By Fr. George Welzbacher
December 3, 2006
As we go to press Pope Benedict has just begun his apostolic visit to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, for more than a thousand years (from 330 A.D. to 1453 A.D.) the capital of the Christian Roman Empire. In a last-minute change of script Pope Benedict was greeted at the airport by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyup Erdogan, who shortly thereafter enplaned for a NATO conference in Latvia. Pope Benedict will also visit Ankara, capital of modem Turkey, and then he will spend some time in prayerful meditation in the midst of the ruins of the ancient great city of Ephesus, where St. Paul preached the Gospel for two years and where, generations later, in the year of grace 431, the Third Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church met to clarify definitively that in Jesus Christ there is no human person but only the single Divine Person of God the Son, joined from the moment of the Incarnation to a human body and a human soul in what is called the Hypostatic Union. I fervently pray that by the time that you are reading these words Pope Benedict will have safely returned to Rome, with no fanatic Muslim or mercenary "hit- man" having drawn inspiration from the recently published Turkish novel Who Will Kill the Pope in Istanbul? (I kid you not! A novel with that title has been published in Turkey and is selling well).
Istanbul today, despite its Christian past, is an overwhelmingly Muslim city in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, a nation whose generals during World War I instigated the massacre of perhaps a million and a half of the Sultan's Christian subjects, Armenians and Greeks, many of whom were herded into churches that were then set on fire. Some managed to evade their co-religionists' fate by trekking for hundreds and hundreds of miles through mountainous country to find refuge in Persia and Mesopotamia, in today's nomenclature Iraq and Iran. This Turkish massacre of Christians early in the twentieth century proved in time to be merely the curtain-raiser for a ghastly parade of organized mass murders that would contribute to the twentieth century's unenviable distinction as history's most blood-drenched century.
Though Turkey has made spectacular progress in developing the institutions of secular democracy since the birth of the Turkish Republic in the 1920's, discrimination against Christians is still entrenched in the Turkish legal code. Even so eminent a Christian figure as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, is disqualified as a Christian from maintaining a seminary or owning a publishing house.
Pope Benedict's prime objective in visiting Turkey is to visit Patriarch Bartholomew, in response to the invitation that the patriarch extended early in Benedict's pontificate. As the titular primate to whom in varying degrees the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe and the Middle East concede a precedence of honor the patriarch possesses estimable prestige if but little administrative authority. Pope Benedict's decision to proceed with his visit despite raging protests was inspired by his resolve to offer an eloquent gesture of fraternal solidarity with a beleaguered churchman and a persecuted creed. He is also following in the footsteps of Popes Paul the Sixth and John Paul the Great in establishing warm personal relationships with prominent leaders of the Orthodox Churches in the hope that full communion, such as once prevailed, might, God willing, eventually be restored.
In the November 27th issue of Time magazine, riding "piggy back" on the cover story dealing with the pope's visit to a hostile Muslim nation, one of American Catholicism's leading thinkers, Father Richard John Neuhaus, offered his comment on Pope Benedict's recent lecture at the University of Regensburg, the lecture that clarified the preconditions for a productive dialogue between Christian and Muslim theologians. This is the lecture which was denounced in furious demonstrations around the Islamic world, thereby proving the very point that the pope had made. I reprint Father Neuhaus's commentary here:
"What the Pope Gets Right"
By Richard John Neuhaus
Benedict XVI's journey to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is laden with the wounds of history both ancient and painfwly contemporary. The Pope's controversial September 12th lecture in Regensburg, Germany, quoted a 14th century exchange between a Byzantine Christian Emperor and a Muslim intellectual in which the Emperor made some distinctly uncomplimentary observations about Islam. The Pope admitted that the Emperor's statement was brusque. But his point in reaching so far back into history was to demonstrate that problems between the Christian West and Islam long precede today's "war on terrorism."
Although the West, and most notably Europe, may be less Christian today, Muslims still view it as the Christian West. For a thousand years, from the days of Muhammad in the 7th century, Islam enjoyed a run of triumphant conquest, interrupted only momentarily by the Christian Crusades. The time of conquest lasted until the failed siege of Vienna in 1683. [The opening skirmish between the Turks and the newly arrived Christian coalition forces under the command of Poland's King John Sobieski took place, please note, on September 11, 1683. Was Osama bin Laden sending America and the West an even more subtle message, namely that he was initiating a reversal of Sobieski's great victory?] After Vienna, and most dramatically under 19th and 2oth century Western colonialism, Islam was sidelined from history-one of the main sources of the rage and resentment of today's jihadists.
The jihadists believe their time of resumed conquest has come. Through terrorism and the mass immigration of Muslims in Europe, the jihadists are pressing for the reversal of the military outcome of 1683. This is the context in which Benedict attempted to make a larger point at Regensburg. He acknowledged that Christians have sometimes had a problem, and he suggested that Muslims still have a problem, in understanding the relationship between faith and coercion. Violence, said the Pope, is the enemy of reason. Violence has no place in the advancing of religion. To act against reason is to act against the nature of God.
The violent responses to the Pope's speech reflect the belief of jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda, that their religion mandates the use of any means necessary, including suicide bombers and the mass killing of civilians, to bring about the world's submission to Islam. In an Oct. 12th "Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI" 38 distinguished Islamic religious authorities, including Grand Muftis in Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Syria, Kosovo, Bosnia and Uzbbekistan, wrote that "jihad ... means struggle, and specifically struggle in the way of God. This struggle may take many forms, including the use of force." The signers delicately criticized some acts of Muslim terrorism, such as the killing of a nun in Somalia, but failed to address the relationship between religion and politics in Islam, or whether the "maintenance of sovereignty" includes, as radical jihadists claim, the violent re-conquest of Western lands that were once Muslim. Whether out of conviction or fear of being targeted by terrorists, THE 38 DID NOT FRONTALLY REJECT THE LINKAGE BETWEEN VIOLENCE AND THE ADVANCE OF ISLAM [Emphasis added].
Nonetheless, the open letter was framed in respectful terms and was welcomed at the Vatican. It is noteworthy, however, that the Pope has not retreated from his challenge to Islam. Moreover, under his leadership, the Vatican has taken a much stronger line in insisting on "reciprocity" in relations with Islam. Mosques proliferate throughout the cities in the West, while any expression of non-Islamic religion is strictly forbidden in many Muslim countries. In the Vatican and elsewhere, the feeling has been growing that the way of tolerance, dialogue, and multicultural sensitivity can no longer be a one-way street. In fact, that shift predates Benedict's papacy. In his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II said complimentary things about the piety of Muslims. But John Paul concluded his discussion of Islam with this: "For [these reasons] not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity."
The theology has to do with the relationship between faith and reason, the anthropology with the dignity of the human person that requires a free and uncoerced response to truth, including religious truth. God ("Allah" in Arabic), Benedict contends, should be viewed not as an arbitrary ruler who issues capricious commands but as the Divine Reason that human beings through reason and freedom are invited to share. Speaking for the Catholic Church, which includes over half of the more than 2 billion Christians in the world. Benedict says that, in matters of religion, violence is the enemy of reason, and to act against reason is to act against God. Challenging the leaders of the more than one billion Muslims in the World, he asks them to join in that affirmation. [Emphasis added throughout]