On John Paul II's Record in the Middle East
Muslim leaders are widely reported to be mourning the death of the Pope. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the ranking cleric at Egypt's preeminent Al Azhar Islamic seminary, said his death was "a great loss not only to the Catholic church but to the Islamic world." Senior Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al Qardawi wrote, "He was a man of peace who stood firmly against the Iraq war and the Israeli separation wall." The leadership of Hamas conveyed its condolences to the press and urged the Vatican "to maintain its position in support of our people and our cause, and focus its efforts on steering its followers to defend the rights of our Palestinian people to confront the continuous Zionist aggression, which targets Muslims and Christians..." Sympathies poured in from Syrian president Bashar Assad, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, among others. Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Muhammad recalled that Pope John Paul II had "supported the Palestinians and condemned their victimization. He also ... opposed the occupation of Iraq." Arabic-language satellite networks, according to the Associated Press, "have launched a media blitz for the death of Pope John Paul II, giving Mideast viewers hours of live broadcasts from the Vatican and programs on the pontiff's life--coverage rarely given even to the region's leaders."
In the midst of all these tributes, however, one thing has been lost: When it came to the Middle East, Pope John Paul II largely failed to promote social justice and religious freedom. His political strategy in the region was in many ways the very opposite of his political strategy in Eastern Europe. The Pope took a hard line against communist governments, but in the Middle East, his strategy was too often one of appeasement--not only toward authoritarian regimes but also toward powerful religious-political movements that preach intolerance toward minorities. Partly as a result, the percentage of Christians in the population of many Middle Eastern countries continued its precipitous decline over the past three decades. Ironically, the Muslim Middle East grew more religiously homogenous and less tolerant at the same time as the Christian West was growing more religiously diverse.
It's impossible to know for sure why so many Islamist leaders and Arab heads of state were so generous in their praise of John Paul this week. But here's one theory: They liked him because he didn't hold them to the same standards to which he held Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski and the USSR's Mikhail Gorbachev. They liked him because whereas he successfully fought for religious freedom, equality, and social justice in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East he did not.
Why did John Paul come to adopt a stance of appeasement toward Middle Eastern leaders? He may have concluded early in his papacy that critical engagement with the Muslim world doesn't pay. Consider the results of the Pope's correspondence with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980s. I first saw the letters on a visit to the Iranian city of Isfahan in 1998. A lot of people saw them, because they were on display in glass casing at the Khomeini Museum. According to a paper by Yusuf Progler, professor of social sciences at the Zayed University campus in Dubai, the Pope had initiated the correspondence, noting the "increase of tension" between the Carter administration and Iran. He urged the Ayatollah to consider reestablishing relations with the United States government. Khomeini refused. "Our militant, noble nation took such cutting-off of relations as a good omen and celebrated it with rejoicing," he wrote. Khomeini asked the Pope to tell Carter to "treat the nations that want absolute independence--and which do not want to be aligned with any power in the world--according to humane criteria." A few months later, the Pope wrote back with a second request: He asked the Supreme Leader for an assurance that Iran's ancient Christian communities would not be harmed, and would be permitted to worship and study their faith as before. Khomeini's reply was disheartening. He alleged that Christian schools in Iran had been used as a base for Western espionage, and asked:
How can I tell my nation that Christian clergy are [not] in the service of the superpowers? Why did the Pope make no comment when our young people were killed on the streets? ... Does Christ act well toward the rich and badly toward the oppressed? Do you know what they did to our country? ... How can I reply to the oppressed people when they ask us why we defend these clergymen who don't say a word against the superpowers and oppression, even of the American people?
Perhaps the Pope drew a lesson from his interactions with Khomeini: Christian leaders who intercede with Muslim politicians on behalf of the West are liable to gain little and lose much. Twenty years later, Iran's once-strong Chaldean Christian community, which falls under the hierarchy of the Vatican, has dwindled to 8,000 people. The population is smaller even than the country's beleaguered Jewish community, which numbers about 11,000, according to the U.S. State Department. What's more, the strained relations between the Vatican and Iran have also become a problem for the embattled Christians of Iraq--thanks in part to Iran's growing influence there. Some newly empowered Shia politicians who enjoy the Iranian government's support have begun to call for the application of Islamic law in Iraq, which could officially make Christians second-class citizens. Moreover, Christians themselves have become prime targets for kidnappers; in January, a Catholic bishop was abducted.
