Remember the Byzantines

(My much more talented successor as op-ed editor of the student newspaper that I once tried to run into the ground asked me to write a piece for her. Since I want to post something today I present my column two days before the rest of the world gets it. This builds on a topic Tito discussed a few weeks ago)

Pope’s comments show historical ignorance which often plagues Christian/Muslim dialogue

A few weeks ago Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, sparked outraged among swaths of the Islamic world with comments made during a lecture in his native Germany. The Pope later issued an oddly framed apology, of sorts, where he expressed sorrow for the sometimes violent reaction that his words caused among some Muslims. In the wake of his comments and the strife that followed the Pope as agreed to meet with Islamic emissaries in an effort to further inter-faith dialog. Hopefully those meetings will produce some good.

The Pope, an educated man and former professor, shows with his comments a historical ignorance that often plagues dialog between Christians and Muslims. By citing a Byzantine Emperor and linking the spread of Islam purely by force the Pope engages shows a historically myopic view that does nothing but further inflame already festering wounds between the Christian and Islamic faiths.

A Byzantine Emperor is the last, and least objective, source for a prime quotation about the spread of the Islamic faith. The Christian Byzantine Empire had been locked in combat with successive Islamic empires for hundreds of years. With a just a few generations of the reign of Manuel II, the Emperor quoted by Benedict, there would be no more Byzantine Empire. Constantinople fell, in 1453, to the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic Empire. Thus Manuel II certainly wasn’t bound to have a very high opinion of Islam or its adherents.

If the Pope was looking to discuss the tragedy of spreading religion by the sword he need not look further than the Christian experience. Benedict would gain much insight by examining how Christianity spread among German tribes in the 8th and 9th centuries or the role violence played in spreading the Catholic faith to the peoples of Latin America in the 16th century. I could go on.

One is bound, upon even upon a cursory examination of the historical record, to get the impression that the Catholic Pope is really the pot calling the kettle black on this issue. This is not to say that Christianity was spread purely by the sword, or that coercion played no role in expansion of the Islamic faith. Rather no religion, Christianity, Islam, or otherwise, as a bloodless history. Everyone’s hands are dirty.

It does not matter if you consider Christianity, or its Roman Catholic variant, to be the one true faith; examining the sordid history of all religions, most especially your own, and acknowledging that history’s role in shaping the circumstances we find ourselves in can go along way towards bridging the gaps caused by ignorance between all peoples.

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