This long and heart-felt letter is written by a Palestinian Christian, Munir Fasheh, who pleads for a better understanding of both Islam and Palestinian Christianity from the Pope and from the Christian church worldwide.
Dear Pope Benedict,
I am writing to you as a Christian Palestinian. When did I become Christian? Since the days Jesus walked on the land of Palestine. I belong to the only indigenous Christian community in the world, which makes us a very special and precious community.
If, for example, you asked my mother (who did not know how to read and write) about what Jesus said, she wouldn’t be able to recite anything other than ‘love one another’.. Yet, she beautifully embodied the spirit of Jesus in her life.
How did she get her knowledge and how did she embody his spirit? This is exactly what I mean by belonging to the very special and precious indigenous Palestinian Christian community. She did not know about Christ via words, texts, and missionaries but through the spirit of Jesus as it was carried in people’s hearts and ways of living, and was transmitted from one generation to another since Jesus walked on this Earth.
I am one of the last people who are experiencing this spirit. We are special and precious because once we disappear – as a community – it is not possible to re-create it. Unlike organizations, communities are not the creation of the mind; they cannot be created rationally through planning by professionals, institutions, and budgets. Communities are formed over thousands of years. In other words, the loss of Palestinian Christian communities is a loss that cannot be regained and, thus, it is a huge loss.
I was lucky to live, feel, and experience this spirit in my home, but at the same time I am a product of institutions. Thus, I know very well the difference between people’s Christianity and institutional Christianity. They are worlds apart. (In 1992, I wrote a small booklet – in Arabic – entitled “My mother’s Christianity vs. Western Christianity”. Later in this letter, I will write more on how Christianity was manifested in people’s lives like my parents.)
It is not easy to clarify the difference through words; that’s why I would like to invite you to visit and stay with us in Ramallah. I would have loved to invite you to our home in Jerusalem (since Jerusalem would be more meaningful) but I can’t, because it has been occupied – since 1948 – by“civilized democratic” European Jews who were promised my homeland (including my home) by“civilized democratic Christian” Britain.
What is interesting about our house in Jerusalem (where I was born) is that it is almost midway between where Jesus was born and where he was buried. Our house in Ramallah is humble, but you will see for yourself what I mean by people’s Christianity. You will meet my sisters who still carry within their hearts and in their relations with people the spirit of Christ as I am talking about it here. I sincerely hope – for the sake of the world – that you accept my invitation.
Palestinian Christian communities are quickly disappearing; we are a dying “species”. Our disappearance started when Israel was created in 1948 (with the help and support of “Christian”Britain and US that are still supporting Israel to drive more Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, out of our lands and homes in Palestine). Today, there are some scattered Christian families in Jerusalem, but there is no Christian community in Jerusalem. I feel this loss in a very personal way, and it hurts as a deep wound because I know how beautiful it is, and that it cannot be recovered. A whole special “world” is disappearing, a world that you seem not to be aware of.
Although Christian communities are disappearing in Palestine, certain Palestinian Christian groups were formed that are trying to bring their voice to those interested around the world. They are the next best source of how Palestinian Christians see the world and see themselves in the world, by trying to keep Jesus’ spirit alive in their ways of living and relating. I will mention here two such groups, in case you decide to look up their websites: “SABEEL” (in Jerusalem) and “Dar an-Nadwa” (in Bethlehem).
Since I was a little boy (I am now 65 years old), I have been listening to missionaries, mainly from Britain and the US. I know missionaries who came to Palestine very well. Those that I met wanted to do good, but they seem to be imprisoned within words, meanings, perceptions, and conceptions that they acquired in their own countries.
I never met a missionary, for example, that was interested in knowing Christianity as it was embedded in my parents’ ways of living; it even seems that they were not aware that it was special and radically different. Because western Christianity is visible through institutions and through words, symbols and images, it was difficult to see my parents’ Christianity that was part of people’s lives and could not be articulated in words. They might have even thought that it is of a lesser kind.
Never did I meet one missionary who came to Palestine to learn from this special and precious community. They all came to preach and convert us to their respective denominations. It always fascinated me how difficult for Europeans and Americans to learn from other cultures. What is referred to as “area studies” in western universities do not, in general, refer to learning from but about other cultures – usually in order to control. This may explain why it is difficult for many westerners (who live with individualism and consumerism as main traits in life) to understand the meaning of community in the sense I experienced it while growing up. They see us as Christians or Muslims but not as communities that include both (which also included Jews before 1948) living within harmonious relations. The call “war on terror” – for me – is to cover a deeper war: war on communities. People are nurtured by communities but controlled by institutions.. This source of nurturing was lost starting in 1948 and continued to be lost at an increasing rate ever since.
The assumption that one can understand another world through words and concepts is one of the myths of the modern world, where knowledge is thought to reside in words and can be transmitted through words. This is true about how westerners know about Islam: mainly through words and images. Minds formed mainly by texts and images are -at best – limited. Words, images, and pictures are not reality. To understand another world, one has to experience it, i.e., to enter it without prior concepts and thoughts.
In the lecture you gave in Germany, you quoted, without qualification and with apparent approval, the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II: “Show me just what Muhammad 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 preached.”
