Universe Column for September 24th 2006
by David Alton
One of the most intemperate comments about Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture was a letter which appeared in The Independent (ital) newspaper under the headline “The Pope’s words reveal virus of bigotry and prejudice.” The writer went on to say “the virus of bigotry and prejudice makes no distinction between an Abu Hamza and a Cardinal Ratzinger in Pope’s robes.” Needless-to-say, no letter was published alongside it challenging such intemperate and ill-informed remarks.
Unlike those who have called for Jihad – “holy war”- and have resorted to the carnage of suicide bombs and the shedding of innocent blood, Pope Benedict’s words were a repudiation of violence. Anyone who reads his Regensburg lecture will hear a Pope who condemns the use of violence by followers of all religions. They will hear a Pope who defends the right of people of all faiths to fasten to the sacred in the face of the mockery and hostility of the secular world. This is an appeal for tolerance . Pope Benedict made it clear that he holds Muslims in “respect and esteem.” Where here is bigotry, prejudice and Islamaphobia?
The Regensburg Lecture was a call for a much-needed honest debate; a call to face some hard truths.
One such truth is that religious adherents of all faiths have used religion as a pretext for worldly ambition, frequently pursuing their objectives by violent means. That is self evident. But before secularists start salivating with delirious pleasure at this admission let’s at least note that the horrors of the twentieth century and the ideologies of Stalin and Hitler were not produced by religious fervour. Religious believers were among their first victims.
Another truth is that Christians in countries like our own have championed religious pluralism and have pitted themselves against racism and the hostility shown towards refugees and asylum seekers. By contrast, in the Muslim world today many Christians are beleaguered and under attack.
Lest anyone doubt this, just ponder the violent and well orchestrated reaction to what it was thought the Pope had said.
As effigies of the Pope were burnt, four churches were firebombed in the West Bank and a fifth came under fire in Gaza.
Some of the worst outrage has been in Pakistan where there were demonstrations and condemnations by political leaders. This would have been more plausible if the authorities had ever taken any decisive action against the perpetrators of the endless violence against the tiny Christian community which constitutes just 1.3% of the population. Ferocious violence in Pakistan has also been whipped up against the followers of the Ahmadi religion (an off-shoot of Islam) and in 2005 alone 11 Ahmadi were killed and 60 forced through the courts because they refused to conform to religious dictates.
Last year in Pakistan, at Kawanlit, in the Sialkot district, twenty people attacked the Catholic church, broke the legs of a 70-year-old woman and injured another 50 people. The windows of the church were smashed and the high altar and sacred books were desecrated. There have been countless other attacks – one of the worst was last November, About 3,000 people burnt three churches, a convent, two Catholic schools, the homes of two priests, a hostel for girls, and the homes of many Christians in the Punjab province and the town of Sangla Hill. Archbishop Saldahana of Lahore said that “the attacks were planned and organised.”
Then in February of this year 2,000 Muslims rampaged through Sukkur – a town in Sindh province – and attacked the Protestant church of St.Saviour and the Catholic church of St. Mary’s. Chalices, vestments and sacred items were looted and an attempt was made to desecrate the tabernacle. Later in the month, in Peshwar, a religious sister had to shelter in an upstairs room, fearing for her life, as radicals broke into the premises.
Elsewhere, as The Independent (ital) reported on the front page of the same edition which published the remark about Abu Hamza, catastrophic violence continues to be done to the people of Darfur by the Government of Sudan, whose zeal to impose Sharia law has already led to 2 million deaths of mainly Christians in Southern Sudan. Another 400,000 people have now perished in Darfur – and adding irony to the tragedy, almost all are non-Arabic non-compliant Muslims.
With a touch of serendipity, on the very day Pope Benedict was under attack, I received in my post two new books: “Copts in Egypt, A Christian Minority Under Siege” (ital). This details the endless privations of this much persecuted group of Christians. The other is “Persecuted and Forgotten” (ital), published by Aid to the Church In Need. It is the definitive chronicle of church persecution world wide in 2005-2006. No parish should be without one.
Some countries which persecute, such as Iran, are known to be deeply illiberal. But what about countries like Turkey – supposedly one of the more tolerant countries in the region? Pope Benedict is scheduled to travel there at the end of November. They are seeking membership of the European Union.
In Turkey, last February, Fr.Andrea Santoro, an Italian Catholic priest, was shot dead by a Muslim youth. The Vicar Apostolic of Anatolia said that the “true motive for the motive of Don Santoro was religious excitation, motivated by the anti-Christian climate in the families, the schools and the written literature.”
If the Pope’s visit to Turkey goes ahead and he is able to meet the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, in Istanbul he will visit, as I have done, a Patriarchy which has been fire bombed and attacked and he will be meeting the leader of a church which has been systematically asphyxiated.
Yes, it’s time for all these issues to be laid upon the table and for us to find creative and reasonable ways forward. An honest debate must also encompass an understanding of the suffering of Muslim people, whether in Bosnia or the Middle East. It must enter into the suffering and the fears of the Jewish people. And if there are religious texts which appear to justify violence against others, let those texts become an anathema to us all.
Pope Benedict has made it clear that he does not believe that Islam is wicked. It is the use of violence in the name of religion which he abhors.
If anyone feels insulted by the suggestion that violence acts are being committed in the name of their religion, there is a swift and certain remedy: let those acts of violence end; let there be no more talk of holy wars.