Pope Francis: Peace through Religious Reconciliation

Economic sanctions had barely been lifted when President Rouhani was off to France and Italy to drum up business for Iran.  His visit will forever be remembered–not for anything he said or did, but for the silly actions of Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi who had Roman statues covered up so their nudity would not offend the Muslim guest.  This incident has grabbed most of the world’s attention and, as a consequence, scant notice has been taken of the closed-door meeting in the Apostolic Palace between the pope and the Iranian president.

At the end of the 40-minute session, the Vatican issued a communique which described the talks between the two as “cordial.”  Among the topics discussed was “the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfill, along with other countries in the region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, and to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking [emphasis mine].” Iran, a designated sponsor of terrorism, has a role to play?  Iran, a country that engages in acts of terrorism worldwide through its proxy Hizbollah?  Is the pope serious??

The Vatican also reported that, during the meeting, “common spiritual values emerged.”  At the end of their discussions, the pope presented Rouhani with a medallion depicting Saint Martin giving his military cloak to a shivering beggar.  (This is the traditional gift given by the pope to visiting statesmen.)  Pope Francis called the medallion “a symbol of gratuitous fraternity.”

That the pope would have a “cordial” meeting with a world leader who, two days before his inauguration, referred to Israel as a “wound on the body of the Islamic world” that “should be removed” is disturbing to supporters of the Jewish state.  There is no evidence that Rouhani has changed his view of Israel since then.

The pope’s meeting with Rouhani may be shocking to some, but it was predictable.  Since assuming the papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis has made outreach to the Muslim world a priority.  The lengths to which he is prepared to go in pursuit of this goal are unprecedented for a pope.  Nine months after taking office, the pontiff invited the secretary-general of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), at that time Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, to the Vatican for an audience, something no previous pope had ever done.  (The OIC forms the largest voting bloc in the UN.  This is the same organization that would like to have all criticism of Islam criminalized!). The two discussed Ihsanoglu’s vision of an historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, based on their common Abrahamic roots, a reconciliation vital for global peace and security.  The pope agreed to work towards making Ihsanoglu’s vision a reality.

Anyone following the pope can see that he has been true to his word.  In another unprecedented act for a pope,  Pope Francis made a trip to the Holy Land in May 2014 accompanied by two Argentine friends, religious leaders from the two other so-called Abrahamic faiths:  Rabbi Skorka and Omar Aboud.  While there, the pope also met with the current patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I.

A month later, the pope invited Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him at a prayer summit in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica.  In his address to those gathered in the garden, the pope called the presence of the two presidents, one a Jew and one a Muslim, a “great sign of brotherhood which you offer [Peres and Abbas] as children of Abraham.”  Allah’s name was invoked for the very first time in the Vatican (albeit out back in the gardens).

This past November, during his visit to a mosque in the capital city of the war-ravaged Central African Republic, the pope told the people gathered there that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.”

Are the Catholic pope and Rouhani, a trained Shia cleric, “brothers” as the pope claims? Paragraph 841 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which deals with the Catholic Church’s relationship with Muslims, reads as follows:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day [emphasis mine].

The Catholic Catechism claims that Catholics and Muslims “adore” the one God.  The Qur’an, on the other hand, makes it very clear that Muslims do not adore the God of the Christians!  Quite the contrary.  The Qur’an denies the existence of the Trinity (sura 5:73); denies the deity of Jesus (sura 5:72); and denies the divine Sonship of Jesus (sura 19:35).  Far from adoring the Christian God, the Qur’an issues repeated warnings of the “painful doom” (sura 5:73) that awaits anyone who ascribes “a partner to Allah” (sura 3:64).  Allah is not a ‘father’ and he most certainly does not have a ‘son’!

