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BE NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION"
23 Sept. 2006
Since the days when Roman Emperors threw
Christians to the lions, the relations between
the emperors and the heads of the church have
undergone many changes.
Constantine the Great, who became Emperor in the
year 306 - exactly 1700 years ago - encouraged
the practice of Christianity in the empire,
which included Palestine. Centuries later, the
church split into an Eastern (Orthodox) and a
Western (Catholic) part. In the West, the Bishop
of Rome, who acquired the title of Pope,
demanded that the Emperor accept his
The struggle between the Emperors and the Popes
played a central role in European history and
divided the peoples. It knew ups and downs. Some
Emperors dismissed or expelled a Pope, some
Popes dismissed or excommunicated an Emperor.
One of the Emperors, Henry IV, "walked to
Canossa", standing for three days barefoot in
the snow in front of the Pope's castle, until
the Pope deigned to annul his excommunication.
But there were times when Emperors and Popes
lived in peace with each other. We are
witnessing such a period today. Between the
present Pope, Benedict XVI, and the present
Emperor, George Bush II, there exists a
wonderful harmony. Last week's speech by the
Pope, which aroused a world-wide storm, went
well with Bush's crusade against "Islamofascism",
in the context of the "Clash of Civilizations".
IN HIS lecture at a German university, the 265th
Pope described what he sees as a huge difference
between Christianity and Islam: while
Christianity is based on reason, Islam denies
it. While Christians see the logic of God's
actions, Muslims deny that there is any such
logic in the actions of Allah.
As a Jewish atheist, I do not intend to enter
the fray of this debate. It is much beyond my
humble abilities to understand the logic of the
Pope. But I cannot overlook one passage, which
concerns me too, as an Israeli living near the
fault-line of this "war of civilizations".
In order to prove the lack of reason in Islam,
the Pope asserts that the prophet Muhammad
ordered his followers to spread their religion
by the sword. According to the Pope, that is
unreasonable, because faith is born of the soul,
not of the body. How can the sword influence the
To support his case, the Pope quoted - of all
people - a Byzantine Emperor, who belonged, of
course, to the competing Eastern Church. At the
end of the 14th century, the Emperor Manuel II
Palaeologus told of a debate he had - or so he
said (its occurrence is in doubt) - with an
unnamed Persian Muslim scholar. In the heat of
the argument, the Emperor (according to himself)
flung the following words at his adversary:
"Show me just what
Mohammed 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
These words give rise to three questions: (a)
Why did the Emperor say them? (b) Are they true?
(c) Why did the present Pope quote them?
WHEN MANUEL II wrote his treatise, he was the
head of a dying empire. He assumed power in
1391, when only a few provinces of the once
illustrious empire remained. These, too, were
already under Turkish threat.
At that point in time, the Ottoman Turks had
reached the banks of the Danube. They had
conquered Bulgaria and the north of Greece, and
had twice defeated relieving armies sent by
Europe to save the Eastern Empire. On May 29,
1453, only a few years after Manuel's death, his
capital, Constantinople (the present Istanbul)
fell to the Turks, putting an end to the Empire
that had lasted for more than a thousand years.
During his reign, Manuel made the rounds of the
capitals of Europe in an attempt to drum up
support. He promised to reunite the church.
There is no doubt that he wrote his religious
treatise in order to incite the Christian
countries against the Turks and convince them to
start a new crusade. The aim was practical,
theology was serving politics.
In this sense, the quote serves exactly the
requirements of the present Emperor, George Bush
II. He, too, wants to unite the Christian world
against the mainly Muslim "Axis of Evil".
Moreover, the Turks are again knocking on the
doors of Europe, this time peacefully. It is
well known that the Pope supports the forces
that object to the entry of Turkey into the
IS THERE any truth in Manuel's argument?
The pope himself threw in a word of caution. As
a serious and renowned theologian, he could not
afford to falsify written texts. Therefore, he
admitted that the Qur'an specifically forbade
the spreading of the faith by force. He quoted
the second Sura, verse 256 (strangely fallible,
for a pope, he meant verse 257) which says:
"There must be no coercion in matters of faith".
How can one ignore such an unequivocal
statement? The Pope simply argues that this
commandment was laid down by the prophet when he
was at the beginning of his career, still weak
and powerless, but that later on he ordered the
use of the sword in the service of the faith.
Such an order does not exist in the Qur'an.
