The Pope’s Politics vs. Trump’s Christianity

The spat between His Holiness Pope Francis and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump appears to have ended. The unholy brouhaha began when Trump, speaking on Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.”, called the pontiff “a very political person” who didn’t understand the dangers an open border with Mexico posed to the US.  “I think Mexico got him to do it,” claimed Trump, “because they want to keep the border just the way it is.”

The pope pushed back by calling Trump’s profession of Christian faith into question, averring that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.”  Trump, in turn, called the pope’s questioning of his faith “disgraceful.”  Realizing that a fight with the pope would not likely endear him to Catholic voters, Trump has since assured everyone that he actually has great respect for the pope.

Pope Francis, to quote ‘the Donald’, is “a very political person.”   Just how political is the pontiff?   On the last night of his visit to Mexico, the pope, hoping to influence the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election (what other explanation could there be?)  turned the celebration of the Catholic Mass into a piece of political theatre.  On the evening of 17 February, the pope, accompanied by some 200,000 people, gathered on the southern shore of the Rio Grande River across from the city of El Paso, Texas, for an open-air mass.  On the US side of the river stood about four hundred or so.  During the ceremony on the Mexican side, the pope laid flowers on a memorial dedicated to those who had perished trying to reach the US.  He lamented “the forced migration” of thousands of Central Americans. As the pope well knows, what to do about the US-Mexican border is a huge issue in the 2016 election.  Deliberately injecting himself into the debate as he has done, the pope made it clear where he stands.

How political is the pope?   In 2014, the pope wrote a letter to Pres. Obama, urging the president to pursue a closer relationship with Cuba and to ease the trade restrictions imposed on the island by the US after Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution.  Pope Francis, who acted as mediator between the US and Cuba throughout 18 months of secret negotiations, can be credited with the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.  (Interestingly, the Holy See never broke off relations with Cuba even after Castro imprisoned or exiled the priests and confiscated all Catholic property on the island.) In protesting the economic embargo imposed by the US, the Cuban people knew they had an ally in the Vatican, which had always objected to the embargo on the grounds that impacted most adversely Cuba’s poor.

Overcome with gratitude for the economic lifeline Pope Francis has thrown him,  Raul Castro gushed on a recent visit to the Vatican:  “If the pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic church–and I’m not saying this jokingly.”  A new Catholic Church is slated to be built on the island at Sandino, the first one since the 1959 Revolution. Strangely enough, since the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US, the number of imprisoned dissidents has reached the highest level in five years.

How political is the pope?  Probably the pope’s greatest political achievement since assuming St. Peter’s Throne  has been the historic meeting between him and His Holiness  Patriarch Kirill, head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, which took place on 12 February at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba.  This was the first meeting between a Catholic pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism of 1054. This was not a political meeting, however, the pope claimed:  the purpose of the meeting was for the two branches of the church to deal jointly with the dire problem of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.   The pope might have not regarded their meeting as political, but it was nevertheless.

patriarch-kirill-and-pope-francis-600x389[2].jpg

Photo from Asia News .it  01/27/2016

The meeting could never have taken place if Russian President Putin had not first given the patriarch the ‘green light’ to attend.  His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, the first patriarch since the breakup of the USSR, is closer to the Kremlin than any of his predecessors, even to calling Putin a “miracle from God.”  [I wrote about the unusually close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church in a previous blog (2 January 2015).] The pope’s meeting with the saintly-looking Russian patriarch (rumoured to be, like Putin, a former KGB officer) helped to restore–somewhat–the image of Putin’s Russia in the West.

Trump was correct when he called Pope Francis a very political person.  How does one account for the pope’s political activism?  The answer is:  Latin American liberation theology aka ‘Christian’ Marxism.  Liberation theology puts social action on an equal footing with the gospel message.  In the eyes of the Argentine pope, someone who would build a wall to keep migrants out is not a Christian.

Is Trump a Christian?  When it comes to determining who is or is not a Christian, it is not our place to judge, but, as the saying goes, that doesn’t mean we can’t be ‘fruit inspectors’.

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.

