8. From Ayodhya
and their allies in the international media have mostly taken the Muslim
side in the Ayodhya dispute. This was the reason for the following
open letter to the Church dignitaries, written in the last days of the
year 1999, the occasion being the emergence of a vaguely similar problem
in Nazareth. Muslims bad illegally started building a mosque next
to a church, and the Israeli authorities bad not dared to interfere.
It may be added now (February 2002) that in the context of the “second
intifada” and the ongoing Israeli crackdown on Islamic terrorism, Israeli
Minister and former Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky bas ordered the construction
work to be stopped.
8.1. A mosque casts its shadow
on a church
In Nazareth, a
church (Basilica) marks the place where the angel announced to Mary that
she was about to be impregnated with Jesus, God’s only-begotten son, the
long awaited messiah. This church of Annunciation is one of the foci
of Christian life in Palestine. However, the Christian community
in Palestine and the whole Middle East is dwindling, in percentage if not
in absolute figures, due to their observing more modern birth rates than
their Muslim countrymen, and due to the emigration of numerous young Christians
who see no future for themselves in a Muslim dominated part of the world.
Even in Nazareth the Muslims are now in a majority, and with a Muslim-dominated
“Palestinian Authority” now in power, the local Muslim community feels
confident enough for a showdown.
So, on 22 November
1999, the foundation stone for a mighty and magnificent mosque was laid
in a square adjoining the Church. The Christian community had planned
the construction of a Venice-type plaza there, to accommodate the numerous
Christian and other visitors from all over the world. After all,
the sacred sites of Christianity are not all that numerous, and those which
exist deserve appropriate care. If the Muslims really needed an extra
mosque, they could have built it anywhere. A diplomatic Saudi prince
had even offered to finance the mosque if it were built elsewhere, but
his offer was spurned. By contrast, the place of the Annunciation
is not moveable, so Christians could not make any concessions short of
allowing the humiliation of their sacred site as but a stand-in-the-way
of the mosque. The Muslims would not see reason and went ahead with
their confrontational plan.
Palestinian Christians find this development gruesome. According
to local Franciscan nun Sister Renee, “the Muslims want to trample and
humiliate the Christians. The minaret of the mosque will tower over
the basilica1.” The Pope came out in support
of the Christians of Nazareth, and ordered all Catholic churches in the
Holy Land closed for two days in protest. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian
Authority (PA) formally distanced itself from the Islamic ceremony (in
order to curry favour with the Christian world so as to strengthen its
own diplomatic position vis-A-vis.Israel), but did nothing to prevent it.
The presiding Muslim leader, Ahmad Abu Nawaf, was not troubled for taking
a defiant and confrontational stand, openly exulting in this Islamic “victory”.
The incident must
have reminded the Pope of the Muslim plans for building a mosque in Rome
dwarfing the Pope’s own Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Italian authorities
disallowed this symbolic show of strength but the mosque which came up
close to the Vatican is still impressive enough, and contrasts mightily
with the absence of any Christian place of worships for hundreds of miles
around Mecca. Because Saudi Arabia has declared the whole of its
territory to be a mosque, no expressions of non-Islamic devotion are allowed
there in any form whatsoever.
In the circumstances,
I cannot omit a vote of sympathy for the Palestinian Christians who find
themselves besieged by an arrogant Islamic movement. However, I also
want to propose to the Christian leadership, including the Pope and Indian
Church leaders like Bishop Alan de Lastic, a few points to ponder.
8.2. Christians apologizing to
First of all,
Your Eminences, the last couple of years, the Catholic Church and many
Protestant Churches and Christian laymen’s groups have been bending over
backwards to convince Muslims and others about their own heartfelt repentance
over the crimes committed by Christian states and institutions in the past
centuries. But it seems this has not moved the heart of the Muslim
The Pope himself
has said sorry for the Crusades, even though these were but a Christian
counter-offensive in a long-drawn-out war which Islam had unilaterally
inflicted on Christianity ever since Prophet Mohammed’s failed invasion
of the East-Roman Empire, not long before his death in A.D. 632.
Hardly four years later, after suppressing the Arab national revolt against
Islam (the Ridda, “return” to the ancestral religion), Islamic armies
invaded and occupied the Levantine part of the Byzantine empire, and reduced
Christians to third-class citizens without political rights. During
and after this blitz offensive by Caliph Omar in A.D. 636, many churches
were turned into mosques, Christians were sometimes forced to convert,
but more often put under structural pressure by the imposition of a toleration
tax plus a number of humiliating restraints on their rights.
