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Iraq: Pope's Comments Bring Threats, Condemnation

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> Iraqis burn an effigy of the pope during a demonstration in Al-Basrah on September 18 (epa) PRAGUE, September 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi religious leaders were quick to react to reports of statements made by Pope Benedict XVI regarding comments the pope made last week regarding Islam and violence, with many saying the statements threatened to harm Muslim-Christian relations in the country.

International media reported that the pope implied that Islam was spread by the sword during a September 12 speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany. In the speech, the pope recounted a conversation between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian scholar around the year 1391 on the subject of Christianity and Islam.

Centuries-Old Argument

In the course of the conversation, which revolved around the issues of faith and reason, the emperor says to the Persian, "Show me just what Muhammad 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." Arguing that violence is incompatible with the nature of God, the emperor continues, "Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly without violence and threats."

The pope then quoted professor Theodore Khoury, his source for the above-mentioned dialogue, as observing that while the Byzantine outlook on faith was influenced by Greek philosophy and the concept of reason, for Muslims, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality," Benedict said.

The pope went on to quote French Islamist R. Arnaldez, "who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry."

Uninformed Reaction

The pope's brief comments on Islam and Christianity, taken out of context from a seven-page speech, could easily be misconstrued, as the reaction of Muslims in Iraq, and worldwide for that matter, illustrates. The very tone of many of the reactions reported in the Iraqi media show that few, if any, Iraqi leaders read or heard the pope's speech in its entirety.

Their quick reaction, supported by media bent on sensationalizing the news and highlighting a Muslim-Christian divide even where one does not exist, only contribute to the grave state of sectarian relations in Iraq today.

Iraqis interviewed on Iraqi satellite channels reflected the general reaction inside the country. A number of viewers expressed outrage, while admitting that they did not know exactly what the pope had said.

But more disturbing was the reaction by some Iraqi leaders, whose comments could potentially threaten the safety and security of Iraq's Christian community, which has routinely been targeted by insurgent groups in the post-Hussein era.

Christian Community Seeks Clarification

Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel Delly told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on September 15 that the pope's statements were misinterpreted. Delly contended that inaccurate reporting by the media was to blame for the crisis.
"We express solidarity with our Muslim brothers wherever they may be,
and we do not accept what was said by the Vatican's pope about Islam
and the encroachment on the religious feelings of our Muslim brothers." -- Eastern Orthodox believers

The heads of Iraq's Eastern Orthodox denominations issued a joint statement on September 16, calling on the Vatican to clarify the pope's statements. "We express solidarity with our Muslim brothers wherever they may be, and we do not accept what was said by the Vatican's pope about Islam and the encroachment on the religious feelings of our Muslim brothers," the statement said.

The Catholic Archbishops Council issued its own statement on September 17, also blaming the inaccurate reporting of the media. The council affirmed its desire for strong relations with all sects in Iraq.

Sunni Arab Leaders See 'Crusader War'

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, in a September 15 statement posted to its website, claimed the pope's comments were part of a broader "crusader war" started by U.S. President George W. Bush to "kill thousands of Muslims." The pope's statements "make the soldiers of this war [in Iraq] feel that they are committing a legitimate act," the group claimed.

The association further argued that the pope was inciting terrorism against Muslims, and claimed Benedict "does not have a thorough vision of history."

Sunni imam Mahmud al-Sumaydi'i demanded the pope issue an apology to the Islamic nation, and asked why the pope has not condemned the actions of "occupation forces" that "wreak havoc on our country."

The Iraqi Islamic Party also issued a statement on September 16, warning Christians not to be incited to violence against Muslims.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union expressed concern that the pope's comments would result in negative consequences for Christians in Iraq, while Mullah Yasin, who met the pope last year as part of a delegation from the Al-Sulaymaniyah Ministry of Endowments, called for a proper analysis of the pope's comments and dialogue between Christians and Muslims, saying, "People do not need to make a fuss about it."

Shi'ite Leaders Claim Religion Under Attack

Shi'ite leaders were also critical of the pope's speech. The Imam Ali Foundation, which acts as the liaison office for Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in London, issued a statement on September 15 calling on the pope to "rectify his stance through accurate, sound, and comprehensive reading of the particulars of the Islamic religion," adding, "The Islamic seminaries (hawzas) are fully prepared to offer him the required assistance to embark on this task." The foundation also called for greater dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

In a September 16 statement posted to its website, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) claimed the pope made "unfounded and incorrect accusations against our true Islamic religion."

