Bridge Builder to the Muslim World

Pope John Paul II broke a thousand years of mutual distrust and began to heal the wounds of the church's demonization of Islam.

BY: Akbar S. Ahmed


In the wall-to-wall coverage of Pope John Paul II's life and death, media commentators talked of his charisma, his rock star status, his global tours and influence, and the fact that he was the first non-Italian pope in many centuries. Some talked of the pope visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem to apologize to the Jews on behalf of his community-long overdue and fully deserved.

Yet in the torrent of words from commentators, there was a resounding silence about the elephant in the room: relations between Christianity and Islam. Despite John Paul II's historic gestures of penitence for the church's long-standing demonization of Islam, one heard virtually nothing about this outstanding hallmark of his pontificate. While there are many possible explanations for this disturbing absence of interest and understanding about Islam on the part of Western media, one clear cause is a general psychological revulsion against Islam after 9/11. The resulting aversion has discouraged an examination of the complex relationship between Christians and Muslims, rooted in a thousand years of history.

The institution of the papacy has had a direct impact on the relationship between Christianity and Islam for the past thousand years. No pope has ever been neutral toward Islam. Popes encouraged, launched, and led the Crusades. They have vilified Islam as a false religion. Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) identified the Prophet Muhammad as the Anti-Christ. Such pronouncements by successive popes created a climate of hatred among Christians toward Muslims.

In 1099, when the Crusaders took Jerusalem, they massacred 40,000 Muslims-men women, and children. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest church in Christendom, the site of Calvary, was a pool of blood. The Crusaders found Jews huddled in the main synagogue in Jerusalem and burned them to death, dancing around the pyre and singing Te Deum. After the killing, the looting started. The mosque of Umar was sacked; the tomb of Abraham was destroyed. "In the Temple and the porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridal reins," wrote Raymond of Aguilers, an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade. Women were not spared, he observed: "The Franks did no other harm to the women whom they found in the enemy camp, save that they ran their lances through their bellies." The Jews were perhaps the worst hit: "To the Jews of Palestine the white knights of Europe came as the ravens of the apocalypse."

Little wonder that for Muslims, Christianity came to be equated with savagery and barbarism. The Muslim world looked for a champion, and they found one in Saladin (Salahuddin), who was able to recapture Jerusalem in 1187.

In contrast to the Crusaders' rapacious behavior toward non-Christians and their holy places, Saladin protected the Holy Sepulcher and other holy Christian sites and forced exemplary behavior on his soldiers. Saladin also allowed the Jews back to Jerusalem. James Reston, Jr., in his book "Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade," said of Saladin, "By his amnesties and various charities toward his enemies he secured forever his reputation for gentility and wisdom."

Saladin's recapture of Jerusalem and his generosity to the captured Crusaders created the mythology of the pious, brave, and generous Muslim ruler. Up to our time, many Muslim rulers have fallen back to the mythology around Saladin: from Nasser in Egypt to Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat more recently.

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