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Middle Eastern Christians: Going, Going…Gone

Two high-profile incidents last week, at opposite ends of the Arab world. In northern Iraq, recently conquered by the zealots of the newly proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Christians in Mosul were given three choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (about $750, on this occasion), or be killed. They all fled, and now Mosul is Christian-free for the first time in almost two millennia.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim finally got permission to leave her homeland after spending months chained up in a jail cell. The young woman had been condemned to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of having “converted” to Christianity, but the government couldn’t legally kill her until after her baby was born.

Now, neither of these incidents gives an accurate picture of government policy in Arab countries that have traditionally had Christian minorities (which is to say, most of them). Indeed, big Arab countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all had Christian ministers in their governments, and their laws guaranteed  religious freedom.

Sudan, whose legal system has been based on Islamic shariah law since a military coup thirty years ago, does not treat its citizens equally regardless of their religion. At first glance, however, the restrictions apply mostly to the Muslim majority, who, for example, are forbidden to leave their faith on pain of death. That was the law that almost killed Meriam Ibrahim.

Her father had been Muslim, but he had abandoned the family when she was very young and her Christian mother had brought her up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, according to Sudanese law you are a Muslim if your father was, and professing any other faith makes you an apostate. She refused to abandon her Christian faith, and so she was sentenced to hang.

But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. The suspicion hangs heavy that the prosecution grew out of a blackmail attempt gone wrong, for Meriam Ibrahim is a doctor and her husband, also a Christian, holds dual Sudanese and American citizenship. To your average impoverished Sudanese – like, perhaps, her absent father’s family – that would have spelled “money”.

So the accusation was made that she was really a Muslim who had abandoned her faith and married a Christian (both hanging offences), but it may have been made privately at first. Then, however, the professional zealots who make a living out of “defending Islam” got in on the act, demanding the apostate be killed, and the Sudanese government had to enforce its own laws.
The only saving grace was that Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant, and could not legally be killed until her child was born and had lived about two years. This gave time for the saner elements in the Sudanese government to work with her lawyers, and ultimately with US and Italian government representatives, to find a way to let her go. (Meanwhile, for all but the last month of her six-month ordeal, she was chained to the floor in a jail cell.)

It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum, landed in Rome, and was whisked off to a meeting with the Pope.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” her lawyer told the BBC.  “Her life is in danger so she feels she has to leave. Just two days ago a group called Hamza made a statement that they would kill her and everyone who helps her.”

So a happy(ish) ending to the story – but there were probably several other Sudanese Christians on the same flight who were leaving their country forever with less fanfare. It’s no longer wise for Christians to live there if they have any other options. And that is rapidly becoming the case for Iraq, too.

There were still about 60,000 Christians in Mosul when the United States and its sidekicks invaded Iraq eleven years ago. By last year, it was down to 30,000. Only two months after the arrival of the ISIS extremists, there are none. Most have fled to Kurdistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not going back, and if they can they will leave the Middle East entirely.

What has changed? For many centuries, the Christian minority of Arabs lived in relative peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. In the early 20th century, they were in the forefront of the nationalist and literary renaissance in the Arab world. But in the past decade, about a quarter of the Arab world’s 12 million Christians have emigrated, and the flow is increasing every year.

Most of them are not facing execution, like Meriam Ibrahim or the former residents of Mosul. They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalised and obsessed with religious differences – both Muslim-Christian ones and Sunni-Shia ones – and they have lost hope. They are Arabs who have lost their place in the Arab world, and they have to find one elsewhere.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Now…Ibrahim”; and “She…her”)

Eppure Si Muove

15 January 2008

Eppure Si Muove

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Pope’s words have come back to haunt him, and so they should. The authorities at La Sapienza University in Rome had invited him to come and speak this week at the inauguration of the new academic year, but the physics department mobilised in protest. It was at La Sapienza seventeen years ago that Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, declared that the trial and conviction of the astronomer Galileo by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting that the Earth goes around the Sun was “rational and just.”

The scientists took this to mean that Ratzinger sees religious authority as superior to scientific inquiry, and seized the occasion of his return visit to make a fuss about it. Radical students then took up the cause, festooning the campus with anti-Pope messages, and on Tuesday the Vatican announced that the visit was off. It’s a tempest in a rather small teapot, but he has stirred up a series of such tempests over the years.

Last year, during a visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict declared that the native populations of the Americas had been “silently longing” for the Christian faith that arrived with their conquerors and colonisers, and that in no way did it represent the imposition of a foreign culture. Indigenous groups protested bitterly, but he stood his ground.

In 2006, speaking at the University of Regensburg, he quoted with seeming approval a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s comment: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

When Muslims protested, Benedict took refuge in the claim that he was just quoting somebody else, not saying it himself. (You know how those quotes from Byzantine emperors just pop into your mind unbidden.) His defence of the Church’s treatment of Galileo all those years ago was done in just the same style: an outrageous proposition delivered in what he seemed to think was a deniable way.

