As Christians throughout the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, European Catholics face an internal battle over the essence of their faith.
On one side stand high-ranking prelates and professional theologians, including some in the Vatican. Opposing them is a prominent convert who seems to know more about their own theology than they do.
The conflict revolves around the Catholic Church’s response to Islam. The prelates and professionals favor dialogue to the point of accommodation, if not collaboration. The convert warns them about the truth of his former Islamic faith – and about the danger of diluting foundational Catholic beliefs.
Advent began with several news reports detailing how Catholic prelates are responding to Islam’s growing influence in Europe.
On Nov. 28, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran – president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Interreligious Affairs – praised Muslims for injecting religious questions back into debates on public policy.
"Muslims, having become a significant minority in Europe, were the ones who demand space for God in society," Tauran wrote in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, citing the controversy over headscarves for women in France as one proof.
On Nov. 29, Monsignor Bernard Nicolas Aubertin, the Archbishop of Tours, France joined other dignitaries witnessing the laying of the cornerstone for the city’s new grand mosque. Ironically, Tours was the place where Charles Martel defeated a Muslim army in 732, thereby forestalling Islam’s attempts to dominate Europe.
On Dec. 2, the Daily Mail in London reported that the Catholic bishops of England and Wales asked Catholic schools to open prayer rooms for Muslim students and to adapt bathroom facilities to make ritual cleansing before prayer possible.
"The demands go way beyond legal requirements on catering for religious minorities," wrote the Daily Mail’s Simon Caldwell, who added that the bishops "want to answer critics who say religious schools sow division."
The bishops’ study, "Catholic Schools, Children of Other Faiths and Community Cohesion," specifies:
"If practicable, a room (or rooms) might be made available for the use of pupils and staff from other faiths for prayer. Existing toilet facilities might be adapted to accommodate individual ritual cleansing which is sometimes part of religious lifestyle and worship. If such space is not available on a permanent or regular basis, extra efforts might be made to address such need for major religious festivals."
On Dec. 4, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi – president of the Pontifical Council on Culture – said that Muslims should be allowed to have as many mosques as they need, as long as those mosques concentrate on worship.
"The place of worship must have its own cultural and spiritual identity, as well as its own religious identity which is a fundamental element," Ravasi said. "The mosque carries out a charitable function which is a special quality so that religion also has a social function."
Ravasi made his remarks two days after two Moroccan Muslims were arrested for plotting to destroy Milan’s famed cathedral on Christmas. The suspects allegedly conspired in a mosque and in an Islamic cultural center. As a result, Italy’s foreign minister and the anti-immigrant Northern League demanded an end to further mosque construction.
"If (the mosque) becomes something different, civil society has a right to intervene," Ravasi said. "Here we are talking about a western society that distinguishes between religious and political spheres…The mosque cannot turn into a center for other means because it loses its function."
On Dec. 5, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the Archbishop of Milan, supported Ravasi.
"We need places of worship in every neighborhood of the city," Tettamanzi said. "People belonging to faiths other than Christianity need them even more urgently, especially Islam. We also need cultural initiatives that promote reflection, not provocation that only creates dead-end debates and sensationalism."
The rationale for this genteel approach emerged from the Second Vatican Council, designed to help Catholicism confront modern issues – such as its relationship to other religions. The council rejected the church’s previous adversarial attitude toward Islam for a conciliatory approach emphasizing similar beliefs, as the encyclical, Nostra Aetate, enumerates:
"The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting."
Another encyclical from the council, Lumen Gentium, states that "the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind."
Reinforcing the church’s approach is the Vatican’s geopolitical agenda. Enzo Pace, sociology professor at the University of Padua and president of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion, elaborated on that aspect in his paper, "The Catholic Church and Islam."
Because of European Communism’s collapse during Pope John Paul II’s tenure – and because of his pivotal role in that collapse – "the Church believes it has acquired an unquestionable authority in Europe," Pace wrote. "Consequently, now that the time has come to build political unity, it considers itself the depositary of a moral message which could form the solid foundations of the new Europe.
"The Church is aware that it can offer a sort of new civil religion to the United States of Europe. The search for moral unity…represents for the Church a reconfirmation of its central role in history and, at the same time, the opening of a dialogue with other religious cultures of the Old World."
Islam represents one of those cultures.
