Pope Benedict’s XVI visit to Lebanon last month was a proud and privileged moment for Lebanese and other Christians in the region. But as the Pope spoke on behalf of peace, called for Christian unity and addressed the importance of living the interfaith reality in the region, American embassies in the Middle East and other locations around the world were under siege by Muslim crowds.
Muslim anger was aroused by an amateur film made in the United States that depicted the prophet Mohammad in disrespectful ways. Political cartoons in French newspapers quickly picked up the theme, exacerbating an already volatile situation. The issue is very sensitive to all Muslims. Even a respectful image of the prophet is forbidden.
Much of the world was left with sadness at the death of the U.S. ambassador and three colleagues who were killed when the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed. Many in the civilized world simply do not understand why some Muslims respond so violently to a film created by a single individual. We’re left to ask: does the punishment poured out upon those embassies equal the offence?
Pope Benedict, standing shoulder to shoulder with leaders of the Christian world, along with various inter-faith leaders and a group of atheists in Assisi, Italy, in October 2011, made the following comment: “We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty that considers itself entitled to disregard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended good. In this case, religion does not serve peace, but is used as a justification for violence. While we condemn terrorism of the day, it should be acknowledged that history also gives testimony that Christians have used force and violence in a way which today we acknowledge with a measure of shame.”
Most Canadian and Americans, including Canadian and American Muslims, would agree that these outrageous attacks are without justification and must be condemned. But, regrettably, there is a growing sense in the West that Muslims in general are a menace. Incidents such as these contribute another layer of undeserved resentment and suspicion of most Muslims. It is becoming more difficult for the average person in the West to believe the majority of Muslims are law-abiding, God-fearing, neighbourly people who walk the streets of our neighbourhoods and are very much committed to our same values of freedom, peace and family.
The Muslims who act violently represent a tiny percentage of the world’s Muslim population. Muslims are about a quarter of the planet’s population, about 1.6 billion people in total. In 2009, they exceeded the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics (although there are 2.18 billion Christians overall) and over the next 20 years the Muslim population is projected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world. The tendency is to regard Muslims as being Middle Eastern or south Asian but the reality is that they inhabit every continent and embody many nationalities and cultures.
So it is incumbent upon us, as Christians, to not paint the whole Muslim world with the same brush of suspicion. Islam is one of three world monotheistic religions, joining Christianity and Judaism. In Islam, Jesus is revered as a prophet but not as divine, while Mary is honoured and mentioned more often in the Quran than in the New Testament. Like Christians, Muslims are called to love their neighbour — and most do.
When a Christian or a Muslim dishonour their neighbour, both fail in the faithfulness to which they have been called, and both must undergo a change of heart. What that means in our day-to-day lives is that if a Christian has an opportunity to befriend a Muslim based upon the Golden Rule, they should take that initiative, thus building a better world. And vice-versa.
Together, Christians and Muslims need to address the sobering question of how to overcome the ideological differences that drive such a wide wedge between them. Is the human desire for genuine peace and freedom stronger than acts of violence? Let’s pray that the answer to that question is yes.
(Fr. MacPherson, SA, is Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)