Galileo was the first man in Italy to build a telescope, with which he discovered the moons of Jupiter — and the sight of them rotating around their much larger planet set him to thinking about the relationship of the Earth and the Sun. Copernicus had published his book asserting that the Earth rotated about the Sun more than half a century before, but a “Copernican” had been burned at the stake for his heretical views in 1600, so Galileo approached the matter carefully. On the other hand, unlike Copernicus, he had a telescope, so he could SEE what was going on.

Galileo was summoned to Rome in 1616 and ordered not to write about the Copernican theory any more, but in 1623 a man he saw as a patron and sympathiser was chosen as Pope Urban VIII. He travelled to Rome again, and believed that he had been given permission by Urban to discuss the Copernican theory in public, provided he presented it as only a hypothesis. Unfortunately, either the political balance in the Vatican subsequently changed, or else Galileo simply misunderstood what he was told.

When he published his book in 1632, it was banned. In 1633, he was interrogated in Rome under threat of torture, and condemned for “following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture.” He recanted his views to save his skin, but they sentenced him to life imprisonment anyway.

But there is a story, perhaps untrue, that as Galileo was led away he muttered defiantly under his breath “Eppure si muove” (“And yet it moves”). True or not, scientists see that scene as the great defining moment in the conflict between authority and truth — or, if you like, between faith and reason. Clearly, so does Joseph Ratzinger, which is presumably why he felt compelled, back in 1990, to take one more kick at Galileo.

Speaking at La Sapienza, Rome’s most prestigious university, he declared that the Church had been quite right to try and punish Galileo. Or rather, in a typical Ratzinger ploy, he quoted the maverick Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who said: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.” God knows what Feyerabend actually meant by that, but that was the quote that Ratzinger chose to use.

If you pay attention to what Pope Benedict has been saying all these years, it’s clear that he does see Catholicism as superior to other religions and faith as superior to reason. There is nothing surprising about this. After all, he is the head of the Catholic church, and many if not most committed Catholics do believe these things.

But he does go a little farther than most, believing that “Error has no rights” (in the old Catholic phrase) and that “error” is whatever the Church said it was at the time. In the circumstances, you can see why the scientists at La Sapienza University were not all that keen on a return visit.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Last year…ground”; and “Galileo was summoned…told”)

What the Pope Really Did

8 April 2005

What the Pope Really Did

By Gwynne Dyer

It was the biggest photo-op in world history, and everybody who is anybody was there. Even the Protestant president of the United States and the Muslim clergyman who is president of the Islamic Republic of Iran felt obliged to show up for the Pope’s funeral. But the media circus has already moved on to the next global event — two divorced British people in late middle age getting married in a registry office in Windsor — and there is one last opportunity to consider the life of Karol Wojtyla.

Forget all the stuff about how he smothered all the new thinking and decentralisation that were beginning to transform the Catholic church when he was chosen pope in 1978. It’s true, but he was elected precisely to carry out that task. The conservatives in the Curia who had been sidelined by Vatican II were determined to stop the rot (as they saw it), and they were well aware that Wojtyla was a man in their own mould when they pushed him forward as the dark-horse candidate to succeed John Paul I.

He acted as they expected that he would, and it would be foolish to condemn him for it. He held those beliefs long before he became pope, and he never hid them. But there was one thing he did that astonished and appalled the conservatives. It was also the one thing he did that will still define the Catholic church’s policy centuries from now.

Most of John Paul II’s policies are eminently reversible, if a subsequent generation of church leaders should decide that a different line on contraceptives or women priests is more in accord with divine teaching. That isn’t likely to happen any time soon, given the way that he has packed the College of Cardinals with like-minded individuals, but with enough time many things become possible. What later generations are most unlikely to reverse is his acknowledgement that Judaism is a valid alternative path to God.

We are not just talking “apology” here — although Christians certainly owed apologies to the Jews for two millennia of slander and persecution — nor even “reconciliation”. John Paul II went far beyond that, though few members of the general public realised it at the time: he recognised Judaism as a true religion.

There is an old saying, beloved of Catholic theologians, that “error has no rights.” It drives the ecumenical crowd crazy, but it is perfectly logical: if you believe that your religion is true, and the others are different, then the others are false. John Paul II was perfectly affable and hospitable to various Protestant Christians who came to visit, but he truly believed that they were wrong, wrong, wrong — and he refused to enter into the equal relationships that they fondly imagined to be possible between the various Christian sects.

He was more open to the Orthodox Christian world, both because he came from eastern Europe himself and because the quarrel between the Orthodox churches and the Church of Rome has always been about hierarchical and stylistic matters, not about basic doctrinal issues. It was in his relations with the non-Christian religions that are also in the lineage of Abraham, however, that John Paul II broke decisively with Christian and Catholic tradition.

In fourteen hundred years of constant and intimate contact between the Muslim and Christian peoples around the Mediterranean, he was the first pope ever to enter a mosque. He doubtless continued to believe that Christianity was the one true successor to Judaism and that Islam was a post-Jewish, post-Christian heresy, but he was the first pope to argue that cordial relations between them were possible and desirable. And in the case of the Jews, he went much farther.

