“Enough now with this turning the other cheek! It’s our duty to protect ourselves.” Thus spoke Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican’s supreme court, referring to Muslims. Explaining his apparent rejection of Jesus’ admonition to his followers to “turn the other cheek,” De Paolis noted that “The West has had relations with the Arab countries for half a century … and has not been able to get the slightest concession on human rights.”
De Paolis is hardly alone in his thinking; indeed, the Catholic Church is undergoing a dramatic shift from a decades-old policy to protect Catholics living under Muslim rule. The old methods of quiet diplomacy and muted appeasement have clearly failed. The estimated 40 million Christians in Dar al-Islam, notes the Barnabas Fund’s Patrick Sookhdeo, increasingly find themselves an embattled minority facing economic decline, dwindling rights, and physical jeopardy. Most of them, he goes on, are despised and distrusted second-class citizens, facing discrimination in education, jobs, and the courts.
These harsh circumstances are causing Christians to flee their ancestral lands for the West’s more hospitable environment. Consequently, Christian populations of the Muslim world are in a free-fall. Two small but evocative instances of this pattern: for the first time in nearly two millennia, Nazareth and Bethlehem no longer have Christian majorities.
This reality of oppression and decline stands in dramatic contrast to the surging Muslim minority of the West. Although numbering fewer than 20 million and made up mostly of immigrants and their offspring, it is an increasingly established and vocal minority, granted extensive rights and protections even as it wins new legal, cultural, and political prerogatives.
This widening disparity has caught the attention of the Church, which for the first time is pointing to radical Islam, rather than the actions of Israel, as the central problem facing Christians living with Muslims.
Rumblings of this could be heard already in John Paul II’s time. For example, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican equivalent of foreign minister, noted in late 2003 that “There are too many majority Muslim countries where non-Muslims are second-class citizens.” Tauran pushed for reciprocity: “Just as Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well.”
Catholic demands for reciprocity have grown, especially since the accession of Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, for whom Islam is a central concern. In February, the pope emphasized the need to respect “the convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal manner, the exercise of freely-chosen religion is truly assured to all.” In May, he again stressed the need for reciprocity: Christians must love immigrants and Muslims must treat well the Christians among them.
Lower-ranking clerics, as usual, are more outspoken. “Islam’s radicalization is the principal cause of the Christian exodus,” asserts Monsignor Philippe Brizard, director general of Oeuvre d’Orient, a French organization focused on Middle Eastern Christians. Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University in Rome, advises the Church to drop its “diplomatic silence” and instead “put pressure on international organizations to make the societies and states in majority Muslim countries face up to their responsibilities.”
The Danish cartoons crisis offered a typical example of Catholic disillusionment. Church leaders initially criticized the publication of the Muhammad cartoons. But when Muslims responded by murdering Catholic priests in Turkey and Nigeria, not to speak of scores of Christians killed during five days of riots in Nigeria, the Church responded with warnings to Muslims. “If we tell our people they have no right to offend, we have to tell the others they have no right to destroy us, ” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. “We must always stress our demand for reciprocity in political contacts with authorities in Islamic countries and, even more, in cultural contacts,” added Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, its foreign minister.
Obtaining the same rights for Christians in Islamdom that Muslims enjoy in Christendom has become the key to the Vatican’s diplomacy toward Muslims. This balanced, serious approach marks a profound improvement in understanding that could have implications well beyond the Church, given how many lay politicians heed its leadership in inter-faith matters. Should Western states also promote the principle of reciprocity, the results should indeed be interesting.