SINDONE

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, ‘Palestine’, and the ‘Angel of Peace’

The news that Pope Francis is getting set to officially recognize the ‘State of Palestine’ has left Israelis along with many supporters of the Jewish state disappointed and angry.  That the Vatican was moving in this direction has been apparent for some time, however.  In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to recognize ‘Palestine’ as a ‘non-member observer state’.  (The only other state granted this status is the Vatican City.)  Ever since then, the Vatican has referred to the ‘state of Palestine’ in all its communications.  During his visit to Israel last year, Pope Francis referred to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as the leader of the ‘state of Palestine’.

The agreement that the Vatican intends to sign with the non-existent ‘state of Palestine’ covers the activities and the legal status of the Catholic Church in the West Bank and Gaza.  (Arab Christians make up 10 % of the population of the West Bank.)  When signed, the accord will essentially recognize Gaza and the West Bank as a country of its own.

Am I surprised that the pope intends to recognize ‘Palestine’?  No, in part because I have just finished reading David Kertzer’s latest work, The Pope and Mussolini:  The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for biography-autobiography.  (This is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it.)  Drawing on material in the Vatican archives formerly unavailable to researchers, Kertzer provides fresh insights into the collaboration that occurred between pope and Fascist dictator in the 1920s and 1930s:  a collaboration which led, among others things, to the founding of the nation-state known as Vatican City.  The Vatican, understandably, avoids drawing attention to the part played by Benito Mussolini in the creation of its nation-state.

Collaboration with Mussolini was the price Pope Pius XI was willing to pay in order to regain the power and prestige lost by the Catholic Church when Italy became a unified kingdom.  In 1871, at the time of unification, the so-called ‘papal states’ were swallowed up and incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy. For the next 58 years a succession of popes, incensed at the loss of their territory and thus their power base, refused to recognize a united Italy.  Things changed in 1929, however, when Mussolini indicated a willingness to cut a deal with the papacy.  On February 11, the Italian state and the Holy See (the Vatican’s ecclesiastical designation) signed the Lateran Accords.  The accords consisted of three parts:  a political treaty, a financial convention, and a concordat.  The political treaty ceded territory to the papacy for its own sovereign state to be known  as the Vatican City.  The financial convention awarded substantial financial reparations to the Vatican.  And the concordat granted the Roman Catholic church extensive rights and exclusive privileges.  Roman Catholicism, for instance, was declared the sole religion of Italy.  The accords were signed by Mussolini himself on behalf of the Kingdom of Italy.

vatican-173335_640

(Photo courtesy Pikabay)

The Vatican City is the world’s smallest nation-state.  It is also called the Holy See, which is its ecclesiastical designation; Vatican City is its political and diplomatic designation. Its area is .44 sq. km.  As of July 2014, its population was 842.  Its form of government is an absolute monarchy, with the pope holding all legislative, executive, and judicial power.

The signing of the Lateran Accords made news worldwide at the time.  An article in the Tuesday, February 12, 1929 edition of The New York Times noted how

[t]he Pope is again an independent sovereign ruler, as he was throughout the Middle Ages, though his temporal realm, established today, is the most microscopic independent State in the world and probably the smallest in all history.

An elated Pope Pius XI, who regarded Mussolini as heaven-sent, gushed,

“The times called for a man such as he whom Providence has ordained that We should meet….It is with profound satisfaction that We express the belief that We have given God to Italy and Italy to God.”

Little did the pope suspect that he had just handed Italy over to another god:  the god of war.

What did Mussolini gain from cutting a deal with the Vatican?  Il Duce (‘the leader’ in Italian) gained the support of a grateful Catholic Church, support which in turn granted the Fascist regime newfound respect and legitimacy.  In 1920s Italy, one could be both a good Catholic and a committed Fascist member at one and the same time, it was believed.  Only later, as Mussolini’s Italy began increasingly to resemble its ally Nazi Germany, did Pope Pius XI develop grave reservations about his support for Il Duce.  Unfortunately, the pope died before he could undo any of the damage.

I believe that Pope Francis is about to make an equally grievous misjudgment.  The pontiff is going to recognize as a nation-state a place which provides a safe base from which to stage terrorist attacks on innocent victims; a place where those who murder and maim Jews are called “heroes” and “martyrs”; a place where children are taught in their textbooks and schools and at their summer camps to hate Jews; a place where youth are told they will one day conquer and reoccupy the whole of Israel; a place where parks and stadiums are named in honour of suicide-murderers.  And this is only the West Bank!

