You just might think you've struck a nerve when a guy who goes to work every day at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to promote interfaith dialogue -- someone who keeps people talking -- hangs up on you. You've certainly struck out, anyway. But "dialogue" with John Borelli, the bishops' staff man on Catholic-Muslim relations, didn't hold much promise after he said he wouldn't comment on an extraordinary article about the desperate plight of Christians in Islamic societies that appeared in La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine thought of as the semi-official voice of the Vatican.
"I won't comment on an article that I have not read in its entirety," Mr. Borelli said, noting that the English translation of the Italian article, "Christians in Islamic Countries" by Giuseppe De Rosa S.I., available at www.chiesa.espressonline.it/english under the headline "The Church and Islam. 'La Civilta Cattolica' Breaks the Ceasefire," is incomplete. (It is a 3,083-word excerpt.) "I don't know what the point of the article is."
Here's the point: For the first time in almost 30 years, a source close to the heart of the Catholic Church (articles in La Civilta Cattolica are approved by the secretary of state of the Vatican) has published what Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister calls "a strikingly severe" account of the Christian condition under Islamic rule. The article may represent a shift, if not a break, in the long-standing Vatican policy of silence on the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.
The article highlights the "seemingly rather curious fact" that wherever Islam has imposed itself by conquest -- in what is now Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and in the regions of historic Mesopotamia and Palestine -- "Christianity, which had been extraordinarily vigorous and rooted for centuries, practically disappeared." And, the article further notes, "for almost a thousand years, Europe was under constant threat from Islam, which twice put its survival in serious danger."
The explanation? As if taking a page from the historian Bat Ye'or, the article cites the Islamic precepts of jihad (holy war) and dhimmitude (inferior status of non-Muslims). It also stipulates that there are two meanings of jihad -- the spiritual war, or struggle, to be faithful to the teachings of the Koran, and the literal war that is waged to spread Islam. Both meanings, it says, are "equally essential and must not be dissociated, as if one could exist without the other." The article continues: "Obedience to the precept of 'holy war' explains why the history of Islam is one of unending warfare for the conquest of infidel lands." This same "obedience" has led to recent anti-Christian violence in Algeria, Pakistan, Nigeria, Java, East Timor, the Moluccas and, most dramatically, Sudan. Little wonder, as the article also reports, that between roughly one-quarter and one-third of the estimated Christian population of the Middle East has emigrated over the past decade to the free world.
Such tidings could bring a pause in the "dialogue," but they provide plenty to talk about. "I personally welcome the greater straightforwardness evident in these statements," said Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and editor of First Things magazine. "Of course, we are committed to (interfaith) dialogue, but we ask our Muslim interlocutors to take seriously some of the difficulties posed by Islam." As examples, he listed Islam's failure to allow religious freedom, its persecution of Christian minorities and its hateful attitude toward Jews. Dialogue, Neuhaus said, "cannot be purchased at the price of telling the truth."
But what is true now was true in the past: What accounts for the new frankness? The American Enterprise Institute's Michael Novak wonders whether the Vatican has been encouraged to speak out both by the failure of the so-called "Arab street" to revolt against U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the large numbers of Muslims Mr. Novak believes are seeking human rights in Iran and elsewhere. "My own hypothesis," he said, "is that change in the Arab world has allowed the Vatican to be more candid."
Others are not so sanguine. Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, suggests that the new frankness in Rome may be linked to the increasingly dire plight of Christians at the hands of Muslims in Sudan, Nigeria and other parts of Africa. The situation in Europe, where immigration policies have created large, unassimilated Muslim communities within traditionally Christian, secular societies, could also be influencing Vatican thinking. "Before the 1990s," Ms. Shea said, "the biggest persecutors of Christians were communist countries." With the fall of the Soviet Union, radical Islam took communism's place. "We're still very naive," she said. "We need to educate people."