True, Muhammad called for the use of the sword
in his war against opposing tribes - Christian,
Jewish and others - in Arabia, when he was
building his state. But that was a political
act, not a religious one; basically a fight for
territory, not for the spreading of the faith.
Jesus said: "You will recognize them by their
fruits." The treatment of other religions by
Islam must be judged by a simple test: How did
the Muslim rulers behave for more than a
thousand years, when they had the power to
"spread the faith by the sword"?
Well, they just did not.
For many centuries, the Muslims ruled Greece.
Did the Greeks become Muslims? Did anyone even
try to Islamize them? On the contrary, Christian
Greeks held the highest positions in the Ottoman
administration. The Bulgarians, Serbs,
Romanians, Hungarians and other European nations
lived at one time or another under Ottoman rule
and clung to their Christian faith. Nobody
compelled them to become Muslims and all of them
remained devoutly Christian.
True, the Albanians did convert to Islam, and so
did the Bosniaks. But nobody argues that they
did this under duress. They adopted Islam in
order to become favorites of the government and
enjoy the fruits.
In 1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and
massacred its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants
indiscriminately, in the name of the gentle
Jesus. At that time, 400 years into the
occupation of Palestine by the Muslims,
Christians were still the majority in the
country. Throughout this long period, no effort
was made to impose Islam on them. Only after the
expulsion of the Crusaders from the country, did
the majority of the inhabitants start to adopt
the Arabic language and the Muslim faith - and
they were the forefathers of most of today's
THERE IS no evidence whatsoever of any attempt
to impose Islam on the Jews. As is well known,
under Muslim rule the Jews of Spain enjoyed a
bloom the like of which the Jews did not enjoy
anywhere else until almost our time. Poets like
Yehuda Halevy wrote in Arabic, as did the great
Maimonides. In Muslim Spain, Jews were
ministers, poets, scientists. In Muslim Toledo,
Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars worked
together and translated the ancient Greek
philosophical and scientific texts. That was,
indeed, the Golden Age. How would this have been
possible, had the Prophet decreed the "spreading
of the faith by the sword"?
What happened afterwards is even more telling.
When the Catholics re-conquered Spain from the
Muslims, they instituted a reign of religious
terror. The Jews and the Muslims were presented
with a cruel choice: to become Christians, to be
massacred or to leave. And where did the
hundreds of thousand of Jews, who refused to
abandon their faith, escape? Almost all of them
were received with open arms in the Muslim
countries. The Sephardi ("Spanish") Jews settled
all over the Muslim world, from Morocco in the
west to Iraq in the east, from Bulgaria (then
part of the Ottoman Empire) in the north to
Sudan in the south. Nowhere were they
persecuted. They knew nothing like the tortures
of the Inquisition, the flames of the
auto-da-fe, the pogroms, the terrible
mass-expulsions that took place in almost all
Christian countries, up to the Holocaust.
WHY? Because Islam expressly prohibited any
persecution of the "peoples of the book". In
Islamic society, a special place was reserved
for Jews and Christians. They did not enjoy
completely equal rights, but almost. They had to
pay a special poll-tax, but were exempted from
military service - a trade-off that was quite
welcome to many Jews. It has been said that
Muslim rulers frowned upon any attempt to
convert Jews to Islam even by gentle persuasion
- because it entailed the loss of taxes.
Every honest Jew who knows the history of his
people cannot but feel a deep sense of gratitude
to Islam, which has protected the Jews for fifty
generations, while the Christian world
persecuted the Jews and tried many times "by the
sword" to get them to abandon their faith.
THE STORY about "spreading the faith by the
sword" is an evil legend, one of the myths that
grew up in Europe during the great wars against
the Muslims - the reconquista of Spain by the
Christians, the Crusades and the repulsion of
the Turks, who almost conquered Vienna. I
suspect that the German Pope, too, honestly
believes in these fables. That means that the
leader of the Catholic world, who is a Christian
theologian in his own right, did not make the
effort to study the history of other religions.
Why did he utter these words in public? And why
There is no escape from viewing them against the
background of the new Crusade of Bush and his
evangelist supporters, with his slogans of "Islamofascism"
and the "Global War on Terrorism" - when
"terrorism" has become a synonym for Muslims.
For Bush's handlers, this is a cynical attempt
to justify the domination of the world's oil
resources. Not for the first time in history, a
religious robe is spread to cover the nakedness
of economic interests; not for the first time, a
robbers' expedition becomes a Crusade.
The speech of the Pope blends into this effort.
Who can foretell the dire consequences?
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