Will Pope Francis Challenge Muslim Persecution of Christians?

Jorge Bergoglio assumes the papal throne at a perilous time for Christendom.

Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, assumes the papal throne at a time when Christians in many countries around the world are more threatened, and are living more precariously, than they have for centuries. Christians face violent persecution on an increasingly frequent basis in Pakistan, Egypt, and Nigeria, and to a lesser degree in Malaysia, Indonesia, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. Yet for the most part the Church in recent years has been silent about this persecution, and in the West has pursued “dialogue” with Islamic groups that glosses over the grim and bloody realities that all too many Christians in the Islamic world face. Will Pope Francis end this deceptive and fruitless posturing and raise his voice for his threatened and embattled brethren?

The Catholic Church has adopted an irenic stance toward Islam ever since the Second Vatican Council issued its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) in 1964. This document asserts that the “plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind” (16).

The statement that “the plan of salvation also includes” Muslims has led some to assert that the Council Fathers were saying that Muslims and Islam should not be criticized or challenged. This has become such an axiomatic assumption for many Christian clerics that they dare not utter a word to disrupt Muslim-Christian “dialogue” even when Muslims worldwide shed the blood of innocent Christians with increasing impunity.

Also, as Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, noted, Vatican II was not a super-council whose teachings superseded all previous Church teaching; rather, its teachings must be understood in light of Catholic tradition. “The council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient,” he said in October 2012. “Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day, that it might remain a living faith in a world of change.” When it comes to Islam, the consistent focus in earlier statements about Islam is generally not on what Muslims believe but on the hostility of Muslims to Christians and Christianity. In that vein, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1754, reaffirmed an earlier prohibition on Albanian Catholics giving their children “Turkish or Mohammedan names” in baptism by pointing out that not even Protestants or Orthodox were stooping so low: “None of the schismatics and heretics has been rash enough to take a Mohammedan name, and unless your justice abounds more than theirs, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” Pope Callixtus III, in a somewhat similar spirit, in 1455 vowed to “exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East.”

Some Catholics will argue that the statements of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III (and other statements like them from other popes) simply reflect a very different age from our own, and moreover that Vatican II’s statements reflect a more mature spirit and a greater amount of the charity toward others that Christians ought to exhibit.

And that may well be so, although it must be noted that even though they are only fifty years old, the statements of Vatican II on Islam reflect the outlook of a vanished age no less than do those of the earlier popes. For in the 1960s, secularism and Westernization were very much the order of the day in many areas of the Islamic world. It was, for example, unusual in Cairo in the 1960s to see a woman wearing a hijab, an Islamic headscarf mandated by Muhammad’s command that when appearing in public a woman should cover everything except her face and hands. Today, on the other hand, one would be surprised on the streets of the same city to see a woman who is not so attired.

The hijabs in Cairo are but one visible sign of a revolution—or, more properly, a revival—that has swept the Islamic world. Islamic values have been revived, including not only rigor in dress codes but also hostility toward Western ideas and principles. The “Arab Spring” uprisings that began late in 2010 have led to a reassertion of the political aspects of Islam, as opposed to Western political models, all across the Middle East. Western ideas of democracy and pluralism that were fashionable in elite circles all over the Islamic world in the first half of the twentieth century have fallen into disrepute.

In other words, the Islamic world that the Fathers of Vatican II had in mind is rapidly disappearing. The tone of these statements must be evaluated within the context of their times. For the documents of Vatican II are no less a product of their age than the statements of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III are a product of theirs. Just as the time of crusading knights has vanished, so has the time of a dominant secular West striding confidently into what it terms the “modern” age.

Although it will always be the Christian’s responsibility to reach out with respect and esteem to Muslims, the hostility that the Islamic world had always displayed toward Christendom was never—at any time before or since—less in evidence than it was in the 1960s, and so a statement of friendship was never more appropriate. That situation does not prevail today, a fact that has a great many implications for the prospects for dialogue as well. Western-minded Muslims who have a favorable attitude toward the Catholic Church no longer have the influence among their co-religionists that they once had, at least in the Islamic world.

That is not to say, however, that we have returned to the world of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III, when Catholics understood that Mohammedanism, as it was then popularly styled (to the indignation of Muslims themselves), was steeped in falsehood—perhaps even diabolical—and dedicated to the destruction of the Church and to the conversion or subjugation of Christians. We are separated by centuries of cultural assumptions from the world in which it was even possible to think of one’s faith as having enemies and needing to be defended. Catholics of the modern age have long assumed that such a world was gone forever, and there is some reason to believe that it is indeed.

But with Muslim persecution of Christians escalating worldwide, there is also considerable evidence that that rough old world is returning; that it may never have been as far away as it seemed. That is the world with which Pope Francis will have to grapple.

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