A Jewish-Catholic Partnership against Islamist Violence?
by Lawrence A. Franklin
September 26, 2017 at 4:00 am
◾The Pope’s failure vociferously to denounce Islam-based violence concerns many among both Church hierarchy and lay people.
◾The pope’s statements regarding Islam and his refusal directly to discuss mounting Christian martyrdom in Muslim lands defy credulity. Whether his words are willful blindness, innocent naiveté, or intellectual ignorance of the nature of Islam itself, it is confusing many of the faithful.
◾One moderate Muslim leader, Yahya Cholil Staquf, head of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, said that Westerners “should stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam.”
The Chief Rabbinates of world Jewry apparently want to partner with the Vatican to combat radical Islam. In a recent letter, they proposed a formal alliance between Judaism and Catholicism, calling “upon the [Catholic] Church to join us in deepening our combat against our generation’s new barbarism, namely the radical offshoots of Islam.”
This extraordinary alliance would unite Orthodox Jewry and the Holy See against their common enemy, jihadist Islam. The Rabbinates’ letter identifies “the very real danger facing many Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere as they are persecuted and menaced by violence and death at the hands of those who invoke God’s Name in vain through violence and terror.”
The authors of this missive to Pope Francis — the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (CRI), the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) — represent the vast majority of the world’s Orthodox Jews. Representatives of Judaism’s Conservative and Reform wings did not sign the letter. Seemingly, any successful efforts by the Orthodox community to elicit the support of Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders would further strengthen the initiative’s standing in the Vatican.
The Rabbinates chose the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s publication of the Papal Encyclical “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”) to launch their appeal. This document revolutionized relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism, as it formally absolved the Jewish people of any responsibility for Christ’s crucifixion. Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965 during the Second Vatican Council, the encyclical declared:
“His (Jesus’) passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
The rabbis proposed an alliance to fight Islam-inspired anti-Semitic and anti-Christian narratives. The rabbis also praised Pope Francis for his 2015 Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“Joy of the Gospel”) as it acknowledges “that God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant, bringing forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with His word.” In addition, they complimented Francis for his denunciation “of a new, pervasive, even fashionable form of anti-Semitism.”
Notably, after these complimentary references, they were silent about the Pope’s apparent reluctance publicly to denounce Islamic terrorism. They also did not address his silence about particular passages in the Koran which have fueled both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian atrocities. Denunciations of Jews and Christians are highlighted in the very first chapter (Sura) of the Koran, in a prayer allegedly taught by Allah to his Messenger, Muhammad:
“Guide us on the Straight Path
The way of those upon whom You have bestowed Your Grace
not (the way of) those who have earned Your anger (Jews)
Nor those who went astray (Christians) ”
Koran Sura One: Al-Fatihah (The Opening) Verses (Ayat) 6 and 7
Pope Francis has yet to address this reference and the many other denunciations of Jews and Christians in the Koran.
The following examples illustrate Pope Francis’s public approach thus far. Avoiding criticism of Islam, he called the Koran “a prophetic book of peace.” Also, on a flight back from Poland, he told reporters “It’s not right to identify Islam with violence. It’s not right and it’s not true.” More bewildering however, is his comment following the horrific murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris: “in freedom of expression there are limits… you cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The Pope’s failure vociferously to denounce Islam-based violence concerns many among both Church hierarchy and lay people. Some may wonder what motivates Francis to avoid pointed criticism of the violent excesses committed by the Muslim faithful. Some may also ask why Francis avoids condemning the extremist rhetoric of imams routinely urging attacks against Christians and Jews. The reluctance of Francis to criticize Islamic violence while not hesitating publicly to condemn evil, corruption, and social injustice elsewhere, invites inquiry.
One explanation for the Pope’s seeming naïveté about Islam’s hostility to Judeo-Christian civilization might be his perception of his role. He may well believe that his mission is to lead all men to Christ. No doubt he also believes that all things are possible in a God-created universe, even the ultimate conversion of Muslims to Christianity. On a human plane, he may understand that there is little hope for the peaceful coexistence of Judaism, Christianity, or secular democracy with Islam. The Church has a long view of the ways God moves in history. In this sense, Catholicism and Islam share a casual view of transient ideologies, governments and nation-states.
Even so, the Pope’s statements regarding Islam and his refusal directly to discuss mounting Christian martyrdom in Muslim lands defy credulity. Whether his words are willful blindness, innocent naiveté, or intellectual ignorance of the nature of Islam itself, it is confusing many of the faithful. One moderate Muslim leader, Yahya Cholil Staquf, head of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, said that Westerners “should stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam.”
The Rabbinates’ proposal for an alliance will receive a polite hearing, especially by the Vatican’s “Commission of the Holy See’s Religious Relations with Jews” and “The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue.” As yet, however, there is no sign that Francis will alter his outreach to the Muslim world or become more critical of Islam-based extremism. Another possible reason for the Vatican’s reluctance might be its concern for minority Christian populations residing in Muslim-majority countries. Still another might be the Vatican’s responsibility to secure Christendom’s sacred sites in the Holy Land and to protect Vatican property and financial interests.
Pope Francis is no doubt sensitive to possible Muslim misperceptions about his intentions. The Vatican is not game to rejoin a centuries-old battle against Islamic expansionism. Indeed, Francis would want to avoid repeating the anti-Christian violence that followed Pope Benedict’s obscure criticism of Islam. Responding to moderate and extremist indignation at Benedict’s having quoted a medieval Christian Emperor’s critique of Islam, Muslims killed a nun in Somalia, beheaded a priest in Iraq, and attacked churches in the West Bank.
Francis is also aware of the potential of explosive anti-Christian violence that might follow any cooperative effort by Jews and Catholics to combat Islamist violence. Indeed, Islamic leaders such Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s principal theologian with a global Muslim following, called for “Al-Youm Al Ghadah” (“Day of Rage”) after Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture critical of Islam, that he delivered in Regensburg in 2006.
For Jews, religious or secular, particularly in Europe, a partnership with the Vatican would provide a psychological boost, as many have already fled rising anti-Semitic, Islamist violence.
While the Rabbinates’ proposal does not have the public endorsement of secular Jews, there is little doubt that many embrace similar sentiments. The document outlines the threat that both radical secularism and extremist Islam pose to religious liberty and the shared values of Judaism and Christianity. The Symposium on “Anti-Semitism and Minority Rights in the Middle East,” sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy (ISGAP), convened in the Vatican on September 13, 2017, may provide Pope Francis a venue to embrace, or at least mention, this appeal for partnership.
Despite the Vatican’s cautious approach to Islam-inspired violence, this unprecedented offer of partnership by Jewish religious leaders must tempt some within the Vatican’s hierarchy to consider embracing their initiative. The Church is relieved after finally having purged remnants of anti-Semitism in its midst, in part due to the efforts of Pope John Paul II. It is now proud of its improved relations with official Judaism and the Jewish people.
Catholics, especially those who are minorities in Muslim-majority societies, and some of whom suffer persecution by Islamic militants, would presumably like Francis vigorously to defend their rights. The Vatican may nevertheless continue to mollify Muslim sensitivities, while still hoping to limit ongoing martyrdoms of Christians. This cautious approach is likely to endure until a catastrophic anti-Christian Islam-based atrocity precipitates a rebellion within the Church’s hierarchy.