My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Death threats issued to Pope Benedict XVI, Muslims burning the Pope in effigy, promises to conquer Rome and slit the throats of Christians, at least seven churches in the region of Palestine torched, a nun murdered in front of a children’s hospital in Somalia.
This state of affairs is sadly ironical - violent protests from a religion of peace! We all have to move to a position where it is not sufficient to reject violence generically, nor to attribute such violence to “a few radicals,” nor to sit back in silence. Even brothers can be wrong. Many of us cannot help but ask where is the outrage, the condemnation and apologies from Muslims?
The position of the Pope concerning Islam is unequivocally that expressed by the Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, Who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.”
The Pope's option in favour of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue is equally unequivocal. Dialogue is not an option but a vital necessity.
In his first encyclical letter, Pope Benedict defended the truth that “God is Love.” At Regensburg, he was defending the foundation truth that “God is Logos, Reason.” This is not simply the result of enculturation or the “hellenization of Christianity” but is something that is always and intrinsically true.
Pope Benedict criticizes attempts in the West to “dehellenize” Christianity by the rejection of the rational component of faith (the sola fides of the 16th century reformers); the reduction of reason to the merely empirical or historical (modern exegesis and modern science); and by a multiculturalism which regards the union of faith and reason as merely one possible form of enculturation of the faith. All this is a Western self-critique.
To highlight the inability to engage with the other in our modern world, Pope Benedict chose an example, drawn from the resources of history, which also demonstrates one of the pressing issues of our time.
It is true that one could argue over whether he should have considered how his carefully crafted prose could be misread and manipulated by the ignorant to fan the flames of religious intolerance.
Nevertheless, the dialogue between the emperor of Constantinople, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Muslim scholar from Persia on the irrationality of spreading the faith through violence was not a. mere academic exercise. Byzantium was increasingly threatened in the 14th century by an aggressive Islamic force, the growing Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Emperor seems to have committed the dialogue to writing while his imperial capital, Constantinople, was under siege by the Ottoman Turks. It would fall definitively in 1453. Muslims were military enemies, engaged in a war of aggression against Byzantium. Yet even in these circumstances the Christian Emperor and the learned Persian Muslim could be utterly candid with one another and discuss civilly their fundamental religious differences. As Benedict described the dialogue, the subject was “Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”
The Emperor was able to engage his Muslim interlocutor by appealing to a shared, natural human reason and its ability to apprehend the truths of God. As the Pope summarized, the Emperor was able to articulate “the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.” He continued: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. … The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”
I also think that his lecture ought to be read in the context of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Turkey and the absence of religious freedom and the persecution of Christians in Turkey.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Barthlomew I, invited the pope in mid-2005. The Turkish government formally invited the pope February 2006. But shortly before this, on the 5th of the same month, there was the killing of an Italian priest, Fr. Andrea Santoro, in a church in Trabzon, on the Black Sea. After this, other priests were the targets of threats and attacks. For a few months, a number of the representatives of the Catholic Church in Turkey have been living under the protection of unarmed, plainclothes police officials. Their telephone conversations are monitored, and their mail is often already open when it is delivered. More than being protected, they have the feeling of being watched.
Last June, another important Church leader, the “Catholicos” of the Armenians, Karekin II, visited Turkey. A reference that he made to the massacre of Armenians carried out by the Ottoman Empire during its final phase earned him a penal trial for offences against Turkey, brought against him by the magistrate of Istanbul.
Religious liberty is largely lacking in Turkey: this is also true for the non-Sunni Muslims, the Alevi. Their places of worship are still downgraded as “cultural centers.”
There is growing hostility in the Turkish media toward everything that is Western, European, and Christian. Secular opinion is outstripped by opinion with an Islamist imprint, which is increasingly more combative. An extremely mediocre book of political fiction published in Turkey at the end of August and written by a journalist who specializes in intrigues, Yücel Kaya, has had spectacular commercial success. The title says it all: “Attack on the Pope: Who Will Kill Benedict XVI in Istanbul?”
In the view of Benedict XVI, the heart of the question is always the same one that the emperor of Constantinople and his learned Persian counterpart discussed in 1391: “Not acting according to reason is contrary to the nature of God.”
Sincerely yours in Christ,
☩ Frederick Henry