The Vatican’s Worthy Call for Dialogue on Christian-Muslim History


In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

–Thanks be to God, this article was published by the Religion News Service today.–

Amid the global uproar over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, a Vatican official has called for talks with Christian and Islamic scholars on the Crusades and the Muslim conquests of Europe. I wholeheartedly support the idea.

In an interview with Religion News Service reporter Stacy Meichtry in Rome, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said: “It is a question that needs to be addressed. How do we read history? Can we read history together and come to some common understanding?”

The recent row over the cartoons has unearthed a centuries-old tension between the Western and Muslim worlds, a tension that continues to fester to this day. The Crusades were a series of military campaigns launched by successive popes to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. Centuries later, Muslims themselves pushed into Europe, conquering the Balkans and even threatening the city of Vienna. Even though these events are centuries old, they still resonate in the minds of many in the Western and Muslim worlds alike.

For many Muslims, the Crusades still evoke a powerful emotional response. The memory of Christian knights marching into Jerusalem and slaughtering Muslims and Jews — their blood was knee-high to the horses –is as fresh as if it had happened last week. The same is true for some in the West. In early February, Roberto Calderoli, Italy’s reforms minister, called on Pope Benedict XVI to lead a campaign in defense of European identity. He cited Pius V and Innocence XI as “Renaissance popes who mounted armies” and “forged grand coalitions to defeat the Islamic emergency.” Fortunately, the pope and the Vatican have rejected this advice.

These memories color current events. The sight of U.S. soldiers in the city of Baghdad — the seat of the Islamic Caliphate in the past — calls to mind the Crusades, and some Muslims call coalition troops the “new Crusaders.” This was exacerbated even further when President Bush, soon after 9/11, referred to the war on terror as a “crusade,” with American bombs falling on Afghanistan a few weeks later.

Likewise, the sight of Muslim protesters burning Danish flags and torching the Danish embassy calls to mind for some in the West the “Islamic emergency” of the Ottoman Empire sweeping through Europe and the Mediterranean.

This tension is exploited by extremists on both sides in an attempt to bring about a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam. Only through dialogue — which must include scholars of both Western and Islamic history — can the historical confrontation be examined in an environment free of the charged and empty rhetoric of confrontation, hatred and mutual distrust. The goal of this dialogue, in the words of a Vatican historian, Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, is “to understand the issues so that (the West and Islam) can co-exist peacefully.”

The true tragedy of this entire cartoon fiasco is not the publication of the cartoons or even the violent protests that followed. The true tragedy is that this episode is liable to further drive a wedge of misunderstanding and mistrust between the Western and Muslim worlds. This cannot be allowed to stand. It is my sincere hope and prayer that some good will come out of this unfortunate incident — such as the Vatican’s call for dialogue — so that the forces of hate on both sides do not dominate the discourse and lead to the destruction of us all.

(c) 2006 Religion News Service

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