Pope Faces Middle East Turmoil
Scholar Discusses Holy Father’s Trip and U.S. Embassy Attacks
BY Edward Pentin
September 23-October 6, 2012 Issue | Posted 9/17/12 at 4:27 PM
Pope Benedict XVI visited Lebanon Sept. 14-16, arriving in the Middle East region at a time of bloody internal conflict in Syria and simmering tensions between Israel and Iran. Because of the Register’s publishing deadline, we are unable to provide live coverage in this issue.
The main aim of the apostolic voyage was to present his apostolic exhortation (concluding document) on the Synod for the Middle East that took place in 2010.
Prior to the Holy Father’s voyage, on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Muslim fundamentalists attacked the U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya, killing the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three embassy officials.
The violence, carried out by Islamist radicals in Benghazi and Cairo and which later spread to Yemen and other parts of the Arab world, was initially sparked by an American-made anti-Islam YouTube video called The Innocence of Islam.
In two separate interviews with Edward Pentin, the Register’s Rome correspondent, respected Egyptian scholar Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir discussed the Holy Father’s trip, and the recent attacks on the U.S. embassies.
A professor of philosophy, theology and Islamic studies, Father Samir is based at St. Joseph University in Beirut and also teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.
Is it right and wise for the Pope to travel now to Lebanon?
There is a risk. I don’t think anything would be organized against him, although we could have someone foolish acting against him. But I find it important — the fact that he so far hasn’t changed his mind.
He said he is coming, and this is also important, because it says: "I am with you. You are also living in a poor, insecure situation, and I’m taking part in your problems."
The Lebanese government may tell him that they cannot control the situation if something happens, but from his side, he is not canceling the trip. And this is for us — Christians and Muslims — a good sign.
Do you think that, in view of the "Arab Spring" and the current situation in the Middle East, this visit couldn’t really come at a better time?
Yes, we need this reassurance: for him to say to the world there is something more important than war and violence.
Is there a danger, in your view, that the current conflict in neighboring Syria could spill over into Lebanon while he’s there?
I think we’re used to having in Lebanon some local problems. In the last months, it was usually between Sunni and Shia. It could happen, because it’s also becoming part of a conflict in the whole area, but not really in Lebanon. We have people from both sides here also — and refugees from Syria. Something could happen, but I don’t think this will change the whole situation.
How important is it that the apostolic exhortation be delivered now? Is it more relevant, given the current circumstances?
Yes, the synod, which took place in October 2010, had important issues for Christians: because it was for Christians, particularly for Catholics, but also for relations between Christians and Muslims and the social and political situation.
It’s important for us to rethink our mission. Do we have a mission? Are we conscious of this mission, and what exactly is our mission?
People are leaving the country, but if we reflect, only in some countries there is danger, for example, in Palestine and Iraq. But in Lebanon there is no reason for a Christian to leave. Even in Egypt, there are problems and discrimination, but no real reasons to leave Egypt. And there is no discrimination in Jordan and not even in Syria.
So the first point to make is to remain here because we have a mission, and we need to find this mission together. It’s a mission of dialogue with Muslims and also announcing the Gospel to Muslims and living it in such a way.
Muslims have a right to know the Gospel. When they are convinced of their faith, they think we Christians have the right to know the Quran. In this sense, I think we only, as Arab Christians, could say something to Muslims that can be passed to both their and our culture.
A second point, one that is internal to the Church, is reform in the Church. The Catholic Church in the Middle East is a little bit too clerical. The role of the laypeople is very important here because they can say something on social, political problems, and we have no other voice. They have real dialogue every day with Muslims, but if we do it through the bishops or the patriarch, then it remains at this theoretical level.
It’s important that lay Christians understand their responsibility towards the state; it’s more important than in Europe, where people are of a Christian culture, if not of the faith.
This high level of pluralism and democracy is already practiced in Lebanon?
