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.


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.




What Does Pope Francis Really Believe about Marriage?

Almost five hundred years have passed since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.  His action on All Saints’ Eve in 1517 set in motion a revolutionary chain reaction that would bring about the Reformation.  Luther’s 95 Theses were his response to the behaviour of a certain Dominican friar by the name of Johann Tetzel, a preacher/salesman who was shamelessly peddling indulgences–for a price–near Wittenberg.  (An indulgence is a grant by the pope for the remission of some or all temporal punishment in purgatory normally obtained through fasting, prayers, pilgrimages, or good deeds.)  Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz had obtained permission from Pope Leo X to conduct the sale of a special indulgence, with half of the proceeds from the sale going to the cardinal himself and half to the pope for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Tetzel depicted purgatory in such lurid terms that terrified folk willingly purchased the worthless pieces of paper.  Who wouldn’t free a dear departed friend or relative from the horrors of purgatory if all it took were some coins, albeit  hard-earned coins?  Tetzel is said to have used this little jingle as part of his sales pitch:

“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Enlightened citizens of the twenty-first century, we look back on Tetzel’s superstitious victims with pity.  Hearing about Bob Brady’s recent antics, however, I’m convinced that people today–at least, some of them–aren’t all that more enlightened than those who lived in Tetzel’s time.  After Pope Francis finished his address to the US Congress on September 24, Brady quickly made his way to the rostrum and snatched the pope’s water glass from which the pontiff had taken three sips in the course of his speech.  Brady hurriedly carried it to his office where he sipped a little and then passed it to his wife to do the same.  He then invited Senator Bob Casey, also a Catholic, into his office to view the precious liquid.  Casey brought along his wife and mother, and the three of them proceeded to dip their fingers into the water.  Brady then poured the remaining water into a bottle with the intention of sprinkling it on his grandchildren and one great-grandchild.  Brady is convinced that what he drank was holy water.  “I’m sure it’s blessed if the Pope drank out of it,” he explained. I can only imagine what Luther, known for his ‘earthy’ language, would have had to say about Brady’s ‘holy water.’


Pope Francis

Image:  Courtesy Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty Images

Two and half years into his papacy, Pope Francis has come to be admired, not just by devout Catholics but by people of all religious stripes, or even no religion at all.  (Although I doubt many of his  admirers would go so far as to drink his ‘backwash’ as Brady did.)  Pope Francis has become ‘the people’s pope’–everybody’s pope.

How did a Catholic pope get to be a ‘religious rock star’?  The source of his popularity is to be found in his welcoming attitude to gays and lesbians.  In July 2013, three months into his papacy, Pope Francis said this:

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

And two months later, he commented:

“…when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?  We must always consider the person.  Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.”

(Interestingly, both times the pope frames his response as a question.  In doing this, the pope never actually commits himself one way or the other.)  Gay activists and their supporters, along with those who think of themselves as ‘progressives’, were elated at the pope’s non-judgmental attitude.  Here was a pope the LGBT community and progressives  could embrace.  And embrace him they have:  the best-known LGBT magazine in the US, The Advocate , named Pope Francis its 2013 ‘Person of the Year’.  An adoring main stream media has played its part in popularizing this pope.  CNN’s reporting of the pope’s recent visit to the US is a case in point.  The pope’s visit received coverage the likes of which I have never seen before, surpassing any given to royalty or a rock star.

The pope was barely back in Rome, however, when it was learned that he had held a private meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who spent five days in jail for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licences.  Like a betrayed lover, the pope’s progressive admirers were furious and demanded to know how the pope could meet with a “bigot” and “hater” like Kim Davis.  The only explanation:  The pope must have been poorly briefed as to her identity; or, he must have been tricked somehow into meeting with her.

The Vatican’s response to the revelation of this meeting has been shameful.  First, the Vatican would neither confirm nor deny the meeting took place.  Then, they acknowledged that the meeting had indeed taken place, but it was not private.  Their final strategy was to downplay the significance of the meeting altogether, stating that the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis should not be taken as an endorsement of her position.  The pope, they claimed, had held only one private audience while in Washington, and that audience took place the day before the Davis meeting when the pontiff met with former student Yayo Grassi, an openly gay Argentine, who was accompanied to the papal audience by his boyfriend. (All this denial, dissembling, and distancing by the Vatican, when the current Catholic Church’s current position on same-sex marriage is no different from that of Kim Davis’s.)

I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church.  Neither am I a particular admirer of Pope Francis.  Yes, he is a humble man, and yes, he is concerned with the poor–all very laudable.  But what does it say about a man who is regarded as the vicar of Christ by Catholics, yet won’t defend a fellow Christian unashamedly and unequivocally for her opposition to same-sex marriage, based on her Christian faith?  Pope Francis’ priority, it would appear, is not to alienate his LGBT and progressive supporters.

Events this morning may force the pope to take a stand, however.  Polish Catholic theologian Monsignor Krzystaf Charamsa, accompanied by his Spanish boyfriend, ‘came out’.  For the past twelve years Charamsa has been a mid-level theologian operating within the Vatican, involved with the defence and promotion of Catholic doctrine, all the while involved in a same-sex relationship.  Charamsa claims the majority of Catholic clergy are gay and  has issued a 10-point manifesto to the pope, calling on him to revise Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.  I, for one, am waiting for the pope’s response.

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.


(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.”

Can We Finally All say “Armenian Genocide”?

So now the Catholic pope is an Islamophobe, too! How exactly did he demonstrate an excessive and unreasonable fear of Muslims, which is supposedly what Islamophia is all about?  And just when did the Pontiff acquire this mental condition?  After all, isn’t this the same pope who prayed alongside Turkey’s Grand Mufti inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul mere months ago?