To overcome what are insurmountable theological differences, the pope (and he is not alone) has turned back to the patriarch Abraham.   Jews, Christians and Muslims are ‘brothers and sisters’ on the basis of their common ancestor, Abraham.  The notion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are spiritual kin is gaining traction beyond the walls of the Vatican.  At the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC  on 4 February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic, invoked the name of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. “The same message stands at the center of the Torah and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad too,” she said before reading from the Gospel of John.

Indications are that Pope Francis has a vision of religious reconciliation not limited to the three  Abrahamic faiths.   A video released by the Vatican on the Feast of Epiphany in January, for example, included not only a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim, but a Buddhist as well.  In the video, the speakers express a common belief in love.  Are we looking at a future world religion without any dogmas or doctrines,  a world religion whose adherents share only a common belief in love?  That’s what the Vatican video would seem to suggest.





Common Ground or Shaky Ground?

It’s the custom on January 1 to wish everyone from loved ones to complete strangers a “Happy New Year.”  I hate to be a pessimist but, despite all the well-wishing, I suspect 2016 is going to look an awful lot like the year that has just passed.  Tragically, a shooting at a bar in Tel Aviv supports my claim:  It’s only day one of the New Year, and already the murder of innocent victims has started.  A black-clad assailant with an assault rifle killed two people and wounded seven others at a birthday party celebration in a pub in Tel Aviv this afternoon.  (Israeli police as of yet are not calling it a terrorist attack.)

How to bring an end to the scourge of Islamic terrorism is one of the greatest challenges of our day.  Some, like Fr. Ronald Rolheiser OMI, believe that the solution lies in getting Muslims and Christians to recognize what they share in common.  In the 3 December 2015 issue of the Los Angeles diocesan online paper The Angelus, Fr. Rolheiser calls for “greater solidarity with Islam,” the reason being that “We are both part of the same family….” and for this reason “Muslims more than ever need our understanding, sympathy, support, and fellowship in faith [emphasis mine].”  In his article, Fr. Rolheiser expands on sentiments voiced by Pope Francis on his recent visit to the Central African Republic, where the pope referred to Christians and Muslims as “brothers and sisters.”  The basis for that kinship, Fr. Rolheiser and the pope would say, is their common belief in one Supreme Being and their shared Abrahamic ancestry.  Jews, thus, are their brothers and sisters as well.

The idea of shared common ground between the three monotheistic faiths has been taken to a whole new level by a Lutheran parish priest in Berlin.  In 2009, archaeological excavations on Berlin’s Museum Island unearthed the remains of the city’s earliest church, the Petrikirche (St. Peter’s Church), as well as a Latin school for educating priests, both dating from the 13th century.  Upon learning of this discovery, Lutheran pastor Gregor Hohberg came up with a novel idea:  Why not use this prominent site to build a house of worship in multicultural Berlin where adherents of all three monotheistic faiths could worship together as neighbours?  And thus was born the idea for ‘The House of One’, as it is to be called.  Pastor Hohberg has brought Rabbi Tovia ben Chorin and Imam Kadir Sanci on board.  Together, the three clerics have come to be known as the ‘Tolerance Trio’.

Work on this highly unusual house of worship is slated to begin this year.  Designed by German architect Wilfried Kuehn, the structure will house under the one roof a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, each of equal size but of different shape.  The House of One will have a common room at its centre where adherents of the three religions can meet for dialogue and social events.  Adherents must follow two ‘house rules’:  one, there must be no violence; and two, no proselytizing is allowed.  The project, which is expected to cost some 43.5 million euros, is being funded through crowdsourcing; a donation of 10 euros will purchase one brick.  You don’t have to be a member of one of the three religions in order to donate, either.  The House of One is expected to open in 2018.

Although Berlin’s House of One will be the first worship centre of its kind (if indeed it does get built), a somewhat similar project is underway in the very heart of the USA.  In what is known as the ‘Tri-Faith Initiative’, Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Omaha, Nebraska intend to build houses of worship on a common campus:  a 38-acre plot of land just outside Omaha.  A synagogue, a church and a mosque will be erected on three corners of the lot.  A building that provides social, educational, and conference facilities to be used by all three faiths will occupy the fourth corner.  Participating in the project are Temple Israel, Countryside Community United Church of Christ, and the American Muslim Institute.  A fourth partner is the Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha, a local organization whose purpose it is to “foster mutual understanding, respect, and friendship between the Abrahamic faiths.”

Rev. Elnes, the Christian partner in the project, calls the proposed campus an attempt to “wage peace between the Abrahamic faiths in the modern era by engaging not simply in interfaith dialogue–which is important–but by learning to live with each other despite our differences as people who worship and adore the same God.”  (I’m not so sure about that).  Like the prospective occupants of The House of One, Tri-Faith Initiative members hope to start building this year.

Will the creation of houses of worship on common ground bring peace between the Abrahamic faiths?  It’s true, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do share common ground, but the differences between them are profound.  The so-designated ‘Abrahamic faiths’, for starters, don’t even agree on the identity of Abraham.  Muslims look on Abraham as the first Muslim, a view both Jews and Christians reject.

From a Christian perspective, what is more likely to happen, I believe,  is a ‘watering down’ of core doctrines and beliefs for the sake of unity and out of a desire not to offend.  Indeed, we have recent evidence of this very thing from no less than the pope himself.  From the very beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has sought to bring Jews, Christians, and particularly Muslims together.  There are many examples of the pope’s reaching out to Jews and Muslims:  the prayer meeting in the Vatican garden where Jews and Muslims for the first time were invited to pray alongside Catholics is a prime example.  In another instance of reaching out:  on December 10, the papacy issued a document stating that the “Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”  What the document says, in essence, is that the Catholic church will no longer try to convert Jews.   Does this mean that Jews no longer have to believe that Jesus the Christ is their long-awaited mashiach or messiah  (‘Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew ‘messiah’)?  I am speechless, other than to say, expect more concessions on this scale, all in the name of achieving common ground.



Pope Francis: A Credible Voice on Climate Change?

Pope Francis’ recently-released encyclical on the environment (June 18) has been hailed by environmentalist David Suzuki as a “powerful, scientifically and morally valid call for radical change that will reach an audience far beyond the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.” Suzuki called the pope’s eco-encyclical “scientifically valid.”  There is solid science behind the pope’s document, claims Suzuki.

Three days after issuing his eco-encyclical, Pope Francis travelled to Turin, Italy where he paid a special visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in order to venerate the Shroud of Turin, the cloth in which Jesus allegedly was buried and which purportedly depicts an image of the crucified Christ from head to foot.  The pope sat before the dimly-lit display case containing the stained, rectangular length of cloth for several minutes, silent, head bowed, in what appeared to be a time of reflection and prayer.


Shroud of Turin (Wikimedia Commons / public domain)

What the pope did was to pay his respects to an object that science has ‘outed’ as a medieval forgery.  That the cloth in the display case is a fraud has been demonstrated in a number of ways (too many to describe in detail in this blog, so I will limit myself to a few of the most important ones).  In 1988, radiocarbon-dating tests were carried out on the cloth in three different labs:  in labs at the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.  All three labs radiocarbon dated the cloth to between 1260 and 1390.

These dates are significant, for the shroud surfaced in 1355, a time of relic frenzy in Europe.  Any abbey or cathedral that housed an important relic could count on attracting pilgrims, which in turn would greatly enhance that institution’s status and financial standing.  Consequently, there was an incentive to recover ‘relics’.  The shroud now housed in Turin turned up in the possession of a French soldier-of-fortune who, rather revealingly, wouldn’t tell how and where he got it.  And he wasn’t the only one to acquire Christ’s ‘burial garment’, for it seems there were at least 26 to 40 burial shrouds to be found in Europe’s ecclesiastical institutions.  Significantly, a medieval pope himself rejected claims made concerning the Shroud of Turin:  in 1390, Pope Clement VII declared that the Shroud of Turin should not be said to be the true burial cloth of Jesus.

The object of veneration on display in Turin’s cathedral, moreover, is not woven in a style typical of 1st century cloth.  In 2009, a shroud was recovered from the 1st century AD tomb of a Jewish priest in Jerusalem.  The shroud retrieved from that tomb shows that the style of weaving at that time was primitive.  The Shroud of Turin is too intricately woven to be a genuine 1st century artefact.

Furthermore, Jesus’ dead body–according to the biblical record–wasn’t wrapped in one long piece of cloth but in multiple cloths.  Jesus was buried according to Jewish custom of the time.  His corpse was wrapped in “linen wrappings” and a “face cloth” was placed on his head (Luke 24:12; John 19:40; 20:3-7 NASV).  John’s description of Lazarus’ emergence from the tomb is instructive:  “The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth…” (11:40).  The idea that Jesus was buried in one rectangular piece of cloth 4.47 meters long by 1.13 meters wide doesn’t ‘square’ with Jewish burial practices at the time or with the biblical account of his burial.

Pope Francis undoubtedly knows what  investigation has revealed about the Shroud of Turin.  Recent popes, however–unlike Pope clement VII–won’t take a stand regarding its authenticity.  They won’t call it a relic, but neither will they reject it as a fake.  Instead, they choose to label the cloth “an icon that inspires.”  When Pope Benedict XVI viewed the cloth in 2010, he spoke of it as an “icon of Holy Saturday.”  The current pope, after spending several minutes in silence and contemplation, called it “an icon of Christ’s great love for humankind.”  I can’t help but wonder:  How exactly does a fraudulent relic call to mind Christ’s great love for us?

It would seem that the pope places importance on scientific facts when they help to promote a cause, i.e., combatting climate change, yet on other occasions can ignore them i.e., Shroud of Turin.  In his “scientifically valid” eco-encyclical, the pope calls on not just Catholics, but people of all religions to come together to promote an “integral ecology.”  Human activity is responsible for global warming, he claims in his document.  But the science of climate change is not settled.  Certainly, the planet is heating up, and the weather is doing wacky things.  I’m not convinced, however, that the rising temperatures are wholly due–or even partially due–to human activity.  And the pope–given his inconsistent acknowledgment of scientific facts–will have a hard time convincing me.

Pope Francis Faces Mecca

When Jorge Bergoglio became pope in March 2013, he took the name ‘Francis’. Asked why he chose the name–the first pope to do so–the Argentine bishop replied that he adopted the name out of his great admiration for Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). A lover of nature; a simple, humble monk who lived a life of poverty–is how Francis of Assisi is remembered today. Since assuming office, Pope Francis–like his medieval namesake–has demonstrated a humility and simple lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to that of previous popes. A lesser known fact about Francis of Assisi is his outreach to the Muslim world. In 1219, at the time of the Fifth Crusade, Francis of Assisi travelled to Egypt, crossed over into the Muslim enemy camp, and spent the next three weeks in the company of the sultan. No one knows what transpired between the sultan and Francis during this time. In my 1 April 2013 blog, I suggested that Pope Francis might emulate Francis of Assisi by reaching out to the Muslim world as well. And he has.

Pope Francis has just returned from a three-day visit to Turkey, a country with a Muslim majority of 98% and about 35,000 Roman Catholic Christians out of a population of 75 million. The pontiff’s trip began in controversy when the ‘humble’ pope became the first foreign dignitary to be a guest of Turkish President Erdogan at his new $615 million, 1000-room palace in Ankara–the largest presidential palace in the world and 30 times larger in size than the American White House. (A reprise of the ‘saint meets the sultan’, perhaps?) Environmental concerns and a court injunction to stop the work were ignored by the increasingly autocratic Erdogan. Those who felt uncomfortable with the pope’s visit to Erdogan’s illicit palace were told it was a matter of good etiquette. “Like any polite person, the pope will go to the place where the president wishes to receive him,” was the response from the Vatican.

Controversy arose again the following day in Istanbul when Pope Francis toured the Blue Mosque and stopped to pray alongside Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran. It was the pope’s idea for the two of them to stop and pray, reportedly. (I had the good fortune of being able to tour the magnificent Blue Mosque when I was in Turkey nine years ago. The picture of the Blue Mosque below is taken from a postcard I bought in Istanbul at the time.)

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603-17) who wanted to erect a mosque to rival the beauty and majesty of the nearby Hagia Sophia, Christendom’s largest and finest cathedral for over a thousand years. The mosque takes its name from the tens of thousands of blue tiles used to construct its interior.

At one point during their tour of the Blue Mosque, the grand mufti and the pope, turning towards Mecca, stopped to pray. Hands extended in the Muslim way, the grand mufti said a Muslim prayer. Hands clasped in front of him, Pope Francis stood beside him, silent, head bowed. (The pope looked very much the junior partner of the two, I thought.) Lest the Catholic pope’s actions be construed as praying to the Muslim Allah, the Vatican hastily labelled the pope’s gesture “a moment of silent adoration of God.”

Many view the pope’s “gesture” as nothing more than a demonstration of inter-religious harmony and wonder who could possibly take issue with it. Other see it–and I include myself–as yet another instance of inter-religious outreach going in the same direction. I don’t recall hearing that the grand mufti later accompanied the pope to Istanbul’s Catholic Cathedral where the two of them prayed together.

Is inter-religious outreach accomplishing what it is intended to do, that is, create religious harmony between people? Anyone watching the daily news knows that’s not happening. The place where inter-religious dialogue is having a visible impact is, ironically, in the Church. Churches are inviting Muslims to address their synods, to preach from their pulpits, to pray on prayer rugs in their church hallways. This past June, Allah was invoked for the very first time at the Vatican in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica, well away from any Christian iconography such as crosses. Inter-religious outreach is changing the Church, not the Muslim world. And the changes underway have only just begun, I suspect.

Prayer Rugs in the Cathedral

National Cathedral

It is 2:30 p.m., 14 November in Washington DC as I begin to write this blog and “America’s church,” the Washington National Cathedral, has just witnessed its first ever Muslim Friday prayer service. Muslim Friday prayers or jumu’ah prayers were held today in the north transept of the cathedral, chosen as an appropriate space for Muslim prayer because of its absence of Christian iconography, its mosque-like architecture, and for providing the necessary orientation in the direction of Mecca. One hundred invited Muslim guests came to pray (along with a lone, uninvited female Christian protester who was quickly hustled out).

Holding Muslim Friday prayers within the very walls of America’s national cathedral was the brainchild of the cathedral’s liturgical director Rev. Canon Gina Campbell and South Africa’s ambassador to the US Ebrahim Rasool. The two became friends when they worked together on a memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela. Muslims had participated in interfaith services at the cathedral prior to this time, but holding a Muslim-conducted, Muslim prayer service would be a first. In the minds of the two planners, allowing Muslims to hold Friday prayers in the US national cathedral would, hopefully, “foster more understanding and acceptance between Christians and Muslims around the world.” Ambassador Rasool describes today’s prayer service as ” a dramatic moment in the world and in Muslim-Christian relations.”

It is a “dramatic moment in the world,” I agree, but my reasons for thinking so are probably not the same as Rasool’s. Holding Muslim Friday prayers in America’s national cathedral is so misguided in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, many people–Americans included–do not know that the Washington National Cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral, namely, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington. (I encountered one such uninformed American only this evening.) The cathedral is the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington DC, Mariann Edgar Budde. The cathedral has functioned as the nation’s premier church since 1893 when Congress granted a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia to build the “great church for national purposes” envisioned in 1792 by the country’s founders. The worship services at the cathedral follow Episcopal belief and practice, and are based on The Book of Common Prayer (many no doubt would dispute this claim, especially after today).