Yes, but not in other countries. The Pope’s trip is to Lebanon, but it’s really for the whole Middle East. He has chosen Lebanon for obvious reasons: because it has a strong Christian minority, almost 40%; the "infrastructure" of the Catholic Church is the only one to permit such a visit; and also because of the openness of the Muslims in Lebanon towards these questions.
Ecumenically, it’s very important as well, to tell the Orthodox that, yes, there are slight differences between us, but also nothing really fundamental and that we want to work together.
Lastly, between Muslims and Christians, we have problems; we are fighting in a Muslim world for more liberty of conscience, which is practically unknown. But we are doing so not only for us, but for Muslims themselves. They have a right to think independently of imams.
What is your reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Cairo and Benghazi?
Firstly, the fact that we had an attack on embassies in both Libya and Egypt suggests that there is a connection and that it was not a spontaneous and improvised act.
Secondly, this is a typical reaction of radical Islam. We had a similar thing when the pastor Terry Jones in the United States burned a page from the Quran, and Muslim radicals in Mazar-e-Sharif (northern Afghanistan) killed eight foreign U.N. employees.
But it must be said clearly that because the film was made in America does not mean that America supports this film. It’s essential to make clear what freedom of speech means, which is unknown to most Muslims. I can say things which are wrong, and you will contradict me, but you cannot kill someone or destroy an embassy or anything like that because you disagree with me. If we go this way, there is no possibility of a dialogue of cultures.
In this sense, the reaction of Hillary Clinton was certainly understandable. She said, "The United States deplores any effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others."
But I say: "Yes and no." It’s not the United States but someone who is denigrating beliefs of others, so it’s his problem. It’s not the nation’s problem. But she was right that there can never be a justification for such violent acts as these.
So the sentence needs to be reworded. The United States has nothing to do with someone who is denigrating another belief.
Muslims will often say their religion is one of peace. What do you say to this view when such attacks are carried out?
If they really think Islam is a religion of peace, then they should go on to the street and demand that these people who carried out the attacks are tried. But they ... protest when Muslims are criticized, and when Muslims kill innocent people, they are silent.
If Islam is a religion of peace, then organize a protest against these aggressors, and go to the U.S. Embassy and say: "Please excuse us as Muslims; we don’t consider them as Muslims." But they don’t do anything.
Why don’t they do anything?
Because they don’t have the courage to confront their brothers in Islam and to say: "Your Islam is harming Islam."
And, secondly, maybe because they are not so convinced; perhaps they think, in a way, they [radical Muslims] are right. They think: "These Western people, these Christians" — they confuse the two — "should be judged and condemned for making such a film."
Do you think these attacks further go to show that the "Arab Spring" opened the gates to Islamic fundamentalism?
I think so. I met someone today coming from Damascus, and I told him we don’t have to fear the radicals in Syria because Syria has a long tradition of secularism and so on. He said: "I would like to believe you, but what I’m seeing in Damascus on the street is that every day the Islamic movement is growing."
It is justified to be against [Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad, but if they are against him for religious reasons, this is unacceptable. If it is because he is carrying out acts of terrorism and violence, this is right, but not because they are Alawites or secular. My critique, as an Arab, is: "You are doing this in the name of religion, which is unacceptable." You cannot protest against or justify something in the name of religion! In name of human rights, yes!
What bearing, if any, will these attacks have on the Pope’s visit to Lebanon?
My feeling is that, in Lebanon, we learned something from our civil war (1975-1990) — that religion cannot be used in politics. This is the main question. This is my reaction to what happened in Libya and Egypt.
Religion is something spiritual and not sociological, political or cultural. It’s something spiritual and dogmatic.
Defend your faith spiritually, dogmatically, but not with the sword or with fire. This was acceptable in the Middle Ages, but we are now in the 21st century.
[Such violence] is against the meaning of the "Arab Spring" revolution. It’s a step backward. I hope we will correct this, recognize that it is not acceptable, and reform ourselves.
writes from Rome.
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