Next came the
conquest of Christian North Africa, effectively destroying Christianity
in Tunisia, Saint Augustine’s homeland, and in the Maghreb. Then
followed the conquest of Christian Spain, the invasion of Christian France
in A.D. 731 (mercifully defeated by Charles Martel in Poitiers), the occupation
of Christian Sicily, and many other unilateral Islamic acts of aggression,
including the capture and sale of millions of Christians as slaves.
The invasion of Byzantine Anatolia by Muslim Seljuqs in Manzikert 1071
was one of the direct causes of the Crusades. In spite of regrettable
Christian excesses during the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 (easily matched
by Sultan Baybars’ atrocities during the Muslim reconquest of the Crusader
states), the Crusades were a legitimate attempt of the Christians to liberate
their Holy Land forcibly occupied by the Muslims. Somewhat like the
Hindus trying to liberate Ayodhya from Islamic occupation.
speaking, the Crusades were a forward strike in a war in which Christianity
had so far been on the defensive. After the defeat of the Crusaders,
the Islamic world resumed the attacks, especially in the Balkans where
one Christian nation after another came under the Turkish yoke, and as
late as A.D. 1689, the Turks laid siege to Vienna. There is no doubt
that Christian soldiers have misbehaved during the conquest of Jerusalem
and on other occasions, but so have Muslim armies on numerous occasions,
starting with Prophet Mohammed’s own caravan raids, murders of skeptics
and massacres of recalcitrant tribes. For every Muslim gentleman
conqueror (e.g. the Kurdish general Saladin who chased the Crusaders from
Jerusalem), there was a Muslim mass murderer (e.g. the Mamluk sultan Baybars
who finished off the last Crusader strongholds).
All the same,
an ecumenical Christian group has even conducted a pilgrimage along the
Crusader route, a Walk for Reconciliation, everywhere offering apologies
for what Christians in the distant past had done to the Muslims.
This proved to be an exercise in self-ridicule. Thus, these self-flagellating
Christian peninents went to offer their apologies to the mayor of istambul
for the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, forgetting that the
city sacked by the Crusaders was a Greek Orthodox city where a Muslim Turk
like the present mayor would be the number one enemy. Constantinople
was far more definitively sacked by the Turks in 1453, and the Turkish
mayor represented the Turkish occupation force which has, unlike the Crusaders,
destroyed the Greek character of the city and nearly annihilated the millennia-old
Greek presence in Constantinople and nearby lonia. Addressing an
apology for the temporary inconvenience which the Crusaders had inflicted
on the, Greeks to a mayor representing a conquering nation which definitively
destroyed the Greeks of Asia Minor: only Liberation theologians could get
So, if apologies
have to be tendered, let Muslim dignitaries start the exchange. Let
the mayor of Istambul apologize to his Christian visitors for representing
a religion which killed and enslaved millions of Christians. Let
the Turks apologize to the Greeks for sacking and occupying their capital,
Constantinople. Better still, let them restore Constantinople to
the Greek Orthodox Christians. But for now, the position is that
the Muslims world is not even willing to refrain from the provocation in
8.3. Christian understanding of
the Hindu position
Eminences, you might reconsider your haughty condemnation of the Hindu
position regarding disputed sacred sites. In Ayodhya, a mosque had
been imposed right on the site of a destroyed Hindu temple, but you joined
the Muslim-Marxist choir in denouncing these “petty-minded and fanatical
Hindus” reclaiming their sacred site. “Why the fuss about a temple
when God is everywhere?”, you pontificated.
Now you are being
put to a similar test. In Nazareth, your Basilica was not even touched.
The Muslims have a place for “the prophet Jesus” in their system, not for
the idolatrous demon Rama, so they showed more tolerance in Nazareth than
in Ayodhya. And yet, look what a fuss you are making over a mosque
neatly juxtaposed to a church, perfectly respecting its existence though
not perhaps its breathing space.
To be sure, I
understand that for Christians, sacred sites are a touchy issue.
In Islamic and Communist countries, numerous churches have been destroyed
or put to no Christian uses; but on the other hand, so many of those churches
had been built in forcible replacement of Pagan places of worship.