Today, the pope held a private audience with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (a president whose term of office expired a number of years ago, incidentally).  As is customary at the end of an audience such as this, the two exchanged gifts.  Abbas gave the pope relics of the two Arab nuns from Ottoman-era Palestine who are to be canonized by the Catholic Church tomorrow.  The pope, in his turn, gave Abbas a medallion that represented the angel of peace destroying the bad spirit of war.  As he handed him the medallion, the pope reportedly told Abbas the gift was appropriate because he, Abbas, was “an angel of peace.”

But correctly identifying angels can be a tricky business, the pope must know.  As Scripture tells us, even Satan himself may appear as an “angel of light.”

Could You Be an Extremist?

Another battle has been raging alongside the vicious terrorist attacks: a war of words over what to call those who carry out these heinous acts. Watching TV news this morning I heard the killers variously described as “Islamist militants,” “radical Islamists,” “jihadists,” “Islamic terrorists,” “terrorists,” and “violent extremists.” The Obama administration refers to them exclusively now as “violent extremists.” And the Global War on Terror launched under the previous administration has been relabelled Countering Violent Extremism.

In refusing to say the I-word in any discussion of terrorism, President Obama is joined by Pope Francis. In his annual foreign policy address to diplomats at the Holy See this past Monday, the pope avoided any word that might connect the Paris attacks with Islam. He chose generic language that could apply to any religion or any religious group (in his mind, anyway). “Religious fundamentalism” was behind the atrocities, he claimed. The murderers were enslaved by “deviant forms of religion.” He called for a unanimous response from the international community to put an end to “fundamentalist terrorism” and urged Muslim leaders, in particular, to condemn “extremist interpretations of their faith that seek to justify such violence.”

Why are the American president and the pope avoiding the I-word? I’m not sure about President Obama. Maybe it has something to do with his having a Muslim father and stepfather; or maybe it has to do with his school days in Muslim-majority Indonesia. Or maybe there’s something else going on. As for the pope: When Pope Francis assumed the papacy in March 2013, he made it clear that one of the priorities of his pontificate would be outreach to the Muslim world. This explains, I believe, the would-be Bridgbuilder’s refusal to do or say anything that might upset Muslims.

On his way home from Turkey last year, the Pontifex is reported to have said, “We have our share of them [fundamentalists]. All religions have these little groups.” Unbelievably, the one whom Catholics regard as Christ’s Vice-Regent on earth equated Christian fundamentalists with Islamic terrorists! And, as for “little groups”? Intelligence and security analysts believe there are up to 5,000 jihadis in Europe.

En route to the Philippines on Friday, the pope condemned killing in the name of religion, calling it an “aberration” (that’s putting it mildly). He then went on to suggest that there should be limits on free speech, saying things like “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Furthermore, he claimed that “each person not only has the freedom, but also the obligation to say what he thinks in the name of the common good.”

Ahh, and who determines what constitutes ‘the common good’? Who gets to define ‘extremism’? Extremism is a very subjective concept. One definition is, ‘belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable’. How far is ‘very far’? In the last while I have noted a disturbing trend in some of the articles I read, where terms like ‘extremist’ and ‘religious fundamentalist’ were used interchangeably. If you hold to the fundamentals of the Christian faith–the true definition of a Christian fundamentalist–are you then an extremist?

The recent case of a Christian Colorado baker is an unsettling one. In 2012, two gay men approached Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop to bake the wedding cake for their same-sex marriage. Because of his Christian beliefs, the baker turned them down. They filed a complaint against him, and won. A Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner called the baker’s decision to invoke religious freedom rights to refuse to bake a pro-gay marriage cake comparable to slavery and the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In the commissioner’s view, the baker was an extremist of the worst kind.

Can the West defeat an enemy it refuses to name? When the Kouachi brothers had finished their killing spree in Paris, they loudly proclaimed that they had “avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” The American president and the Catholic pope may refuse to acknowledge the Islamic connection to terrorism but, thankfully, there are men like General El-Sisi of Egypt, a Muslim, who recently called on Muslim clerics to revolutionize Islam. The root cause of the scourge of worldwide terrorism is the ideology of violent jihad , period. Obscuring this reality by blaming something called ‘violent extremism’ will not put an end to the vile phenomenon. Linking jihad with ‘extremism’, moreover, poses a threat to those who don’t go along with Western society’s rapidly changing notions of what’s correct or reasonable.

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.