I would excuse Manuel II for saying that; he probably didn’t know any better, but this is not true in your case – especially in light of what is happening in the world at the time you repeated that statement.
Failing to see four current and extremely bloody, brutal, and destructive wars waged by “Christian”and “Jewish” countries against mainly Muslim peoples and communities and to see, instead, a statement that is full of ignorance and hatred, which was said by an emperor more than 600 years ago is incomprehensible – to say the least.
Failing to see that there has been a military occupation for several decades, and how Israel, the US, Britain, and EU, are literally starving a whole population in Gaza and, instead, recite an ugly and false statement, means – in effect – pulling the church out of this world and rendering it irrelevant to those who suffer.
The crimes in Gaza are the making of the “Jewish” state with full support from “Christian” US, Canada, EU, and Britain.
Don’t take my word for it. Please read what Mr. John Dugard, UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, who was sent recently on a fact-finding mission to Gaza. He said that Israel is largely to blame for turning Gaza into ‘a prison‘ and ‘throwing away the key’. He said, “Israel violates international law as expounded by the Security Council and the International Court of Justice and goes unpunished … [while] the Palestinian people have been subjected to economic sanctions – the first time an occupied people has been so treated”.
He also criticized Canada, Europe and the US for the deteriorating situation in Gaza, a situation that resulted from “Israeli military raids, blockades and demolitions… I hope that my portrayal… will trouble the consciences of those accustomed to turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of the Palestinian people” (it is worth mentioning that Mr. Dugard is a South African national and won his reputation as a civil rights lawyer during the apartheid era in the 1980s).
You don’t even have to believe Mr. Dugard’s words; you can go and personally see the tremendous destruction and suffering that are inflicted on people in Gaza (and it would be for you to continue and visit Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon).
When claims are so contrary to what is happening on the ground, one is deceiving self and others – except those who are suffering. One can fool faculty, scholars, and students in universities, but not people who see their communities being destroyed and shattered by “smart” weapons.
During the past 200 years, there is no Arab or Islamic country in the region that was not bombarded, by either “Christian” or “Jewish” armies. Ignoring this and searching for a statement such as the one you quoted need a lot of explanation. To explain it the way your office did – as a way to create dialogue – added insult to injury; it is total disrespect for the intelligence of people. The above recalls words of Black Hawk, a Sauk chief (1832), “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong and wrong look like right”.
Probably, because you never lived under military occupation, “occupation” does not mean much to you; it is a word in the news. I lived under Israeli military occupation most of my life. When people in the West talk about “terror” and “insecurity” as if they are a new phenomenon, they seem to be totally ignorant of the terror and insecurity their nations have caused to inhabitants of 5 continents for 5 centuries, often to the level of wiping out whole civilizations! Occupation of Iraq is another type of Holocaust where instead of burning people in furnaces, they are burned in their homes by smart weapons!
There is a saying that if your house is made of glass, you don’t throw stones at others. The history of western countries and organizations makes it unwise for a westerner to throw stones at others.
What is even more troubling to me is the fact that what you said is contrary to statements by Jesus – as I know and understand them. One statement that I was always inspired by is, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Mathew 7: 3-5)
I wish you had followed Jesus’ wisdom and said that you want to try to take the planks that fill Christian eyes, and hope that others would do the same and remove the planks from their eyes so that we would all then see each other more clearly and humanly. That would have created dialogue of a different nature, much more in harmony with Christ’s message and spirit.
I was also hoping that you followed Jesus’ example and said that if Christians remain silent in the face of what is happening to peoples in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan then the very stones would cry out.. The attempt to silence Palestinians and Lebanese is similar to the story when the Pharisees wanted to silence Jesus’ disciples by asking him, ‘Teacher, rebuke thy disciples!’ ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.'” (Luke 19: 39-40)
A third statement by Jesus that is also relevant here, and which I feel your statement was not in harmony with is, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Mathew 7)
The following indigenous American story is relevant here. An indigenous grandfather told his grandson that inside each of us there are two wolves fighting: the wolf of fear and hatred and the wolf of love and peace. The grandson asked, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather replied,“Whichever one we feed.” It is unfortunate, dear Pope that you chose to feed the wolf of hatred and greed.
This seems to be in line with what happened during the past 500 years. When people ran to greet Columbus and his companions with love, peace, open arms, and hospitality, Columbus wrote in response: “They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want…” Later he wrote: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.” The Native Americans were nurturing the wolf of love and peace; the Europeans fed the wolf of destruction and hatred. (It is instructive to read what Bartolome De Las Casas – a Dominican brother – wrote in 1542 as an account of what happened.)
I wish that you had fed in your speech the wolf of love and peace. I say this because the result of what you said will lead to harming Christians in the region more than any other group. Your words may sound academic and harmless to some people, but to us they will do what the first Crusades have done. Almost a thousand years ago, your predecessors harmed our existence in the region tremendously. Today, you seem to be doing the same. In the not so-distant-future, if you visit Jerusalem, you may have to bring with you some Christians if you care to have an audience in the churches you will speak at; because Jerusalem will be empty of Christians!
