The Church rightly honors martyrs for their sacrifice. Nowadays, however, there seems to be some confusion about the subject. It’s one thing to lay down your life for your faith. It’s another thing to lay down your faith for the sake of some secondary good such as interreligious harmony.
I don’t know of any Church leader who explicitly advocates martyring the faith, but that would seem to be the effect of certain policies and pronouncements by Church leaders. The most obvious example is the insistence by many European bishops that Europeans have a moral duty to open their borders to Muslim migrants—a policy that could eventually result in a massive persecution of Christians, if not the end of the Church in Europe.
But there are other less obvious examples. Take the October visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, along with Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the head of the Evangelical Church in Germany. Out of respect for the “tense situation” both men were asked to remove their pectoral crosses before entering the Dome of the Rock shrine, and both complied. This is not to question the two bishops’ faith as much as their judgment. There is no reason to think that they wouldn’t sacrifice their own lives for their faith. On the other hand, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that something has gone wrong when churchmen hide their crosses for the sake of fellowship with other religions. While Nigerian Christians are dying for their faith, Northern European bishops are dying not to offend.
Two other incidents come to mind. At this year’s Holy Thursday Mass, Pope Francis made a point of washing the feet of Muslim migrants which, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, might well be interpreted as a gesture of submission. In a similar gesture, Pope St. John Paul II once kissed the Koran. As with the foot-washing ceremony, many Muslims would take this as a sign of submission to the “superior” faith. But how about Catholics? Whatever the pope’s intention, the gesture seems to imply an equivalence between the Bible and the Koran, between Christianity and Islam.
Other gestures and statements of equivalence abound. When Pope Francis was asked if Fr. Jacques Hamel—the French priest who was murdered by Muslims while saying Mass—was “killed in the name of Islam,” he replied “If I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Catholic violence.” He gave the example of one Catholic who had murdered his girlfriend and another who murdered his mother-in-law. Quite obviously, however, there is no equivalence between violence done in accord with Allah’s commands and violence committed in violation of Christian commands. There is nothing Catholic about murdering your girlfriend or your mother-in-law, but there is something specifically Islamic about killing unbelievers.
Still, this was a spontaneous response given in-flight to a reporter’s question. It could be excused as nothing more than an ill-considered remark. The same cannot be said, however, of the Pope’s defense of Islam in paragraph 253 of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. That’s where he says that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”
Here again the Pope is drawing a moral equivalence (although this time implicitly) between Christianity and Islam: just as Christianity is a non-violent religion, so also must Islam be. Indeed, the term “moral equivalence” does not do justice to the Pope’s generous assessment of the Koran. In effect, the statement concedes the moral high ground to Islam. Would Pope Francis say that a proper reading of the Bible is opposed to every form of violence? Probably not. While it’s safe enough to speak of the peaceful nature of the Koran, a claim that the Bible is non-violent would draw howls of protest. Paragraph 253 of Evangelli Gaudium is the theological equivalent of kissing the Koran.
There is a time and a place for emphasizing the commonalities between Christianity and Islam, but a time of escalating Muslim persecution of Christians is not the right time. For Muslims, these gestures of fellowship will be seen as acts of appeasement and will only serve to create an expectation of further appeasements. That Islamic leaders look upon their relationship with Catholics as primarily a matter of dominance and submission can be seen in the recent history of the Vatican’s dialogue with al-Azhar University, the seat of Muslim learning. Al-Azhar froze the talks in 2011 as punishment for Pope Benedict’s condemnation of a terrorist attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria which killed twenty-one, and his call for greater protection of Egyptian Christians. Then, in June of 2013, three months after the election of Pope Francis, al-Azhar said it would like to see “a clear demonstration of respect for Islam and Muslims” on the part of Rome. Pope Francis complied by sending a message to Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, stressing the Vatican’s respect for Islam and his desire to achieve “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims.” In reply, al-Tayeb told the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt that speaking about Islam in a negative manner was a “red line” that must not be crossed.
The section of Evangelii Gaudium that deals with Islam can be seen as an even clearer demonstration of respect for Islam on the part of Pope Francis. Not only that, but it also shows a willingness to respect the “red line”—that is, to speak of Islam only in terms that Islamic leaders would find acceptable. The dialogue is set to resume in April of 2017, but what kind of dialogue can we expect if the ground rules say that no criticism of Islam is allowed—especially when al-Azhar considers Western criticism of jihad to be tantamount to criticism of Islam itself? As Robert Spencer puts it:
The “dialogue” that Francis has now re-established will not be allowed to discuss the Muslim persecution of Christians that is escalating worldwide, especially since an incidence of that persecution led to the suspension of dialogue in the first place.
The situation is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran over the Iranian nuclear program. On numerous occasions the Iranians threatened to break off the negotiations in full confidence that the administration would respond by letting Iran set all the red lines. For the Obama administration, keeping the negotiation process going was more important than any benefit that might accrue to the United States. The Iranians understood this, and they responded to every concession from America with demands for further concessions. They even calculated that the arrest and humiliation of American sailors on the eve of the signing would have no effect on the outcome of the nuclear deal.
Likewise for the Vatican, dialogue seems to be an end in itself. Whether or not it produces benefits for Christians seems secondary to keeping the process going. It also seems likely that the Islamic partners in the dialogue look upon the process in much the same way as the Iranians looked upon the nuclear negotiations—that is, as a way of gaining time while they push ahead with their agenda. In all probability, they view their Vatican counterparts not as equal partners but as useful tools—reliable defenders of Islam against its critics, and reliable enablers of the migration conquest of Europe. The fact that the Vatican endorsed the disastrous Iran deal is one indication that the al-Azhar scholars have made an accurate assessment of their dialogue partners.
If Muslim leaders see the Vatican’s friendly gestures as signs of appeasement, persecuted Christians may well see them as signs of betrayal. Islam is opposed to every form of violence? Tell that to the Nigerian family whose daughters has been kidnapped. Or tell it to the Christian family who were forced to flee for their lives when ISIS took Mosul. For that matter, tell it to the Christian family in Germany who live in constant fear of Muslim assaults. In Germany? Yes, that’s right. The open embrace of Muslim refugees has already led to a significant persecution of Christians in Europe. Christian refugees from the Middle East who are forced to share refugee camps with Muslims have been the target of death threats, beatings, and sexual assaults specifically because they are Christians. In October the watchdog group Open Doors reported that between May and September of 2016, Muslim refugees living in German camps attacked some 743 Christian refugees. Keep in mind that these were only the reported cases.
Just as the German bishops hid their crosses, other bishops have been covering up truths about Islam that Christians need to know. Catholic leaders who are sacrificing bits and pieces of the truth for the sake of harmony with Islam should consider the effect of their actions on the growing number of Christians who are suffering persecution at the hands of Muslims. Very often these Christians are given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. If Catholic prelates keep insisting that there is not that much difference between the two faiths, it will be increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to convert.
Editor’s note: In the photo above, Pope Francis meets with the Grand Imam Sheik Ahmed Muhammad al-Tayeb at the Vatican May 23, 2016. (Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano)