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.
One of the consequences of the Crusades was the shift in the position and status of Jesus within Islam. The Qur'an refers to Jesus with reverence, and there is an entire chapter on his mother Mary. The Prophet of Islam said that there was no one who had more respect or reverence for Jesus than himself. Sufis in particular have written mystic verses praising Jesus in glowing terms.
But the Crusades identified Christianity, and its savior, with cruelty and violence in Muslims' minds. In time and over the centuries, the love and respect for Jesus in Islam became muted. By the time the West re-emerged in the Muslim world as a colonial force in the 19th century, and once again the soldier and trader were followed by the missionary, Muslim suspicions of Jesus were confirmed. Few Muslims even remembered the deep respect for Jesus that Islam teaches.
In 1981 John Paul II was shot by a young Turkish man, Mehmet Ali Agca. The assassination attempt still remains somewhat of a mystery. There is little doubt that there was a bigger plot, possibly organized by the Soviets, who feared the pope and his crusade against their evil society. But when he survived the attack, the Pope focused on the human story, rather than on politics. He visited Agca, his would-be assassin, in prison and forgave him. This was truly the act of a man touched by Jesus himself.
The Vatican's 1999 declaration, "Memory and Reconciliation," subtitled "The Church and the Faults of the Past," which followed the 1992 apology for the persecution of the 17th-century astronomer and physicist Galileo, was a profoundly important act of grappling with the dark episodes of church history as part of a process the Holy See called "historical purification." In the litany of atrocities against Jews, Muslims, women, and ethnic groups, the Crusades were specifically mentioned. For the first time in church history, the Vatican, under John Paul II, apologized for what the Crusaders had done. Its impact was enormous, signifying a tectonic shift in Christian attitudes toward Islam. In guiding the church toward this repentance, Pope John Paul II allowed Muslims to re-connect with one of their own main theological figures-Jesus.
In the emotion and anger after 9/11, Pope John Paul II once again showed wisdom and compassion toward the Muslim world. While American and British leaders talked of revenge and were swift to act punishing those who may have had nothing to do with the terrible act of Sept. 11, the pope talked of the need for understanding and a nonviolent response. This would also be his position when he consistently proved to be the biggest critic of the war on Iraq. It took great moral courage for the pope to stand against the tidal wave of emotion that was swirling about in the West against the Muslim world.
The new pope needs to build on the bridge to Islam established by Pope John Paul II. He must start by studying about Islam, talking to Muslims, and visiting Muslim lands. Much work has to be done, but the stakes are high.