Since the days when Roman Emperors threw Christians
to the lions, the relations between the emperors
and the heads of the church have undergone many
the Great, who became Emperor in the year 306
- exactly 1700 years ago - encouraged the practice
of Christianity in the empire, which included
Palestine. Centuries later, the church split into
an Eastern (Orthodox) and a Western (Catholic)
part. In the West, the Bishop of Rome, who acquired
the title of Pope, demanded that the Emperor accept
struggle between the Emperors and the Popes played
a central role in European history and divided
the peoples. It knew ups and downs. Some Emperors
dismissed or expelled a Pope, some Popes dismissed
or excommunicated an Emperor. One of the Emperors,
Henry IV, "walked to Canossa", standing
for three days barefoot in the snow in front of
the Pope's castle, until the Pope deigned to annul
there were times when Emperors and Popes lived
in peace with each other. We are witnessing such
a period today. Between the present Pope, Benedict
XVI, and the present Emperor, George Bush II,
there exists a wonderful harmony. Last week's
speech by the Pope, which aroused a world-wide
storm, went well with Bush's crusade against "Islamofascism",
in the context of the "Clash of Civilizations".
HIS lecture at a German university, the 265th
Pope described what he sees as a huge difference
between Christianity and Islam: while Christianity
is based on reason, Islam denies it. While Christians
see the logic of God's actions, Muslims deny that
there is any such logic in the actions of Allah.
a Jewish atheist, I do not intend to enter the
fray of this debate. It is much beyond my humble
abilities to understand the logic of the Pope.
But I cannot overlook one passage, which concerns
me too, as an Israeli living near the fault-line
of this "war of civilizations".
order to prove the lack of reason in Islam, the
Pope asserts that the prophet Muhammad ordered
his followers to spread their religion by the
sword. According to the Pope, that is unreasonable,
because faith is born of the soul, not of the
body. How can the sword influence the soul?
support his case, the Pope quoted - of all people
- a Byzantine Emperor, who belonged, of course,
to the competing Eastern Church. At the end of
the 14th century, the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus
told of a debate he had - or so he said (its occurrence
is in doubt) - with an unnamed Persian Muslim
scholar. In the heat of the argument, the Emperor
(according to himself) flung the following words
at his adversary:
me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and
there you will find things only evil and inhuman,
such as his command to spread by the sword the
faith he preached".
words give rise to three questions: (a) Why did
the Emperor say them? (b) Are they true? (c) Why
did the present Pope quote them?
MANUEL II wrote his treatise, he was the head
of a dying empire. He assumed power in 1391, when
only a few provinces of the once illustrious empire
remained. These, too, were already under Turkish
that point in time, the Ottoman Turks had reached
the banks of the Danube. They had conquered Bulgaria
and the north of Greece, and had twice defeated
relieving armies sent by Europe to save the Eastern
Empire. In 1453, only a few years after Manuel's
death, his capital, Constantinople (the present
Istanbul) fell to the Turks, putting an end to
the Empire that had lasted for more than a thousand
his reign, Manuel made the rounds of the capitals
of Europe in an attempt to drum up support. He
promised to reunite the church. There is no doubt
that he wrote his religious treatise in order
to incite the Christian countries against the
Turks and convince them to start a new crusade.
The aim was practical, theology was serving politics.
this sense, the quote serves exactly the requirements
of the present Emperor, George Bush II. He, too,
wants to unite the Christian world against the
mainly Muslim "Axis of Evil". Moreover,
the Turks are again knocking on the doors of Europe,
this time peacefully. It is well known that the
Pope supports the forces that object to the entry
of Turkey into the European Union.
THERE any truth in Manuel's argument?
pope himself threw in a word of caution. As a
serious and renowned theologian, he could not
afford to falsify written texts. Therefore, he
admitted that the Qur'an specifically forbade
the spreading of the faith by force. He quoted
the second Sura, verse 256 (strangely fallible,
for a pope, he meant verse 257) which says: "There
must be no coercion in matters of faith".
can one ignore such an unequivocal statement?
The Pope simply argues that this commandment was
laid down by the prophet when he was at the beginning
of his career, still weak and powerless, but that
later on he ordered the use of the sword in the
service of the faith. Such an order does not exist
in the Qur'an. True, Muhammad called for the use
of the sword in his war against opposing tribes
- Christian, Jewish and others - in Arabia, when
he was building his state. But that was a political
act, not a religious one; basically a fight for
territory, not for the spreading of the faith.
said: "You will recognize them by their fruits."