Iraqis carry a huge replica of the Koran during a demonstration in Al-Basrah on September 18 (epa)

Several Shi'ite scholars commented for Iraqi news channels, with many claiming the pope's comments were part of a broader plan to denigrate Islam. Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Baghdadi claimed in a September 15 interview with Al-Baghdadiyah that the pope's comments supported a recent statement by President Bush "in which [Bush] said that Islam and Muslims are fascist."

Cleric Talal al-Sa'idi, a supporter of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, claimed in an interview with the same station that the pope insulted Christians as well as Muslims through his comments. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Husayn al-Mu'ayyad claimed the pope's comments were part of "a greater political and cultural attack against Islam and its followers around the world," in a same day interview with Al-Diyar television.

For it's part, the Iraqi government has said little officially on the controversy. The Foreign Ministry said it summoned the Vatican's envoy to Baghdad on September 17 to inform him that it viewed Benedict's comments as "inappropriate and detrimental" to Muslim-Christian relations. "Though these statements or comments were unintentionally made, their timing was unfavorable. They evoked our deep regret and accordingly, we demand that the pontiff give official clarifications on these statements," the ministry said.

Insurgents Find Justification For Their War

Meanwhile, Sunni insurgent groups have vowed direct retaliation against Rome. The Mujahedin Army in Iraq said in an Internet statement dated September 14 that it was not surprised by the pope's "attempt to attack and cast doubt on the religion of God." History has shown that "Zionized Christianity...and the crusader...are a poisonous dagger and a treacherous sword," the group contended. "Those people have always been hostile to us and allied with our enemies." The group vowed that the soldiers of Muhammad would crush Rome. "They shall witness a lethal attack on their Vatican that will make the pope and patriarchs cry."

The Iraqi Jihadist Leagues claimed in a September 17 Internet statement that the pope's statements revealed the true nature of the Christian religion and its animosity toward Islam. The statement claimed Muhammad's Army would soon destroy the pope's throne, "shake the corners of your nation, and expose the evidence, which you and your predecessors have been hiding, that proves the validity of the message of Muhammad."

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Mujahedin Shura Council said in a September 18 Internet statement that the pope's statements were made in "support of the crusader war," adding: "We say to the worshipper of the cross: you and the Romans have a rendezvous with defeat.... God will support Muslims and conquer Rome in the same way they conquered Constantine."
"We say to the worshipper of the cross: you and the Romans have a rendezvous with defeat.... God will support Muslims and conquer Rome in the same way they conquered Constantine."

The Ansar Al-Sunnah Army claimed in a separate statement that Christians are engaged in a holy war to destroy Islam. It appealed to Muslims to take up the fight against the West and vowed that the "enemies of God" will "see nothing from us but the sword...until [they] return to the religion of God." It added, "The day when the armies of the true religion will tear down the walls of Rome are nearing."

Setback In Relations?

While many observers would argue that little can now be done to contain the controversy that has erupted as a result of Pope Benedict's remarks, some may see it as an opportunity for a more robust Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Muslims would argue that the pope, as the head of the Catholic Church, should have at the very least been more careful in his choice of words. Many Christians would counter that the problem lies not with them, but in the hypersensitivity of Muslims, who cannot see an academic discussion for what it is.

Observers of the pope and his previous comments on Islam will argue that the pope has always supported strong relations with the Muslim community. He condemned the Danish cartoons on the Prophet Muhammad, and has repeatedly called for interreligious dialogue. Scholars will note that many of the pope's observations on the current state of Christianity echo concerns by Islamic scholars over crises faced by their own faith.

Nonetheless, the position of the pope and the church will be overshadowed, at least for some time, by the perception among many of the world's Muslims that there is a widening divide between the two faiths, a perception shored up by recent historical events, including the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Panel On Religious Freedom

Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrating Orthodox Christmas (CTK, file photo)

RELIGION AND SOCIETY: On December 21, 2005, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a panel discussion on issues related to religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. Panelists included CATHERINE COSMAN, a senior policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; FELIX CORLEY, editor of the Forum 18 News Service; and JOHN KINAHAN, Forum 18 assistant editor.
Cosman argued in her presentation that the Russian Orthodox Church receives preferential treatment from the government. She also expressed concern about the estimated 50,000 skinheads active in Russia. Corley focused on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, arguing that many governments in the region "fear institutions they can't control." Kinahan's presentation concentrates on the Uzbek government's assertions that Islamist extremists were behind the May uprising in Andijon.


Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 90 minutes):
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See also:

Central Asia: Region Returns To Muslim Roots

Central Asia: Regional Leaders Try to Control Islam

Unholy Alliance? Nationalism And The Russian Orthodox Church

THE COMPLETE STORY: A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.