The pope, the president and politics of faith
From Asia Times:
Acting on faith in politics means exactly what it does in personal life: to
do what is right even when it is dangerous to do so, when received opinion
howls against it, and when the ultimate consequence of such actions cannot
be foreseen. After Pope Benedict XVI showed unprecedented courtesy to
visiting American President George W Bush last week, much has been written
about the Christian faith that binds the pope and the president.
It is not only faith, but the temerity to act upon faith, that the pope and
the president have in common. In the past I have characterized Benedict's
stance as, "I have a mustard seed, and I'm not afraid to use it." (See
Ratzinger's mustard seed Asia Times Online, April 5, 2005.) Despite his
failings, Bush is a kindred spirit. That is what horrifies their respective
critics within the Catholic Church and the American government, who portray
the president and the pope as destroyers of civilizational peace. The charge
is spurious because there was no civilization peace to destroy, but like
many calumnies, it contains an element of truth.
Never before did a pope descend to the Vatican gardens to greet a national
leader as Benedict did for Bush, returning the unprecedented deference that
the president showed in meeting the pope's plane at Andrews Air Force Base
in April. More than mutual courtesy is at work here; the two men evince a
natural affinity and mutual sympathy. Prelates in the Vatican's permanent
bureaucracy fumed at the warmth with which Bush was received, the Italian
daily La Repubblica noted June 12, given that the US president "is very
distant from papal exhortations condemning war", the Iraq war in particular.
Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, disagrees with American
policy in Iraq, but not the way that the European or American left would
like. "There was not a word from the papal throne about the possibility of
an attack on Iran during the coming months, the catastrophic results of
which terrify all the bishops of the Middle East," Marco Politi fulminated
in La Repubblica June 14. "In the Holy Land, the Holy See is being towed
behind the snail's pace [in peace negotiations] of Washington and the
Despite his position on Iraq, Benedict's critics within the church regard
him as a civilizational warrior as dangerous as the US president. Bush might
denounce "Islamo-facism", but continues to believe that Islam is a "religion
of peace". Muslims suspect that the pope wants to convert them, a threat
they never have had to confront in Islam's 1,500-year history.
The May issue of the Jesuits' international monthly Popoli , for example,
featured a blistering attack on Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam,
who this year converted from Islam to Roman Catholicism, and the
circumstances of his conversion, by the prominent Italian Jesuit Father
Paolo dall'Oglio, of the Deir Mar Musa monastery in Syria. By officiating at
Allam's conversion, Father Dall'Oglio charted, Benedict confirmed Muslim
suspicion that his campaign for freedom of religion and freedom of
conscience is a "Trojan Horse" whose aim is to cause Islam to disintegrate.
On this more below.
The pope and the president are less at odds over the Iraq war than the
Vatican's anti-war position might suggest. America invaded Iraq and toppled
Saddam Hussein for reasons of state that no religious leader could bless.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, American intelligence had no means to
determine which Muslim governments were in league with terrorists. Middle
Eastern governments do not resemble Western nation-states so much as they do
hotels at which diverse political factions can rent accommodations,
including factions who provide weapons, passports, training and intelligence
to the sort of men who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Elements
within the governments of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among
others, supported terrorists, besides Saddam.
The only way to resolve the matter quickly was to make a horrible example
out of one of these regimes. That got the undivided attention of the others.
"Kill the chicken, and let the monkey watch," say the Chinese.
Bush chose Iraq simply because existing United Nations Security Council
resolutions provided a pretext in international law. Did the American
president "lie"? Not exactly, but head of states do not tell the whole truth
about such matters, and religious leaders do not put their imprimatur on the
rougher side of raison d'etat.
Bush was magnificently right to conduct a punitive expedition against
Saddam, but horribly wrong to wade into the mire of nation-building. He
should have found a cooperative dictator to replace Saddam and marched out,
as American neo-conservative historian and political commentator Daniel
Pipes suggested at the time. Nonetheless, as I wrote in 2004, "The West
should be thankful that it has in US President George W Bush a warrior who
shoots first and tells the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to ask
questions later. Rarely in its long history has the West suffered by going
to war too soon. On the contrary: among the wars of Western history, the
bloodiest were those that started too late." (See
In praise of premature war Asia Times Online, October 19, 2004.)
Going to war in Iraq was a leap of faith, a repudiation of half a century of
American commitment to stability in the region, to the enduring dudgeon of
the foreign policy establishment. Until the last moment the establishment
did not believe that Bush would go through with it. A former British prime
minister assured me privately in December 2001 that he had it on the
personal authority of George Bush Senior that war was out of the question.
Despite the grave policy errors that followed, Bush had the faith to upset
the existing order of things without foreknowledge of the consequences,
because he knew that it was the right thing to do.
