Can We Talk?

DANIEL HENNINGER

Who says the world lacks leaders? After again expressing his "respect" for Islam, Pope Benedict XVI at his weekly Vatican audience two days ago moved one of his knights forward on the global chessboard of Islamic politics.

Hosni Mubarak meets Pope Benedict XVI
March 13, 2006

Amid amped-up security in St. Peter's Square, the pope said: "I trust that after the initial reaction, my words at the University of Regensburg can constitute an impulse and encouragement toward positive, even self-critical dialogue both among religions and between modern reason and Christian faith."

Setting aside the impeccable understatement of "the initial reaction" — churches torched world-wide — it is close to thrilling in a world of persistent confusion about the intentions of contemporary Islam to see the pope step forward, not back, and speak without apology on behalf of "modern reason."

It is being widely said, mainly among his expectable Western critics, that the quotation from Manuel II Paleologus was a "mistake." Really? I'd say Benedict is right about where he hoped to be after Regensburg: The whole world saying that a serious conversation between the pope and Islam is necessary. My guess is Benedict would clear his calendar if the Muslim Arab leadership said it is ready to talk. And the talk won't be about who meant what in the 14th century. It will be about the here and now.


The pope has a Muslim problem all right. It is the hammering that Christian communities have been taking for years and are getting now in Islamic countries all over the world, but especially in the Middle East.

Across the region (with some exceptions), non-Islamic minorities — which by and large means Christian minorities — are being driven out through physical abuse, legal discrimination, murder and the destruction or confiscation of homes, businesses and churches. Call it religious cleansing. It is a political strategy that would eventually give Iran, Iraq, Egypt and the Holy Lands of Palestine a cultural homogeneity that has never existed in human history, before or after Christ.

Chairing a congressional hearing on this subject in July, GOP Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey described the problem in historic terms that are acutely immediate to Benedict XVI: "There are dozens of Christian groups with rich histories, ranging from the ancient Syriac and Syro-Chaldean churches, which still speak the (Aramaic) language of Jesus Christ, and Coptic churches in Egypt who preserve the language of the pharaohs. . . . There are followers of John the Baptist in Iraq and Iran. The Zoroastrians of Iran go back perhaps 3,000 years. It was under their power and influence that the great king of Persia, Cyrus, ended the Babylonian captivity of the children of Israel." Fundamentalist Islam is pressuring all of these. Many simply leave.

Iran's population has doubled since the revolution of 1979, but its Christian population has fallen to 100,000 from 300,000. The war in Iraq (Mesopotamia was evangelized by St. Thomas) has accelerated the emigration of Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, but non-Muslims were leaving even before the U.S. invasion. In 2000, the U.N. estimated that Iraq was Europe's second source of refugees, after Yugoslavia.


The world's standard political institutions have proved unable to address this problem. The U.N. is compromised and hapless. The U.S. is distrusted, Europe is supine, China is cynical. There would be no better venue for seeking a way out than the Vatican.


The oppression of Egypt's Coptic Christians, who are 10% of the population, is brutal. During Easter Week this April, knife-wielding Muslims in Alexandria attacked worshipers at several Coptic churches. Afterward, Copts shouted: "Hosni Mubarak, where are you?" Good question. Typically, local Egyptian officials prevent the Copts from rebuilding their churches. In August, a Coptic woman named Hala Helmy Botros started a blog to draw attention to such incidents. She was shut down and her father beaten: "This is a present from your daughter." In the holy land, the Christian populations of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem have emigrated under duress in past decades. The U.S. State Department says the Palestinian government has colluded to extort property there from Christian landowners.

The exodus (and falling birthrates) of Christians in the Middle East is a well-documented, much-analyzed phenomenon extending back into the last century. After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI created the Secretariat for the Non-Christian Religions to address these matters. In a dramatic attempt to heighten awareness, Pope John Paul II made a historic pilgrimage to Syria in 2001 and held some 60 meetings with Muslims. Observably little sustainable progress has resulted. If anything, Islamic fundamentalists have ramped up their anti-minority aggression and spread it — to Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan (where members of the Ahmadi Muslim minority have been gunned down as apostates).

And so Pope Benedict has decided it is time to act, no matter that it may hurt the sensibilities of Islamic believers or Western elites ever alert to the delicacies of language. In this Benedict deserves the world's political support. The Middle East is being purged of a historically enriching diversity that will surely kill its ability to thrive. What will remain is a homogenous, self-proclaimed threat to the rest of the world. As Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom argues, the pathologies and methods directed against unprotected minorities will be used next against other Muslims and governments. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the maltreatment of these local Christians is rightly seen as a proxy for the world.


The world's standard political institutions have proved unable to address this problem. The U.N. is compromised and hapless. The U.S. is distrusted, Europe is supine, China is cynical. There would be no better venue for seeking a way out than the Vatican.

The Vatican doesn't want oil. Hegemony is long gone from its vocabulary. The Vatican's only brief is a modus vivendi, a global reality Islam must eventually acknowledge. The governments of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia should open the dialogue Benedict XVI is seeking. In March, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with Benedict at the Vatican. He would be the obvious choice to take the lead. More than these Arab governments realize, their future could use the support of the pope's famous divisions.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Daniel Henninger. "Can We Talk?" The Wall Street Journal (September 22, 2006).

Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal © 2006. Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.

Copyright 2006 Wall Street Journal


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