Pope Francis’ offence was to call the 1915 mass killing of 1.5 million Armenian Christians a “genocide,” the first pope ever to do so.  A few days later, the EU followed suit.  Turkey, of course, continues to deny the existence of any organized campaign  to wipe out the country’s Christian Armenian population.  The hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians who died a century ago were the unfortunate victims of warfare and famine, Turkey insists.

No one expected Turkey’s leaders to react well to the Pope’s recent statement, but who would have predicted verbal attacks on the character of the Pope himself?  The Turkish government recalled its ambassador from Rome, and the Vatican envoy was summoned to Ankara where he was informed that the Turkish government was “disappointed and saddened” by the Pope’s statement.  Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu said the Pope’s comments were “not fitting of the Pope.”  Turkey’s Foreign Minister Cavusoglu accused the Pope of stoking hatred:  “The Pope’s declaration, divorced from historical and legal facts, is unacceptable.  Religious posts are not positions to stoke hatred and grudges on baseless claims.”  Mehmet Gormez, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, the highest religious authority in Turkey, called the Pope’s statement “immoral” and irreconcilable “with basic Christian values.”  Gormez believes the Pope chose the word ‘genocide’ due to growing Islamophobia in Europe, a consequence of poor immigration policies.  In other words, the Pope’s statement derived not from a heartfelt conviction, but was merely a reflection of the anti-Muslim mood of the people.

Why Pope Francis spoke the words “Armenian genocide” at this point in time undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that 24 April 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.  On that day a century ago, the Turkish government arrested and executed 250 Armenian intellectuals, the first move in a premeditated campaign to exterminate an entire people.

The Ottoman Empire had entered the Great War on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) which brought Turkey up against its old foe, Russia.  The Turkish government viewed its Armenian population, which was largely Christian, with suspicion, wondering:  Would the Armenians take the side of the Orthodox-Christian Russians and operate as a Fifth Column inside Turkey?   Some Armenian volunteer battalions, it seems, had indeed helped the Russian army fight the Turks in the Caucuses.  A decision was taken by the Turkish government to deport the entire Armenian population from the war zone in the east to an arid region in what is now Syria.

It was soon apparent what the Turkish government really had in mind for their Armenian minority.  Relocation was only a pretext.  Women, children, the sick and the elderly, were forced to march through the desert in the blazing sun without food and water, without proper clothing in many cases.  They were escorted by Turkish gendarmes who deliberately led them along tortuous, indirect routes through mountains and wilderness areas and away from Turkish villages in order to prolong their ordeal.  Those who stopped to rest were shot.  It has been estimated that 75% of the Armenians who set out never made it all the way.

The rest of the world was made aware of the dire situation of the Armenian people by American diplomats stationed in Turkey (the US was not at war with Turkey).  The American ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, for instance, had cabled Washington DC in July 1915 to warn that a “campaign of race extermination is in progress.”  The US consul in Aleppo, Syria, Jesse Jackson, had watched the deportee convoys arriving.  He sent a report to Washington DC, claiming to have seen mass graves holding up to 60,000 people.

Adding to the unbearable heat, the lack of food and water, and the extreme fatigue was the constant threat of a brutal death at the hands of a killing squad.  Set up by the Turkish government, this cadre of criminals and thugs drowned deportees, threw them off cliffs, crucified them, burned them alive.  They kidnapped children, forced young girls into harems, raped women and turned them into sex-slaves.  Those who survived the journey south into the Syrian desert were herded into huge open-air concentration camps–25 camps in number–where they starved to death or were killed by sadistic guards.

The world knew what was happening, wrung its collective hands, and did nothing.  Most people then forgot about it.  But one man didn’t.  During an interview by a German newspaper in 1931, Adolph Hitler told the editor that when deciding Germany’s future, one should “[t]hink of the biblical deportations and the massacres of the Middle Ages and remember the extermination of the Armenians.”

And one week before he invaded Poland in September of 1939, in an address to his commanding generals at Obersalzberg, Hitler is reported to have said:

…I have placed my death-head formations in readiness–for the present only in the East–with orders to send them to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.  Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need.  Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”  (Document L-3)

Hitler clearly took note of the world’s indifference to the slaughter of the Armenian people.  Would the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis have happened if the Ottoman Turks had been held accountable for their role in the first genocide of the twentieth century?  Was Hitler’s Final Solution a consequence of the world’s inaction in 1915?  We’ll never know the answer to that.


The Republic of Armenia has chosen the forget-me-not flower as the official emblem of the centennial year observance of the Armenian Genocide (courtesy Pixabay)

Who would have brought the perpetrators to trial?  Consider:  Today marks the official observance of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, and yet, one hundred years after the event, only twenty or so countries out of 196 officially recognize the catastrophe as a “genocide.”  As of today, that small number also includes Germany and Austria–but not the UK or US or even Israel.  In 2008, then presidential candidate Obama promised he would acknowledge it, saying, “Armenian genocide is a widely documented fact.”  I guess the American military bases in Erdogan’s Turkey trump that “widely documented fact.”

Why did Pope Francis speak the words “Armenian genocide” at this point in time, knowing full well how it would infuriate Turkey’s leaders?  I believe he felt compelled to speak up now, not only because today marks the centennial observance of the Armenian Genocide, but because of the current catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.  Christians are being lined up and beheaded on Libya’s beaches.  Christians are being tossed off migrant boats to drown in the Mediterranean.  Christians are being shot in shopping malls in Kenya.  Christian women and girls are being raped and turned into sex-slaves.  The atrocities of 1915 are recurring before our very eyes.  How will the international community respond to this catastrophe?

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.