In that sense, the president's war policy and the pope's pacifism arise from
a common source, the politics of faith. Despite the exigencies of state
security, which make necessary the employment of deadly force as well as
harm to civilians, someone must speak the voice of mercy, and pray that the
stern decree will pass from the world. A religious leader must say, "Do unto
others as you would have them do unto you," while a head of state must
follow the maxim, "Do unto others before they do unto you." What divides the
president and the pope is not so much their conflicting positions, but
rather a difference in the existential vantage point from which each must
respond to the great events of the world.
Benedict XVI may preach against violence, but in his own fashion he takes a
tougher stance than the American president. That surely is not the way it
looks at first glance. Bush invaded an Arab country, while Benedict preaches
reason to the Muslim world, receiving in the past few months Saudi Arabia's
King Abdullah as well as delegations from Iran. He has agreed to a meeting
with a group of 138 Muslim scholars at the Vatican in November. Why should
Muslims fear Benedict?
For the first time, perhaps, since the time of Mohammed, large parts of the
Islamic world are vulnerable to Christian efforts to convert them, for tens
of millions of Muslims now dwell as minorities in predominantly Christian
countries. The Muslim migration to Europe is a double-edged sword.
Eventually this migration may lead to a Muslim Europe, but it also puts
large numbers of Muslims within reach of Christian missionaries for the
first time in history.
That is the hope of Magdi Allam, the highest-profile Catholic convert from
Islam in living memory (see
The mustard seed in global strategy Asia Times Online, March 26, 2008).
As noted above, the Jesuit Arabist Paolo dall'Oglio warns that the pope has
confirmed the worst fears of the Muslim world. His views on the subject bear
careful reading. As the editors of Popoli introduce his article, Dall'Oglio
is "someone who has carried out years of apostolic activity in the Muslim
world, and in position to understand the sensibilities and to intuit the
possible repercussions and ways in which the event might be exploited".
Dall'Oglio began his article (in Italian - citations are my translation),
"We hope that we are dealing with an eclipse of the sun," that is, a
one-time event, and adds:
The moon of urgent concern for freedom of conscience
and religion has blocked the sun of charitable discretion, of respect for
Muslim feelings, and of the renunciation of proselytism ... [Magdi Allam's
baptism] discouraged numerous efforts to construct harmony and friendship,
in the quarters of European cities as well as in the countries, for secular
and peaceful Islamic-Christian coexistence. It neutralized attempts to
defuse inter-religious violence and to show how far the Church is from the
neocolonialist logic of the Western hegemonic powers, and how a great
majority of Muslims are opposed to the logic of hostile confrontation ...
Before the world, and on the occasion of his baptism, Magdi Allam has
declared his intent to affirm "the authentic religion of truth, of life and
of freedom" against the "the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is
physiologically violent and historically conflictive". In this fashion he
confirmed the Muslim impression, intentionally or not, that there is an
objective strategic convergence of Christian neo-proselytism and the
blasphemous actions against the holiest realities of Islam promoted by the
northern European media [ie, the satirical cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish
In other words it is difficult to escape
the impression that the sacred banner of freedom of conscience is being used
by the West to introduce a Trojan Horse into Islam with the aim of causing
it to disintegrate [emphasis added].
What seems to the West a low-key appeal to reason and
Western norms of religious freedom, Dall'Oglio warns, looks like a Trojan
Horse to Muslims. Islamic leaders already have noted that months before
Allam's baptism, the Vatican published a "doctrinal note" on evangelization
that specifically repudiates the notion that Catholics should refrain from
attempting to convert people of other faiths. Church-watcher Sandro Magister
notes  that one of the 138 Muslim scholars scheduled to meet with the
pope in November already has filed a protest in the Vatican monthly Mondo e
Mustafa Cherif, an Algerian Islamic scholar prominent in dialogue with the
church, singled out the December 3, 2007, doctrinal note  from the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith affirming that "evangelization is
aimed at all of humanity", and seeking to correct "a growing confusion which
leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and
As Father Dall'Oglio warns darkly, Muslims are in dialogue with a pope who
evidently does not merely want to exchange pleasantries about coexistence,
but to convert them. This no doubt will offend Muslim sensibilities, but
Muslim leaders are well-advised to remain on good terms with Benedict XVI.
Worse things await them. There are 100 million new Chinese Christians, and
some of them speak of marching to Jerusalem - from the East. A website
Back to Jerusalem proclaims, "From the Great Wall of China through
Central Asia along the silk roads, the Chinese house churches are called to
preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ all the way back to Jerusalem."
Islam is in danger for the first time since its founding. The evangelical
Christianity to which George W Bush adheres and the emerging Asian church
are competitors with whom it never had to reckon in the past. The European
Church may be weak, but no weaker, perhaps, than in the 8th century after
the depopulation of Europe and the fall of Rome. An evangelizing European
Church might yet repopulate Europe with new Christians as it did more than a
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