23 - 29 March 2000
Issue No. 474
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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In the shadow of the cross
By Graham Usher
It was what Pope John Paul II did not say during a "day of forgiveness" mass last Sunday which elicited the most critical responses from Arab intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian. While many welcomed the pontiff's appeal for pardon for a multitude of historic events in which the Roman Catholic Church was implicated, they nevertheless expressed disappointment with a papal sermon which contained "no explicit apologies" to Arabs and Muslims similar to those made to "the people of Israel."
"We forgive and we ask for forgiveness," the Pope declared in the mass on the first Sunday of Lent in St Peter's.
At one point during the liturgy, the Pope expressed his desire that Jews, gypsies, heretics, women, peoples of different cultures and non-Catholic Christians as well as holders of other faiths would never again receive unjust treatment at the hands of Catholics -- an allusion to murders during the Crusades, the Inquisition and World War II. This is not the first time that errors and sins have been acknowledged by the Catholic clergy, but it is the first time they have been referred to in a papal liturgy and directed at the descendants of the injured with a request for forgiveness.
Islamist thinker Mohamed Emara praised the papal move, but expressed dismay at the pope's failure to mention the Arabs -- or Muslims for that matter -- as a group which has endured sufferings at the hands of the Church.
"I would have liked the pope to express regret for the two centuries of aggression against the Muslim East which the Church championed, but the apology was too vague and general," Emara told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Crusades, launched by Pope Urban II at Clermont, France, in 1095 to win Jerusalem and the Biblical land from Muslims, were the first confrontation between the East and the West. The campaigns, which raged for two centuries, inflicted massive sufferings on the local populations of Muslims, Christians and Jews and massacres committed by the crusaders cost tens of thousands of lives. But an equally serious consequence was the antagonism they caused between Islam and Christianity, which continues to be tangible until today.
Nasser Rabbat, a Syrian Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT who has written extensively on the Crusades, said that the apology fell short of healing the historic wounds and resolving complexities that have affected the psyches of both the Muslim East and the Christian West.
As Pope John Paul II prepared for mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square on 22 March, the Palestinian flag fluttered in the foreground (photo: Reuters)
"Historically, Europe has never forgotten the Crusades whose image is constantly invoked in press and public discourse. They have become a point where history begins and ends as far as the relation with Islam and Muslims is concerned," Rabbat told the Weekly.
The theological framework of the "day of forgiveness" is based on a document presented last week in a Vatican text under the title Memory and reconciliation: the Church and the faults of the past. The document described both the Crusades and Inquisition as "isolated historic phenomena." Arab intellectuals who read the document were dismayed at the description because of what they believed to be an attempt by the Church to "wash its hands of the bloody attacks it had championed."
"The Church must take full moral and historic responsibility for creating this atmosphere of animosity and hatred between Islam ad the West," Rabbat said.
Defending the Vatican's position, Anba Yohanna Golta, a Coptic Catholic bishop, insists that this is not the first time the papacy has apologised. "In previous papal sermons, the pope has made explicit references to the Crusades, and has consistently called for better understanding and cooperation with the Muslim world."
By not specifically addressing the Arabs or Muslims -- as the document did with the Jews whom it described as the people of Israel and then the people of the Covenant -- Rabbat believes that a great opportunity for reconciliation between the Arab East and the West has been missed.
"If the pope had acknowledged the sufferings endured by the Arabs and Muslims as he did with the people of Israel, he would have made a big leap in the direction of a genuine reconciliation between the East and the West," Rabbat said.
While describing the move as "historically significant since the church is developing a new discourse which accepts the other," Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri, author of the Encyclopedia of Judaism, Jews and Zionism, said that more needs to be done if the Church is genuine in its apology.
"What we need is an apology that does not stop at the level of tears and hand-wringing," Elmessiri said.
Others blamed Arab diplomacy for failure to lobby for a papal apology. "Despite the fact that he comes across as the holy father of the Church, the Vatican is a political state and the Pope wields much political influence. Israel acknowledges that," Farid Al-Khazen, a Lebanese professor of political science and a Maronite, said.
Vatican sources maintain that the apology was a diplomatic and not a political act. But politics are spilling over ahead of the pontiff's visit to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories next week.