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18th September, 2006

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The Pope's speech: with what measure ye mete…

Few who heard Pope Benedict XVI's speech at the University of Regensburg on September 12th, 2006 could have predicted the outcry of rage it would cause from Muslims around the world. In it he quoted one statement from a conversation between a Christian Byzantine emperor and a Persian Muslim in about 1391. The emperor said,

Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

Few would have predicted the result for the simple reason that the speech was cleverly written — if one reads the entire speech, one would have to agree that the pope was not saying he agreed with the medieval emperor. But he didn't say he disagreed, either. My take is that he was having a dig at the heart of Islam. The cynic in me — which I try hard to subdue — cannot help but wonder if, in spite of his apology, the pope is secretly delighted at the violent worldwide response. He doesn't have to say it himself — “See, I told you so”.

Thinking people will look at the teachings of Islam and the behavior of many adherents and find it very hard to see many similarities between them and the One True God whose care for all His creatures is proven by His creating the spectacular planet we call home and His providing of all the necessities, and many luxuries, of life.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Christendom's historical record makes Islam look decidedly Christian. On August 20th, 1191, Christian crusaders decapitated 2700 Muslim prisoners of war at Acre. The Crusades, and all the evils they wrought, were drummed up by Pope Urban II; the European armies marched under the banner of the Holy See. “Love your enemies”, Jesus said. More often, the historical church has shown a penchant for killing them. Scripture shows that God's Church would be the persecuted, not the persecutor. With the approval of the papacy, over a period of more than five hundred years, untold thousands perished under the unspeakable Inquisition, with an estimated 15,000 being burned alive. Jesuit agents of Rome used horrifying brutality to subjugate established Christian churches of a different mold in St. Thomas, India. When, in 1572, European Catholics launched a pogrom against Protestants in which hundreds or even thousands of them perished, the Pope of the time was so delighted he assembled his cardinals to chant a Te Deum, and a special coin was struck to commemorate the event. Pope Innocent IV sent emissaries to Mongolia to try to convert the Mongols and bring their armies to the Pope's side. The papacy even stooped to forging a document — the famous “Donation of Constantine” in an attempt to convince people that legal sovereignty lay with the church. On and on it goes.

Both Muslims and Christians will argue that their religion does not condone forced conversions. Muslims will quote Sura 2, 256, which says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Christians will quote St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Faith must be the result of conviction and should not be imposed by force. Heretics are to be overcome by arguments, not by arms”.

Theory is one thing, practice is another. When it comes to spreading faith by the sword, one might think Muslims learned the art from Christians. When Frankish king Charlemagne forced mass conversions on the pagan Saxons, the Church rewarded him by crowning him emperor. (Details of the chain of events are murky, but the overall picture is clear.) The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that “the ‘Saxon Capitulary' of 781 obliged all Saxons not only to accept baptism (and this on the pain of death) but also to pay tithes…”. The Saxon Capitulary stated, “If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.” Uncountable numbers of Jews and Muslims were converted to Christianity at sword point throughout the Middle Ages. With the approval of Pope Julius, during the initial Spanish conquest of the Americas, Spanish armies would assemble fearful Indians and a priest would read them a “requirmiento” (ultimatum), stating,

… we will not compel you to become Christians, unless after being so informed regarding the truth, you desire to be converted to our faith. But… if you do not do this… I will come among you powerfully and make war upon you everywhere and in every way that I can.

Unless immediately accepted, the Spanish forces would kill and plunder. Too bad the natives couldn't understand a word of it — it was read out in Spanish or Latin.

The Protestant branch of Christendom can't gloat. When the peasants of Germany revolted in 1525 because of their miserable living conditions, Martin Luther responded to their cry this way: “They should be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!” When slightly mad Michael Servetus attacked traditional teachings, Protestant leader John Calvin wrote to a friend that Servetus would not escape with his life if he fell into Calvin's hands. Servetus was later burned at the stake with the church's approval. (Calvin "mercifully" wanted him put to the sword.)

Thinking people will look at church teachings and the behavior of some churchmen and strain to find many similarities between them and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI


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