In an interesting development, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, R' Shlomo 'Amar has written a letter to Qatari Sunni legal scholar Sheikh Yusef Qardawi, criticizing the recent remarks of the Pope. Here is an excerpt from the letter, which R' 'Amar wrote in Arabic:
Our way is to honor every religion and every nation according to their paths, as it is written in the book of prophets: 'because every nation will go in the name of its lord.'"Israel has a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. R' 'Amar was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1948. He came to Israel at the age of 14.
Even when there is a struggle between nations ... it cannot be turned into a war of religions.
The letter was preceded by an introduction written by R' Menahem Froman, the head rabbi of Tekoa, a settlement in the West Bank. R' Froman has been involved in interfaith dialogue with Muslim leaders for years. In his introduction, he writes that
every Jew who learns the writings of the great sages - who, at the head of them all stands Maimonides - knows that our great thinkers wrote in the Arabic language, lived in Islamic states and participated with the great Muslim thinkers in the effort to explain the words of God, according to the paths of the sages and amidst the difficult bloody battles that we have had since the beginning of Zionism with the Muslims.This is a rabbi identified with the national-religious camp, who studied at Yeshivat ha-Kotel and taught at Makhon Me'ir, two places not usually known for their affinities to such views.
In another twist, the letter was delivered to Sheikh Qardawi by the leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Abdullah Naimar Darwish.
Just two days ago, the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, a known radical, announced that Jerusalem would soon become the capital of an Islamic nation. In front of a crowd of 50,000, he declared that Israel's "occupation" of the Temple Mount was approaching its end. Just to pour a little more oil on the fire, he accused the Israeli government of damaging the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (Ha'aretz).
Meanwhile, churches across the West Bank were attacked on Saturday, and violence against Christians and Christian institutions was reported elsewhere in the region and beyond. The targets included Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic houses of worship.
I appreciate the efforts of R' Amar and R' Froman, and I think Pope Benedict would not disagree with their more general statements. Nevertheless, it would have been nice if they had added some condemnation of the threats against Christians and asked Sheikh Qardawi to speak out against those too.
I do not believe that Pope Benedict actually endorsed Palaeologos's view that Mohammed's innovations were "only evil and inhuman" ones. He should have made his opposition to that part of the Byzantine Emperor's polemic clearer. I am also not sure how correct some of his characterizations juxtaposing Christianity and Islam were. But who can argue with his efforts to condemn the use of religion to promote violence?
The Catholic Church has made significant progress in the past half-century in confronting the injustices committed by Christians, in the clergy as well as well as the laity, which resulted in the persecution or marginalization of Muslims, Jews, "heteredox" Christians, as well as people of other faiths merely on account of their beliefs. I am certain that Pope Benedict does not want to turn the clock backward in this respect. Rather, he is challenging adherents of the world's religions to find peace rather than violence in their traditions.
In any case, it is unacceptable that the Pope's remarks, no matter how critical of Islam, should be turned into a pretext for violence against Christians. All those Muslim religious leaders who, instead of preaching moderation, are further inciting their followers represent precisely the kind of evil that the Pope was talking about. Ironically, they are also likely to further cement the impressions of some observers, who believe that Islam is indeed the "religion of the sword."