It’s understandable that the new religion of Christianity, struggling to distance itself from its Jewish roots, should have insisted that the Christian revelation had invalidated and replaced the older faith. By implication, however, that meant that those Jews who refused to convert were in revolt against God — and from that mind-set came the Christian image of Jews as “Christ-killers,” and two millennia of savage Christian persecution culminating in the European holocaust of 1942-45.

Karol Wojtyla was a witness to that holocaust, which may be why he did the extraordinary thing that he did. On his visit to Israel in 2000, he posted a prayer in a niche in Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall which said: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”

By posting that prayer in the wall, he acknowledged that this uniquely Jewish method of communicating with the Almighty is valid — and by its contents he accepted that the Jewish covenant with God is still in force. It was a thing done in a moment, but it ended two thousand years of Christian rejection of Judaism. The Catholic church, while still advocating the conversion of everybody else, no longer seeks the conversion of the Jews, which is as close as it can come to acknowledging the essential validity of the Jewish faith.

That was the Big Thing that John Paul II did, and it is more important and will last far longer than all the other things he did put together.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Forget…now”)

My Greatest Journalistic Moment

3 April 2005

My Greatest Journalistic Moment

By Gwynne Dyer

In the days to come we will be hearing a great deal about Pope John Paul II’s impact on the Catholic Church, the candidates for the succession, and what kind of straw they burn with the ballots to get that black smoke. This is also the first time that a pope has died in the past 27 years, however, and that finally gives me a hook for my story about how the last pope died. Or rather, about how I covered the last pope’s death. Or actually, how I didn’t cover it.

It was late September of 1978, and we had been driving across the Alps all night from Germany, three hot-shot young journalists who were all destined for medium-sized things. We were doing this radio series on war, and we were just passing through Italy on our way to Ciampino airfield and an aircraft carrier out in the Mediterranean, but we were planning to stop in Rome for a day or two, so I’d arranged for us to stay at a friend’s flat up in Trastevere — quite near the Vatican, in fact.

We stopped at a service area an hour north of Rome to phone her, because we needed to get the key before she left for work. We left Mati sleeping in the car — and when we came back he told us this weird story about how a truck-driver had tried to tell him something. Mati hadn’t understood a word (the only languages he spoke were Estonian and English), but he was a great mimic, so he just parroted what the man had said.

“Il papa e morte,” the man had said, and Mati had looked blank, so he’d repeated it in German: “Der Papst ist gestorben.” Then he’d put his hands together and sort of laid his head on them, as if he were going to sleep — or dying. “That means The Pope is dead’,” I said, and we all laughed at the poor truck-driver. How could anybody be so out of touch? The pope had died over a month ago; Luciano Albino had already been chosen in his place, and had taken the name John Paul.

So we drove on into Rome. (There was nothing on the radio but hymns, so we switched it off.) We got to Trastevere too late to catch Fareeda before she left for work, so we went to the centre of town and had a second breakfast, then sat in a café and had some wine.

Meanwhile, back in London, they’re frantic to get in touch with us. They know we’re due in Rome today, and we’re just about the only English-speaking radio journalists in town. There were hundreds of them here last month, when the new pope was crowned, but they’ve all gone home again. However, this is well before the age of mobile phones, so we sit there in blissful ignorance and have some more wine. And some more.

It was about three in the afternoon when I noticed a man walking by with a paper folded under his arm and the headline showing. It read: ‘Il papa e morte.’ Oh bugger. The new one has died too. We’re in trouble now.

So we sent Tom off to phone London with some cock-and-bull story about how we were trapped all night in an Alpine pass and had just arrived in Rome, while Mati and I dashed over to St. Peter’s Square to get some vox pop. By the time we got there, alas, everybody was long gone. Earlier the square had been full of weeping old ladies on their knees, but then they all went home to make lunch and they didn’t come back. People do love an excuse to mourn together in public, but there was a limit to what you could do with a man who had only been pope for 33 days.

There was nobody around except a few desperate journalistic stragglers interviewing each other, so we did the same and “pigeoned” the resulting sorry effort off to London with an obliging Alitalia stewardess. (Yes, technology was once that low.) Mercifully, it got lost in transit. Then we solemnly vowed that we would never tell anybody else about the day, and sealed the pact with another bottle of wine.

The only thing I learned from all this was the real source of the Beatles song “Maxwell’s silver hammer.” The chorus had always seemed a bit obscure: “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on her head. Clang, clang, Maxwell’s silver hammer made sure that she was dead.” But Paul McCartney had been born Catholic, and soon the media were once again full of trivia about Vatican rituals — like the deathbed one where a cardinal bangs the late pope on the forehead five times with a silver hammer, while calling out his real name, to make sure that he is dead.

Luciano Albino didn’t reply, so the brief reign of Pope John Paul I was declared over and Karol Wojtyla got the chance to remake the Catholic Church in his own authoritarian and ultra-conservative image. His rock-star charisma deflected attention from the collapse in church attendance, the haemorrhage of priests (an estimated 100,000 quit the priesthood during his papacy), and the breaking of the Catholic monopoly in Latin America (where up to a quarter of the poor have converted to evangelical Protestant sects in the past quarter-century). But how different it might have been if Albino hadn’t had his heart attack.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Meanwhile…more”; and “There was…wine.”)