Thus, the Mezquita, the cathedral of Cordoba, used to be a mosque, which
in turn had been built in forcible replacement of a church, but that ancient
church had in its turn been built in forcible replacement of a Roman temple.
the Greco-Scything city of Chersoness on the Crimea Peninsula has witnessed
a controversy between the Greek Orthodox Church, which is reclaiming an
abbey stolen and abused by the Communists, and the archaeologists, who
first want to find out what exactly is lying underneath the premises, known
to have been a Pagan cultic site. The Churches cannot rock the boat
of sacred sites controversy too badly, for there are too many skeletons
in their own cupboards.
8.4. Muslims challenging Christianity
Eminences, recent developments in Nazareth and many other places ought
to make you more receptive to the general Hindu distrust of Islam.
In the week before Christmas, some fifty people were killed in Muslim Christian
riots in Indonesia, adding their numbers to the many hundreds killed during
the past year in that country alone, not to speak of thousands of Christians
killed in East Timor, nor of the handfuls of Christians killed now and
then by Islamic guerrilleros in the Philippines. Let us not make
the picture more complicated by mentioning the hundreds if not thousands
of Hindus killed in India’s Northeast by Christian separatists, let’s only
consider killings of Christians. We then see a strange pattern emerge.
Compared with the fuss you made over the deaths of just two priests, a
Keralite Catholic and an Australian Protestant, plus the two sons of the
latter, killings for which you prematurely blamed the Hindus, your outcry
over Islamic atrocities is remarkably subdued.
In the case of
Nazareth, Church dignitaries have indeed spoken out. But look, a
similarly strange moderation in your anti-Islamic protest strikes the eye
of the beholder. The sharpest allegation is addressed not to the
Muslims who are encroaching on what you consider to be Christian territory,
but to the Israeli authorities. “Israel is trying to drive a wedge
between Palestinian Christians and Muslims”, you say. But pray, if
Israel meant you any harm, why has it left the Annunciation Basilica in
peace for decades? You might reasonably accuse Israel of giving in
to the party from which it fears the most serious trouble, viz. Muslims
rather than Christians. But Israel is not doing more than that: giving
in to pressure exerted by another party, viz. the Muslims. If it
wasn’t for the Muslims claiming the site, Israel couldn’t have ruled in
their favour. So, what keeps you from laying blame at the door where
The answer is
obvious: fear. If even combative Israel feels it has to throw some
crumbs to the Islamic fanatics, such as space for a mosque in Nazareth,
what else can we expect of the Church? The fact is that the fear
of Islam is increasingly gripping our aged Church Fathers by the throat.
Ancient strongholds of European resistance to Islam are now home to imposing
five-star mosques: Madrid, capital of Reconquista Spain; Paris, whence
the Frankish Crusaders once left to liberate the Holy Land; even Rome itself.
At the recent Bishops’ Synod in Rome (October 1999), several Bishops expressed
their worries about Islam’s encroachment on the Christian world.
Consider the warnings
by Mgr. Bemardini, Bishop of the Ionian city of Smyma, now better known
as Izmir after the Turks killed and expelled the Greeks from there in 1922.
To the analysis given by other Bishops, he added some recent anecdotes
from real life, e.g.: “During an official Christian
Muslim meeting, an important Muslim delegate said calmly and self-assuredly:
‘Thanks to your democratic laws we will conquer you. Thanks to out
religious laws, we will dominate you.’”2
And this one:
“A Catholic monastery in Jerusalem had an Arab servant, naturally a Muslim.
He was a very courteous, friendly and honest man, greatly valued by the
monks. But the converse turned out not to apply. One day he
told them with sadness: ‘Our leaders have convened and have decided that
all infidels must be killed. But you need not fear: though I too
will be ordered to kill you, I will do it without making you suffer.’ We
know that a distinction must be made between the fanatics and the more
peaceful majority. But even the latter will rise against us as one
man when Allah so commands.”
In his concluding
remarks, Mgr.Bernardini returned to an issue of disputed places of worship,
specifically referring to the practice of selling the empty churches of
European cities to Muslims for use as mosques: “To conclude, and speaking
from my experience, I would at any rate advise that
no Catholic church should ever be handed over to the Muslims for their
worship. To them this is merely the most convincing proof of our
Eminences, places of worship are a serious business. Apart from their
symbolic meaning, they also have a tangible political dimension.
Like Mgr. Bernardini, and like the Christians of Nazareth, Hindus in Ayodhya
don’t want to abandon their temples to eager Muslims. And rest assured
that unlike churches in Europe, Hindu temples are not standing empty for
lack of devotees.
by Salomon Bouman, De Standard, 24-11-1999.
in the Catholic monthly Nucleus, Bruges, November 1999.
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