The treatment of other religions by Islam must
be judged by a simple test: How did the Muslim
rulers behave for more than a thousand years,
when they had the power to "spread the faith
by the sword"?
they just did not.
many centuries, the Muslims ruled Greece. Did
the Greeks become Muslims? Did anyone even try
to Islamize them? On the contrary, Christian Greeks
held the highest positions in the Ottoman administration.
The Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians and
other European nations lived at one time or another
under Ottoman rule and clung to their Christian
faith. Nobody compelled them to become Muslims
and all of them remained devoutly Christian.
the Albanians did convert to Islam, and so did
the Bosniaks. But nobody argues that they did
this under duress. They adopted Islam in order
to become favorites of the government and enjoy
1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and massacred
its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants indiscriminately,
in the name of the gentle Jesus. At that time,
400 years into the occupation of Palestine by
the Muslims, Christians were still the majority
in the country. Throughout this long period, no
effort was made to impose Islam on them. Only
after the expulsion of the Crusaders from the
country, did the majority of the inhabitants start
to adopt the Arabic language and the Muslim faith
- and they were the forefathers of most of today's
IS no evidence whatsoever of any attempt to impose
Islam on the Jews. As is well known, under Muslim
rule the Jews of Spain enjoyed a bloom the like
of which the Jews did not enjoy anywhere else
until almost our time. Poets like Yehuda Halevy
wrote in Arabic, as did the great Maimonides.
In Muslim Spain, Jews were ministers, poets, scientists.
In Muslim Toledo, Christian, Jewish and Muslim
scholars worked together and translated the ancient
Greek philosophical and scientific texts. That
was, indeed, the Golden Age. How would this have
been possible, had the Prophet decreed the "spreading
of the faith by the sword"?
happened afterwards is even more telling. When
the Catholics re-conquered Spain from the Muslims,
they instituted a reign of religious terror. The
Jews and the Muslims were presented with a cruel
choice: to become Christians, to be massacred
or to leave. And where did the hundreds of thousand
of Jews, who refused to abandon their faith, escape?
Almost all of them were received with open arms
in the Muslim countries. The Sephardi ("Spanish")
Jews settled all over the Muslim world, from Morocco
in the west to Iraq in the east, from Bulgaria
(then part of the Ottoman Empire) in the north
to Sudan in the south. Nowhere were they persecuted.
They knew nothing like the tortures of the Inquisition,
the flames of the auto-da-fe, the pogroms, the
terrible mass-expulsions that took place in almost
all Christian countries, up to the Holocaust.
Because Islam expressly prohibited any persecution
of the "peoples of the book". In Islamic
society, a special place was reserved for Jews
and Christians. They did not enjoy completely
equal rights, but almost. They had to pay a special
poll-tax, but were exempted from military service
- a trade-off that was quite welcome to many Jews.
It has been said that Muslim rulers frowned upon
any attempt to convert Jews to Islam even by gentle
persuasion - because it entailed the loss of taxes.
honest Jew who knows the history of his people
cannot but feel a deep sense of gratitude to Islam,
which has protected the Jews for fifty generations,
while the Christian world persecuted the Jews
and tried many times "by the sword"
to get them to abandon their faith.
STORY about "spreading the faith by the sword"
is an evil legend, one of the myths that grew
up in Europe during the great wars against the
Muslims - the reconquista of Spain by the Christians,
the Crusades and the repulsion of the Turks, who
almost conquered Vienna. I suspect that the German
Pope, too, honestly believes in these fables.
That means that the leader of the Catholic world,
who is a Christian theologian in his own right,
did not make the effort to study the history of
did he utter these words in public? And why now?
is no escape from viewing them against the background
of the new Crusade of Bush and his evangelist
supporters, with his slogans of "Islamofascism"
and the "Global War on Terrorism" -
when "terrorism" has become a synonym
for Muslims. For Bush's handlers, this is a cynical
attempt to justify the domination of the world's
oil resources. Not for the first time in history,
a religious robe is spread to cover the nakedness
of economic interests; not for the first time,
a robbers' expedition becomes a Crusade.
speech of the Pope blends into this effort. Who
can foretell the dire consequences?