabian peninsula ought to be able to set foot off the oil industry compounds or embassy grounds in Saudi Arabia without fear of harassment by the mutawa, the religious police. The bishop in charge of the Catholic Church in that part of the world recently described the situation in Saudi Arabia as "reminiscent of the catacombs."20

Conservative lay politicians strongly echoed such views.

However important, pleas for religious toleration in Muslim lands have made little impact on secular policy makers, even as they debate the potential EU membership for Turkey and other mainly Muslim states. In 2003, a high-level advisory group commissioned by the EU examined relationships between Europe and the wider Mediterranean world, which in practice meant the Muslim states of north Africa and the Near East. The group found that these changes clearly require the EU and its Member States to rethink their relationship, still all too often problematic, with the closest Other.

Europe's relationship with its neighbors within determines its relationship with its neighbors without, and vice versa. Of course the Euro-Mediterranean partners must also make an equivalent effort with their Jewish and Christian minorities.

Given the actual circumstances of toleration in most nations, that "of course" reads almost humorously.21

Though Vatican policies can be opaque to outsiders, the papacy of Benedict XVI favors a harder line toward Islam. When Father Santoro was murdered in 2006, the crime was widely seen as an act of martyrdom. Cardinal Ruini expressed his certainty that "in the sacrifice of Fr. Andrea are present all the constitutive elements of Christian martyrdom." The Cardinal also spoke forcefully on Muslim demands for an equal role in the Italian school system, alongside Catholics. In principle, this could be granted, but there must not be any conflict in the content of that teaching with respect to our Constitution, for example regarding civil rights, starting with religious liberty, or equality between men and women, or marriage. . . . Further, it would be necessary to ensure that teaching the Islamic religion would not give way to a socially dangerous kind of indoctrination.

Benedict himself created a stir in Bavaria in 2006 when, in a speech directed mainly against European secularism, he quoted one of the last Byzantine emperors Manuel II Paleologus, from a debate in which he rejected the claims of Islam. Manuel reportedly asked a Muslim thinker, "Show me just what Muhammad 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 speech was mainly concerned with stressing the roots of Christian thought in Greek philosophy and the fundamental importance of Reason, a linkage that could not be reconciled with forcible conversion. "To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons, or any other means of threatening a person with death." Yet the view of Islam was unflattering, as was the historical context. Adding to the power of the reference, Manuel was defending the Christian faith in the last days before the Ottoman Turks would destroy and annex his empire. In contemporary Germany, such words become evocative, and even threatening, while they have obvious implications for debates over Turkish claims to European status. International Muslim protests against the Regensburg speech recalled the Danish cartoon affair, and some protests turned violent. In Somalia, Islamist thugs murdered a 66-year-old nun.22

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment