The late Pope John Paul II opted for a consistent policy of dialogue towards Islam.
He was moved partly by the Holy See’s general policy of taking its lead from Europe in forging foreign relations – notably from France and its approach to Muslim countries. But he also admired the deep spirituality of Muslims in contrast to the burgeoning secularism he saw in the West.
John Paul II even brought this approach to Africa where local Christians are struggling to fight off encroaching Islam. In 1962, on my first visit to Douala, the main commercial town of Cameroon, I met the local Catholic Bishop, who told me very frankly that the traditionally Christian stronghold of the Atlantic coast was helpless to defend itself against the spread of Islam. Mass migration pouring in from sub-Saharan countries like Chad was lost for lack of Christian structures to receive them. Only the mosque was there to embrace them and so they became Muslims – albeit in a traditionally Christian region.
The Cameroon bishop’s complaint was unavailing. And when Pope John Paul II visited Douala in 1985, he continued to preach dialogue with Islam.
In North Africa, the Vatican went beyond theoretical dialogue.
On July 10, 1964, the Holy See signed an agreement with new Republic of Tunisia transferring 94 churches, as well as the cathedral of Carthage and other buildings, to the Tunisian government without payment.
In Algeria, the cathedrals of Algiers and of Constantine were converted to mosques. Yet the Church proclaimed its wish to “hold with the Moslems a dialogue of reciprocal understanding, sympathy and mutual aid”.
The Community of Sant` Egidio, an organization in Rome dealing with foreign policy issues in close rapport with the late Pope, offered to mediate in the Algerian civil war between the government and extremist Islamic terrorists. The Algerian Government and the rebels of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) were invited to a conference in Rome. The Algerian government declined. But the Community staged the conference anyway providing a strong gesture of support for the FIS.
This did not stop Muslim terrorists from later killing seven priests in May 1996 and assassinating the Bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie, in August 1998.
There can be no religious war with Islam
Franco de Courten, who served as Italian Ambassador to Algeria from 1996 to 1998, lost his job for daring to dissent from Sant Egidio an organization with deep connections in the Italian Foreign Office and with Italian oil companies.
In February, 2003, John Paul II assembled the bishops officiating in North Africa and instructed them to persevere with the dialogue with the Moslems – a dialogue which must go on “with patience and determination to overcome the reciprocal lack of confidence”.
During the first Gulf war, John Paul II convened in Rome a Synod of Bishops from the Middle East.
On March 4, 1991 he said:” There is no war of religion now and there cannot be a 'holy war' since the principles of brotherhood and peace deriving from the faith in God require meetings and dialogue.”
Two days later, he also discussed “the injustice of which the Palestinian people are a victim”.
John Paul struck this stance for several reasons. One, the local churches of the Middle East and Muslim world were scared of being identified with the West. Two, the Pope was innately sympathetic to the Third World. Three, he was frankly hostile towards the United States as the embodiment of materialism, sex and consumerism. For all these reasons, the Pope came out strongly in support of the poor and the oppressed against the powerful and conquering United States.
After the al Qaeda destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, the Pope in his 2002 New Year’s message defined terrorism as “a crime against humanity”.
But at the same time he professed to understand that recruiting terrorists is easier “in the social context in which rights are repressed and injustices tolerated for too long”. While injustices cannot be an excuse to justify terrorist acts, he called for “the social and cultural causes of terror” to be eliminated.
In the same declaration, the late pontiff produced a double message: terror was the expression of a political will to conquer power; terror found some justification in its social causes. This careful hairsplitting avoided any clear condemnation of the Islamist group that had declared war on The Crusaders and the Jews.
The same set of principles, when applied to the Middle East, made him a strong supporter of the Palestinian war against Israel.
In April 2002, some 200 armed Palestinians stormed into the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the most important shrines of Christianity. Israeli troops pursuing them stayed outside the Church from the start to the end of the episode. The Pope ruled that the Palestinian invasion was not a desecration of a Christian shrine. Instead, he vented his anger on Israel by mounting an international propaganda campaign denouncing the Jewish state during the entire 39 days of the standoff.
On April 7, 2002, Pope John Paul II condemned the “pitiless logic of arms,” while the Vatican spokesman, Navarro-Valls, pointed out sternly that “the fundamental agreement of 1993 between the Vatican and the State of Israel” included articles “that sanction respect for the status quo of the Holy Places”.
He ignored Israel’s respect for the holy place and also the Palestinian desecration.
In 2003, when the United States was clearly preparing to fight Saddam Hussein, the Pope spoke out against the war. On February 24, Msgr. Tauran said “a unilateral war would be a crime against peace”.
To promote his constant pursuit of dialogue with Islam, the late Pope established a special commission chaired by Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria.
John Paul himself signed the traditional end of Ramadan message on April 3, 1991. It started with the words: “My dear brothers and sisters”.
A Permanent Commission of Dialogue was set up between the Vatican and Al Azhar, the great center of Islamic learning in Cairo. In February 2003, the commission published a joint declaration to the effect that Islam and Christianity denounce oppression and aggression against the individual. It also determined that the Western powers should not be identified with Christianity; nor Iraq with Islam.
The Vatican pointedly stressed this differentiation between the Christian Church and the United States.
On certain issues like birth control, the Holy See lines up with fundamentalist Islamic Iran and Libya in international organizations; shortly before an international conference in Cairo on population issues, the Vatican sent a special delegation to Tehran and Tripoli to ensure coordination.
The late Pope’s Islamic policy did have some dissenters in the Church. After the US invasion of Iraq was complete, Cardinal Ruini, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, said:” One can help Iraqis fight terrorism by remaining there. One should find a way, certainly not easy, to react adequately to terrorism without blessing the legitimate sense of identity of the Islamic peoples”.
The Bishop of the Turkish town of Izmir, Giuseppe Germano Bernardini, is another critic. At the end of the 1999 European Synod he said, “No more churches must be converted to mosques”. He was responding to a statement made by a Muslim dignitary at an official meeting to sponsor Islamic-Christian dialogue. The Muslim speaker calmly told the Christian participants: “Thanks to your democratic laws we will invade you, and thanks to our religious laws we will dominate you”.
The next pope may be expected to show a more challenging face to Islam than his predecessor, John Paul II, especially on the question of Muslim immigrants in Europe. Turkey’s admission to Europe is one of the closely linked burning issues he will have to address. As the International Herald Tribune noted in its caption on an article on 12 April 2005, “In picking a new pope, a key issue is Islam”.
Among the several candidates for the succession I will dwell here on only two, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 77 and Cardinal Angelo Scola, 63, because they represent the two most obvious alternatives between an older man with long experience in the Curia, knowledge of the late Pope’s secrets and promise of both change and continuity; and a younger Italian cardinal with more years of service ahead of him and the backing of the powerful Opus Dei.
This mainly secular establishment today provides the Vatican with the technological props of modern media. Strong in the Spanish-speaking world, Opus Dei has founded a university for mass media studies in Madrid. Its experts staged the spectacles of the late pope’s last days, his death and funeral that drew the largest worldwide TV audience in history.
Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, regretted the lack of an explicit mention of Christianity in the new constitution of the European Union. He argued: “What offends Islam is the lack of reference to God, the arrogance of reason, which provokes fundamentalism.”
Double talk and lack of clarity
In June 2004, he voiced the opinion that Turkey should not be admitted into the European Union, because it is an Islamic society. “Turkey has always represented a different continent, always in contrast with Europe.” The cardinal offered Ankara some advice in an interview to Le Figaro: “Turkey if it considers itself a secular state yet based upon Islam could try to give birth to a cultural continent together with neighboring Arab countries and thus become the protagonist of a culture with its own identity yet linked to the great humanistic values.”
Cardinal Angelo Scola, Patriarch of Venice, has sponsored a new journal entitled Oasis first published in March 2005. Its avowed purpose is to stimulate dialogue with Islam. The journal has come out in four editions, each in two languages: Italian-Arab, French-Arab, and English-Arab and English-Urdu.
Scola however is far less clear about his views.
In an interview to Le Monde, Scola declared everything possible must be done to avert a Christian exodus from Lebanon. “We should ask Muslim countries to respect the freedom of faith of every believer in their lands, without requiring full reciprocity.”
Scola’s attitude towards Turkey differs from that of Ratzinger.
He notes that Istanbul is also Constantinople, and that “our Orthodox brothers” are looking forward to Turkey joining Europe. Scola raises the question exercising Western Europe of the 15 or more million Muslims already living there. In his view, a defensive attitude often engendered by fear is not helpful. Vetoing Turkey’s entry to Europe will not affect this dilemma one way or another. The Patriarch of Venice appears to be amenable to the full integration of the Muslim community in European societies. However, like most senior Catholic prelates, his views are opaque and often contradictory.
The two widely differing views on the Church and Europe’s attitude towards Islam and Muslims demonstrate the seriousness of this issue for the Church and its failure thus far to pull itself together for any clear view, let alone a united stand. That task awaits the next pontificate.
This article was contributed to DEBKA-Net-Weekly by DR. SERGIO I. MINERBI, Author of Vatican and Zionism, Oxford University Press, New York 1990 and numerous other works.