"Islam thus becomes the most important moral interlocutor because the Church sees it as a well-structured religion which is on the increase in contemporary Europe," Pace wrote. "The real object of this consideration of Islam is the social and cultural integration of Muslim groups in the new Europe.
"To ensure this integration, the Catholic Church believes it is necessary to accept the idea of recognizing Islam as a universal religion, while, at the same time, inviting Islam to accept at least the basic moral and juridical principles of the European Christian culture (the rights of man). In the language of the Catholic Church, what is called ‘a dialogue of values’ is aimed at ‘protecting life and the promotion of justice and peace.’ "
Among those principles is religious freedom, which the Vatican calls "reciprocity" with respect to Islam. If nations with Christian cultures allow Muslims to worship freely, then Muslim nations must grant the same liberty to Christians – though Muslim nations have yet to do so.
Magdi Allam begs to dissent from the prevailing attitude. Allam, a deputy editor at Italy’s best-known newspaper, Milan’s Corriere della Sera, converted to Catholicism from Islam during the Easter Vigil in March – and was baptized by Pope Benedict XVI himself. As a result, Allam received death threats from Muslims.
In describing his conversion in detail to the Vatican’s Zenit News Agency, Allam contrasted his new faith with his old:
"…as my mind was freed from the obscurantism of an ideology that legitimates lies and deception, violent death that leads to murder and suicide, the blind submission to tyranny, I was able to adhere to the authentic religion of truth, of life and of freedom. On my first Easter as a Christian I not only discovered Jesus; I discovered for the first time the face of the true and only God, who is the God of faith and reason.
"I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive."
Allam reemphasized those points before Benedict met with Islamic scholars in early November. On his own Web site, Allam posted an open letter to the Pope, warning of "the serious religious and ethical straying that has infiltrated and spread within the heart of the church."
Specifically, Allam criticized Tauran’s characterization of violence in Allah’s name as betraying Islam:
"The objective reality, I tell you with all sincerity and animated by a constructive intent, is exactly the opposite of what Cardinal Tauran imagines. Islamic extremism and terrorism are the mature fruit (of) the sayings of the Quran and the thought and action of Mohammed."
While various European prelates expressed collaborationist sympathies as Advent began, Allam provided a strong counterpoint.
"The very acts of Mohammed, documented by history, and which the Muslim faithful themselves do not deny, testify to massacres and exterminations perpetrated by the prophet," he told Zenit on Dec. 1. "Therefore, the Quran is incompatible with fundamental human rights and non-negotiable values.
"There is a greater and more subliminal danger than the terrorism of ‘cut-throats.’ It is the terrorism of the ‘cut-tongues;’ that is, the fear of affirming and divulging our faith and our civilization, and it brings us to auto-censorship and to deny our values, putting everything and the contrary to everything on the same plane: We think of the Sharia applied even in England."
Yet the forces of accommodation refuse to retreat. Paolo dall’Oglio, a prominent Italian Jesuit who won the Euro-Mediterranean Award for Dialogue, criticized Allam in the Jesuit monthly Popoli in an article entitled, "Eclipse of the Sun":
"The moon of urgent concern for freedom of conscience and religion has blocked the sun of charitable discretion, of respect for Muslim feelings, and of the renunciation of proselytism. It has overshadowed the Copernican Revolution of the Second Vatican Council which also went in favor of Islam, and the renewal of official dialogue between the Holy See and important Muslim organizations.
"It discouraged numerous efforts to construct harmony and friendship, in the quarters of European cities as well as in the countries, for secular and peaceful Islamic-Christian coexistence. It neutralized attempts to defuse inter-religious violence and to show how far the Church is from the neocolonialist logic of the Western hegemonic powers, and how a great majority of Muslims are opposed to the logic of hostile confrontation."
If dall’Oglio is right, then where are the fatwas condemning Islamist terrorism from the sheikhs and imams of al-Azhar – the most prestigious center of Muslim learning in the Sunni world? Where are the Muslims condemning Iran’s stated goal of obliterating a sovereign state for the Greater Glory of Allah?
Moreover, how has all this dialogue helped Middle Eastern Christians who experience ever-increasing persecution from Muslims? Did such dialogue save one life in Mumbai, Madrid, London, Bali, Beslan, New York, Washington or on the plains of Pennsylvania? Does it do anything to protect the innocent, let alone promote justice and peace?
As the founder of Christianity might have put it, what does it profit a church to gain an entire continent yet lose its own soul?