The Muslim guests were welcomed to today’s prayer service by Rev. Canon Campbell who challenged the participants with the exhortation, “Let us stretch our hearts and let us seek to deepen mercy for we worship the same God.” According to Campbell, they were to “stretch [their] hearts” (whatever that means) because they worship the same God as the Rev. Canon Campbell. Allah and the Christian God are not the same God, however. The differences between them are profound (and a topic for a whole other blog.) The major differences, in short, are: Allah is one; the Christian God is triune, Father-Son-Holy Spirit. The apostle John says that God is love. Allah is never described thus. The Muslim Jesus is one in a line of 28 prophets of Allah and has been superseded by Muhammad, the last and greatest prophet. The Christian Jesus is not a mere prophet but the Son of God, God Incarnate. The Muslim Jesus did not die on the cross; he only appeared to. The Christian Jesus predicted his coming death on many occasions. To believe that Allah and the Christian God are the same God, you have to ignore everything said about Allah in the Qur’an.

The webpage of the Washington National Cathedral states that the cathedral is called to “serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” To invite Muslims into America’s “spiritual home” to pray is ecumenical outreach at the highest level. You would think that such a gesture would be reciprocated. Not surprisingly, there has been no announcement of an upcoming Christian prayer service in some grand mosque somewhere in the Muslim world, like the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As usual, ecumenical outreach seems to move in only one direction.

Another troubling aspect of this ecumenical outreach is the list of sponsors. When you look at the backers of today’s prayer service, you see the names CAIR and ISNA, two groups accused of providing assistance to terrorist groups. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) were declared by a federal court to be unindicted co-conspirators of the terrorist organization HAMAS. What do such groups hope to gain by promoting Muslim prayer in a cathedral, you have to ask.

Rasool describes today’s Muslim prayer service as “a dramatic moment for the world and for Muslim-Christian relations.” He’s forgotten about an earlier event–and an equally dramatic event, I would say–staged this past June in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica. Like the north transept of the cathedral, the papal gardens were chosen for their lack of Christian iconography. At the invitation of Pope Francis, Muslims joined Jews and Christians in the papal gardens for a papal prayer summit, each praying “in their own tradition.”

We know what Rev. Canon Campbell and Ambassador Rasool hope to accomplish by such magnanimous gestures. But what do those Muslims who participate hope to gain? Devout Muslims who yearn to see the “true religion” established worldwide cannot help but be encouraged when they hear Allah’s name invoked in the national cathedral of the world’s foremost Christian nation, the USA. A troubling scenario: According to jihadist doctrine, if a place of worship is used by Muslims for their prayers, that territory subsequently becomes sacred Muslim land. That’s an outcome that Rev. Gina Campbell has not likely considered.

Ending the Persecution of Iraq’s Religious Minorities

Social media has been the source of two particularly gruesome photos of late: A recent photo posted on the Twitter account of the Australian-born jihadi Khaled Sharrouf showed Sharrouf’s 7-year-old son holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier. The caption read, ‘That’s my boy’. The photo was taken in Raqqa, the Syrian city that now functions as the capital of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). A few days later, the British rapper-turned-jihadi Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, age 23–not to be outdone by the Aussie father and son duo–posted a photo of himself on Twitter posing with a decapitated head, with the caption ‘Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him’. Like the Sharrouf photo, it was taken in the central square of Raqqa. Both Sharrouf and Bary are IS fighters. It has been deeply disturbing to learn that Western-raised individuals who tweet can also decapitate their fellow human beings and then proudly display their ‘trophy’ heads, behaving–despite their tech-savvy–like Stone Age head hunters at the dawn of history.