Following the Pope's early failures with Khomeini, the Vatican during the past 20 years has largely taken a soft approach to the Middle East, eschewing stern moral language in its dealings with Islamists and instead trying to engage them in dialogue. The problem has been that the Vatican's ostensible partners in this exchange had different ideas about what dialogue meant.
John Paul II's years as Pope coincided with an unprecedented proliferation of hardline Islamist teachings of both the Shia and Sunni variety. Revolutionary Iran's oil-rich clerical endowments subsidized books and mosques that molded millions of minds in Pakistan, Lebanon, the Gulf states, and beyond, while the Saudi Muslim World League and its many subsidiaries bankrolled Wahhabi firebrands and their teachings across the Sunni Muslim world. The latter project enjoyed Western acquiescence, particularly during the Reagan years, because it helped recruit fighters for the Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. I have seen many of these books, in Persian and Arabic, in markets across the Middle East. They conjure a world of shadowy international conspiracies--Western leaders and Jews using Catholic churches, Masonic lodges, and multinational corporations as their agents to plunder Palestine and enslave Muslims. Once you have been through a few of these volumes, as many Muslims have, you won't easily view your Christian neighbor the same way again--let alone the odd Jewish neighbor. Nor will you be able to see much good in the Pope's visit to a synagogue in 1986, or his establishment of full diplomatic ties to Israel in 1994, or his apologies to world Jewry for the Holocaust at various times in the '90s. On the contrary, you will find, in all these developments, a validation of the very conspiracies you were taught. Here is how Amir Said, a commentator at the website Islamway.com, summarized the Pope's career this week:
This Pope's life or death does not concern me much, because the Jews have already established themselves in the Vatican. The arrow from the Zionist bow has struck, and the matter is no longer confined to one man alone. Rather, a base of Jewish hegemony has anchored itself on the Catholic religion. ... The Pope, in truth, is a distinguished product of joint Catholic-Jewish manufacture. His production passed through a number of stages and religious and intelligence plots of the highest precision. Some of these plots are wrapped in the strictest secrecy, while others have today come to be revealed to researchers.
Now try and imagine how such a mindset would process the Vatican's overtures for dialogue with Muslims. In 1997, Ahmad Sakr, director of the Foundation for Islamic Knowledge in southern California, joined a delegation of Muslim leaders on a visit to Rome for several weeks of discussion with Catholic counterparts. The coordinating body was the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID). The Council's statement, which cites an encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, explains: "Dialogue is a two-way communication. It implies speaking and listening, giving and receiving ... It includes witness to one's own faith as well as an openness to that of the other. It is not a betrayal of the mission of the Church, nor is it a new method of conversion to Christianity."
Sakr returned to California and published a four-part essay on his experiences in Rome in the Arabic-language Chicago-based newspaper Al Zaitounah. Under a photograph of Sakr shaking hands with the Pope, he wrote the following:
I said to myself that if the prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, came to visit the Vatican, the first thing he would have done would have been to break all of these idols and destroy them from existence entirely. ... The Vatican has founded three active university institutions to teach Islam from within--its sole goal being to figure out how to instill doubt among the Muslims in their belief and in their faith. ... They should sincerely repent to God, and they should not take Jesus as the son of God.
The Vatican had reached out to a firebrand; and the results were clearly nothing to brag about. Moreover, among the long list of guests whom the Pontifical Council invited to meet with the Pope over the years, there was nothing unique about Sakr's political profile. As recently as January 2004, the ninth annual PCID conference brought the Pope together with Abdullah Nasif, head of the Saudi Muslim World League--an endowment that has helped disseminate anti-Christian books. Of course, it's always your ideological opponents with whom dialogue and bridge-building are most important. But where was the tangible improvement for Arab Christians--or for the Middle East as a whole--that such meetings brought about?
Dialogue, not the moral stridency with which he so frequently spoke about other issues, was the Pope's modus operandi when it came to the Middle East. And so rather than take Arab and Islamist leaders to task for their shared role in creating a climate that was hostile to Arab Christians, the Church too often placed the lion's share of the blame on Israel. Why have Arab Christians left Palestinian territories? According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association ("a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support"), "The principal reason for the dramatic rise in Christian emigration has been the continuing Israeli military occupation and the denial of the sovereignty of a Palestinian state wherein Christian Arabs could feel at home economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually." And why have Arab Christians left Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon? Under the section heading, "Christian Emigration from Jordan," the group writes that "Students of migratory phenomena have pinpointed a series of factors, which have triggered or accelerated" the trend of Christians leaving Jordan and other Arab countries. The first item: The "Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has continued unabated since 1948." What you won't find in any of these reports is the frankness of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who retired in late 2003 after serving the Pope as Foreign Minister for 13 years. He told Reuters, "There are too many majority Muslim countries where non-Muslims are second-class citizens"; and he singled out "the extreme case of Saudi Arabia, where freedom of religion is violated absolutely--no Christian churches and a ban on celebrating Mass, even in a private home. Just like Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well."
