The bombing campaign against the Taliban began on October 7, 2001, the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary and the 430th anniversary of the 1571 defeat of the Turks in the naval battle at Lepanto. Osama bin Laden and his evil minions, who pay attention to such things, probably noted the date and chalked it up to “Crusader” bravado. But the people in the Bush administration certainly had no such thing in mind. Had they known about the anniversary, they probably would have chosen another time in order to avoid the slightest suggestion of a renewed Western war against Islam.
This historical amnesia is quite curious—and potentially dangerous. Not that long ago, even in the West, people still remembered the conflicts between Christianity and Islam in great detail and felt their force. In the early part of the 20th century, Chesterton could write a poem on “Lepanto” that retained the living sense of the same struggle that we read about in the medieval epics The Song of Roland or El Cid (available in quite good translations by, respectively, Dorothy Sayers and the American poet W.S. Merwin).
But if you want to read a truly great poem about the subject (the current ecumenical etiquette looks down on the whole idea, but there is something to be said for sheer physical defense of the highest things in the right circumstances), Anthony M. Esolen’s new translation of Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (Johns Hopkins, 2000) is well worth your time. Tasso is probably the greatest Italian poet after Dante and published his epic on the First Crusade in 1575, that is, just after the victory at Lepanto. It’s strange for those of us brought up in an Anglophone culture to realize that in the midst of the Elizabethan Age, the Islamic threat to Europe was still quite real and cost many lives.
Tasso’s great poem is an exciting epic; Milton borrowed from him for certain scenes in Paradise Lost. In Tasso’s telling, the Crusaders under Godfrey of Bouillon are on a divine mission to liberate the Holy Land. They encounter sorcerers, Muslim temptresses, enchanted forests, and female warriors along the way. Christian virtues are needed to keep them on their sacred path. At one point, the Muslims burn down a Christian tower with a kind of napalm—an eerie anticipation of September 11:
You could see balls of black fire billowing
among the smoke wheels whirling in the night.
The wind blows all the scattered fires together
and makes them blaze with all the fiercer might,
and the French troops behold the fire in terror,
they seize their arms, but that long-labored height,
that massive structure, dreaded tower of war,
falls to the earth in a moment, and is no more.
Today, we tend to downplay the long historical tensions between the Christian West and the Islamic world. In some ways we are right to do so. In current circumstances, despite all the difficulties of globalization, there is no necessary religious or political conflict between the two in most parts of the world. The single exception, perhaps, remains the Middle East, where Israeli/Palestinian tensions have not only pit Jews and Muslims against one another but have placed enormous and bloody strains on the historic Christian communities of Palestine. Most people, even most Christians, are unaware of this problem. But we are now fortunate to have Charles M. Sennott’s The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land’s Christians at the Turn of the New Millennium (Public Affairs, 2001).
Sennott, who was Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe until this year, uses an innovative approach to trace the trials of Christians in the region. Partly in response to the millennial celebrations, from Christmas 1999 to Easter 2001 he followed, chronologically and geographically, the movements of Jesus during his lifetime in order to examine the condition of Christians in the Nazareth, Bethlehem, Egypt, Jordan, Galilee, Lebanon, and Jerusalem of our time. The picture is not a pretty one. In 1914, 24 percent of the population in the Middle East was Christian. Today, it is 5 percent. Dearborn, Michigan, is now home to twice as many Christians born in the West Bank town of Ramallah as remain in that troubled city.
For years, Middle Eastern Christians have been squeezed by various forces. Israel has bulldozed and resettled historically Christian and Muslim territories and prevented Christian Palestinians who had fled the violence in the 1940s from returning to their ancestral homes. Yasser Arafat has tried to use Christians for public relations in Europe and the United States, but the Muslim community and its leadership have grown increasingly callous toward Palestinian Christians. Christian villages are often used for cover in Palestinian insurgencies, since damage to Christian homes and churches gives Arafat and his followers good propaganda material. Christians have also been discriminated against economically, and this has forced many of them to migrate to Europe or North America. Some of the stories Sennott tells are truly heart-rending: ancient olive orchards leveled by Israelis in retaliation against Palestinian resistance; beautiful old Christian homes destroyed by tank fire; venerable old families divided when members decide to leave; and the feeling among those who stay that their former community of “living stones” is becoming a museum piece.
Christians are under pressure elsewhere in the region. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat’s leniency toward radical Islamic groups emptied the prisons of some of the region’s worst terror merchants and ultimately led to Sadat’s brutal assassination, The blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman of Egypt, one of the leaders behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, decreed that Christians could be robbed to help support jihad and even killed to advance Muslim causes. Sennott sees a political motive lying behind the decree as well. Because of their plight, Christians tend to support secular governments that treat all religions equally in the Middle East, something the Muslim extremists are determined to prevent.
In the absence of such political developments, Sennott argues that Christian pacifism may offer one hope for stopping the cycle of violence. Pacifism and turning the other cheek have greater weight in the Christian tradition than they do in Judaism or Islam. But many Palestinian Christians were uncomfortable when Sennott suggested that their belief in nonviolence might stem from their Christian roots. In the complicated ways of the Middle East, they felt that to emphasize the Christian dimension of their views would exacerbate rather than calm the situation. Whatever the origins of the movement for nonviolence, its numbers and potential influence are small to the point of virtual invisibility. Sennott dreams of a Palestinian Christian Gandhi who might appear to stop a cycle of violence that seems beyond all hope of resolution—a long shot, and he knows it. But perhaps this situation, which human beings have inflamed beyond all rational treatment, may now require something on the order of divine intervention.
In the meantime, we are fortunate to have this heartfelt account of the ongoing struggles of Middle Eastern Christians as a reminder that the Christian witness in the Holy Land is not merely a thing of the distant past.