It is the goal of IS, in fact, to ‘turn back the clock’, back to the early days of the Islamic Caliphate. In the self-described caliphate (and an ever-expanding caliphate) that IS has carved out for itself in Syria and Iraq, there is no place for Christians or other religious minorities: This, despite the fact that the church predates Islam in Iraq by six centuries. Iraqi Christians believe the Iraqi church was founded by the Apostle Thomas. After coming into contact with Catholic missionaries in the 16th century, the Iraqi church sought communion with the Roman Catholic Church, an affiliation which continues to this day. The majority of Christians in Iraq today (or what’s left of them) are members of this Rome-affiliated Chaldean Catholic church. Before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians in the country; today there are only 350,000 – 450,000.

When IS conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the terrorist group ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax imposed on non-Muslims, or be put to death. There are no Christians in Mosul today. Many have fled to the Kurdish region in the north. Those who resisted IS were subjected to beheadings, crucifixions, abduction, rape, forced marriage, sex-slavery–brutality of the worst kind. The crosses on churches were torn down and replaced with black IS flags. The Arabic letter for ‘n’, nasarah or Nazarene, was put on the homes of Christians, marking them out for persecution. In the last few days, the eyes of the international community have been focused on the Yazidis, another persecuted religious minority in Iraq. Today, reports have come of the massacre of 80 Yazidi men who refused to convert to Islam.

As we look at the atrocities taking place in Iraq, the question facing us in the West is: How do we respond? Unlike previous generations, because of social media we will never be able to plead ignorance. Outraged at what is happening to the Chaldean Christians and other minorities, Pope Francis has roundly condemned the persecution. He has sent Cardinal Filoni to Erbil in the Kurdish region where many Christians have taken refuge, to study the needs of all the displaced minorities and come up with solutions for their housing and education. The Pope has accepted the need for military action to halt IS. Air strikes by the US have slowed, but not stopped, IS’ advance. Under pressure from the US, Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Maliki has agreed to step down and to be replaced by Haider al-Abadi, perceived by the US as more moderate than Maliki and as someone who will rebuild trust between the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and the country’s Kurds and Sunnis.

Papal condemnation, bombings, changing the prime minister: Will these measures stop IS? I don’t believe so. On August 12, the Vatican department in charge of inter-religious dialogue called on “religious leaders, and above all Muslim religious leaders, all people of good will” to unambiguously denounce the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. I agree with the Pope: The solution to the scourge that is IS resides ultimately with Islam’s religious leaders. IS fighters believe they are carrying out Allah’s will and validate their actions based on texts in the Qur’an like the following:

The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land…(5:33).

What is a Muslim living in the 21st century to make of a 7th century text such as this? Is it to be carried out literally? No one in the civilized world believes it is acceptable to crucify an opponent, or to convert someone at the point of a sword, or to kidnap a man’s wife or daughter and turn her into a sex-slave. Muslim apologists keep telling us that the concept of jihad has been misappropriated, that jihad refers to an ‘inner struggle’. If this is the case, then it is up to each and every Muslim religious leader to stress this non-violet form of jihad and at the same time to unambiguously denounce all acts of violence and all forms of persecution perpetrated by jihadis against non-Muslims.

Will this happen? There are obstacles that make this unlikely. For one thing, the Qur’an is regarded as Allah’s very words and therefore not open to criticism or reinterpretation. Another thing: There is no supreme authority or spokesman in Islam, no Muslim ‘Pope’. It is therefore incumbent upon individual Muslim leaders throughout the Muslim world to speak up. Have we heard anything yet from those Muslims leaders who attended the Pope’s prayer summit in the Vatican garden back in May? Just wondering.

The Pope and the Palestinian Jesus

Pope Francis’ trip to the Holy Land is now history. The general consensus among Vatican observers and political pundits is that nothing of great significance was achieved during the Pope’s three-day visit to the region. There was no breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations. That was to have been expected for, as the Pope made clear beforehand, the purpose for his visit was a purely religious one: He wanted to meet with Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, in the Holy Land as part of a healing process to bring the 1,000-year-old rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches to an end. Pope Francis may have wanted his visit to be a purely religious one but it could hardly remain thus, when Jesus Himself has been turned into a political weapon in the region.

One of the first things Pope Francis would have encountered as he arrived in Bethlehem last Sunday was an art exhibit set up in Manger Square. In preparation for the Pope’s visit, the Palestinian Presidential Committee of Higher Affairs had commissioned an open-air exhibition of paintings of biblical scenes by European Masters. As he entered Manger Square, the Pope would have seen reproductions of some of Europe’s greatest religious artworks–doctored reproductions of some of Europe’s greatest religious artworks! One of the reproductions that no doubt caught the Pope’s attention was that of Raphael’s 1507 Masterpiece, “The Deposition.” In the reproduction, the upper half of the body of Jesus is as it was painted 500 years ago; the bottom half of Jesus’ body is now that of an injured youth wearing blue jeans. Near the body, an Israeli soldier looks on. Other art reproductions have been similarly altered with one purpose in mind: to demonize the Israeli ‘occupier’. The organizers of the art exhibit were totally candid about the reason for the art exhibit: The art for the papal visit was commissioned to “highlight Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation and oppression.” I wonder what Pope Francis’ response was to this unapologetic appropriation of some of Christendom’s finest religious art for political purposes. Did the Pope, or anyone in his entourage, raise objections at the time, or even later?

Deeply troubling though it be, the hijacking of Western Christendom’s religious art shouldn’t come as a surprise since, like the doctored reproductions in Manger Square, Jesus–the Jew from Judea–has himself been radically altered for political purposes. In his 2013 Christmas message, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas engaged in the most outrageous sort of historical revisionism by claiming that Jesus was a Palestinian. Abbas stated that “In Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born–a Palestinian who brought the gospel and became a guide for millions worldwide, just as we, the Palestinians, are fighting for our freedom 2,000 years later. We try to walk in his footsteps to the extent possible.”

Abbas was derided at the time for making such a claim and yet, amazingly, this notion of Jesus as some kind of ‘Palestinian martyr’ has been gaining traction. The biennial Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences hosted by Bethlehem Bible College–a religious institution which describes itself as “evangelical”–have been drawing increasing numbers. The 2014 conference, the largest yet, was attended by 700 Christians from diverse countries. As the very name of the conference implies–Christ at the Checkpoint–participants are encouraged to think of Jesus as a Palestinian harassed–or even worse–by his Israeli oppressors, just as Jesus suffered under Roman oppressors 2,000 years ago.

It may have been his intention to restrict himself solely to religious matters on his visit, but then, Pope Francis suddenly and inexplicably went ‘off script’ in Bethlehem last Sunday. In what was later said to be a totally spontaneous move, the Pope went up to the protective security barrier erected by the Israelis in Bethlehem, touched it, and proceeded to pray. He stood, praying, under graffiti that read, “Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look [sic] like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine.” Unwittingly and unintentionally (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt), Pope Francis allowed himself to become a political tool in the hands of the Palestinians. What did the Pope pray about at the security barrier? Did he thank God for saving the lives of innocent Israelis from suicide bombers? Did he ask God to bring an end to the situation that made the security barrier necessary in the first place? Did he not realize that some might view his actions at the security barrier that day as a mocking parody of observant Jews praying at the Western Wall?

On June 8, Pope Francis is going to hold a special “prayer session” at the Vatican. He has invited PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him, and they have accepted. The Pope has said he doesn’t want to negotiate anything with the Arab and Israeli leaders, just pray together, the three of them. If Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ–that is, the one who speaks and acts on earth in place of Christ–as Catholics believe he does, it seems to me that the upcoming pray meeting would be an appropriate time for Pope Francis to re-acquaint Abbas with the Jewish Jesus.