The disconnect between these studies and Tauran stems from a painful reality: The former reflect the input of bishops from local Arab dioceses, where political and social pressures tend to influence what they can write. Contrast the Catholic Near East Welfare Association report with the following straight talk from Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein, where bishops now enjoy a measure of freedom, at least from government supervision: Chaldean bishop Rabban Al Qas explains, of Islamists: "In the time of Saddam Hussein they acted secretly; they would send anonymous threatening messages, urging even bishops and priests to convert to Islam. ... Under Saddam Hussein there was a veiled persecution." With this in mind, the Vatican's blaming of Zionism for the emigration of Christians from Arab countries surely should be taken with a grain of salt.
Perhaps the best-known example of the Pope's appeasement strategy in the Middle East came in 2001, when he met with Syrian president Bashar Assad and top Muslim clerics in Syria. At the time, an Arab journalist reported on the speech Assad gave in the Pope's presence:
Assad pointed to the atrocities that the Israelis in Palestine are perpetrating and the perpetual aggression that they are carrying out on the Islamic and Christian holy places in an attempt to kill all the principles of the divine religions, with the same mentality by which [they perpetrated] the treachery against Christ, and his torture, and similarly did they attempt to double-cross the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him.
The Pope turned the other cheek at Assad's nod to old-fashioned "Christ-killer" rhetoric, and was subsequently treated to another lecture on the Palestinian cause from Syrian Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro during his visit to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. The fact that the Pope was made to listen to the central message of Arab-Islamist populism was Syria's way of saying, We are in the driver's seat today--not the Pope. When it came to relations between the Catholic Church and Arab and Islamist leaders during the last 25 years, that too often seemed to be the case.
To be sure, the challenge of promoting religious freedom and social justice in the Middle East is in many ways more complex than fighting communism. In communist countries, freedom and liberty were stifled by an identifiable leadership. In the Middle East, by contrast, social justice is hindered in large part by authoritarian regimes, while the principle of religious equality is undermined by transnational religious-political movements that are unaccountable to a single government. There are other differences as well. The Pope's Polish background made it natural for him to fight communism in his native Eastern Europe; any efforts by the Catholic Church to fight for religious freedom in the Muslim world would invariably be tinged by the history of the Crusades; and the situation of Christians in the Middle East (where they are a religious minority oppressed by a Muslim majority) is quite different from the situation in the Soviet bloc (where Christians were a large majority oppressed by an atheist minority). And to his credit, the Pope did not always opt for appeasement in the Middle East. He traveled to Sudan, where Christians faced genocide and slavery, in 1993; he also beatified Sister Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave, acknowledging the dignity of her long-oppressed community.
Moreover perhaps in a very narrow sense, the Pope's approach served Middle Eastern Christians well. His support for Palestinians and opposition to both U.S. wars in Iraq helped to carve out a political space for Arab Christians to feel a bit more secure in their home countries. Syrian Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud put it well in May 2003: "There was a big danger that Christians would be considered allies of the Americans, but thanks be to God all this was avoided because of the positions taken by the Pope and the Vatican." Palestine and Iraq were on the lips of nearly every Muslim cleric and Arab head of state who praised the Pope's memory this week. It is difficult to imagine a similar outpouring of Arab and Muslim sympathy for the departed leader had his position on those two issues been different.
But in the long run, the Pope's soft stance toward dictators and Islamists hasn't served anyone well--not Christians, not Jews, not Muslims. In Latin America, the Pope spoke clearly for social justice; in Eastern Europe, he spoke clearly for religious freedom; but in the Middle East he allowed himself to be lectured by Bashar Assad about how the Jews killed Christ, and bad-mouthed by some of the very Islamists whom he had welcomed into the Vatican. His successor must be shrewd and demanding in the Middle East--and willing to be loved a little bit less by the region's self-appointed leaders.
Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World.