When Muslims came to Jerusalem, not one in the city was killed, and not one was forced to convert. Until the times of the Crusades, the majority of the population in greater Syria remained Christian. There were no attempts to force people to become Muslim. A central commandment in Islam is laa ikraaha fiddeen which means “no coercion in religion”. If certain groups today violate this commandment and try to force Islam on others, it is an abuse of Islam and not intrinsic to it – similar to how some abuse Christianity.
As Karen Armstrong says, “Until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity. Qur’an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword… The extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim world in our own day are a response to intractable political problems – oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands… and the west’s perceived ‘double standards’ – and not to an ingrained religious imperative. As we see the violence – in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon – for which we bear a measure of responsibility, there is a temptation, perhaps, to blame it all on ‘Islam’.. But if we are feeding our prejudice in this way, we do so at our peril… The Muslim world with… countries… directly occupied by Western troops does not need to be reminded of the language of the Crusades. In a world suffering from environmental degradation, poverty, hunger, repression, the Pope chooses to insult the founder of another faith.”
Christ was not on the side of Christians against others but on the side of people against those who were crushing people. Although fights sometimes take forms that seem to be between Christians and Muslims, or between Muslims and Jews, or whatever; the real struggle through history has been between people and communities on the one hand, and those who want to rob and control them on the other.
Talking about clash of civilizations, or even dialogue among civilizations, is a distraction from the real problem. The main issue is choosing between being on Caesar’s side or on people’s side; it is between people/ communities and power, control, winning, and greed.
Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mathew 19:24) Those who are fooled to think that it is a clash of religions or civilizations should look more carefully: the powers that are trying to crush Islam today were crushing Nicaragua in the 1980s – a country that is predominantly Christian, even Catholic! And before that, the region within Southeast Asia ( Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc), which is predominantly Buddhist, was devastated by the same Caesars. And long before that, the inhabitants and civilizations in three continents were almost completely wiped out (they were neither communist nor Muslim).
The onslaught is on peoples and communities and not on a particular religion or group, although it takes this form sometimes. A main message of Jesus is “love one another”. He said it to all peoples and not only to Christians. When on the cross, he asked God to forgive the soldier who was stabbing him, but he had a different attitude towards moneylenders at the temple, where he carried a whip and pushed them out.
For me, the most consistent aspect of Jesus’ message was the fact that he always chose to be on people’s side. It was almost an obsession, which he expressed in many ways: love one another; love your enemies; if you say you love God but hate your neighbor, you are a liar; see and correct what is wrong in you before you point out what is wrong in others; if someone hit your cheek, turn the other; the one among you without sin, cast the first stone; and so on.
Exactly for this reason, Christ was condemned by all powers of his times, both local and distant powers. We don’t know of a single power in his time that did not want to see him killed. It is similar today: whoever takes the side of people is condemned by all powers as we have seen in the case of Lebanon. Put simply and concretely, the issue for Jesus was clear: either one chooses to be on the side of Caesar or on the side of people. Your statement Pope Benedict – unfortunately – was on Caesar’s side. I was hoping that the Vatican chose a saner path.
The world needs voices that bring sanity to it, not voices that condemn the victims. I was hoping to hear a different voice coming from a Christian source calling for the end of wars, rather than to justify and give support to wage more wars – as I feel your statement has given Bush, Blair, and Olmert. Trying to interpret your statement otherwise – as I said before – adds insult to injury. However, it is not too late to seize the current opportunity and regain Christ’s spirit who declared in his sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mathew 5:5).
It is people vs. Caesar. Names change but the logic remains the same. Today, the focus is on Arab and Muslim peoples; several decades ago, it was on peoples of South and Central America and Southeast Asia, Blacks in Africa, and Jews in Europe. Much earlier, it was on the peoples of three continents (the Americas and Australia). Taking the side of people is dangerous – as the story of Jesus testifies – but it is the only way to bring back humanity and sanity into the world.
I would like to address another part of the quote in your speech: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new…” In the following, I will try to convey what I feel is particularly characteristic of Islam, and which has been most inspiring to me in my life.
The first time I realized the true meaning and spirit of ‘al-jame’ (the mosque) was during the first Palestinian intifada (1987-91). When Israel shut down all institutions in the West Bank and Gaza , the mosque immediately regained its original meaning and function: a public space, an assembly place (the literal meaning of al-jame’intifada. They became welcoming places where people of all backgrounds met and ran their affairs. Whether people needed a place to teach, heal, inform, take care of the wounded, or distribute food, mosques played that role in a natural way.
In contrast, churches were not transformed to such a space – probably because churches belong to denominations, not to people. The transformation of mosques to spaces open for all people and controlled by people, still inspires me greatly. I have never experienced another structure (neither universities nor churches nor clubs nor societies) that had the same feeling/ environment that I felt in mosques.
Another aspect of Islam that I am inspired by is the idea of ijtihad – putting an effort to understand verses in Qur’an in light of one’s life, experiences, and realities. It refers to the right and duty of every Muslim to independently and personally investigate meanings, which – as an educator – I believe would be a wonderful rule in the practice of education.
A third inspiration is related to al-Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). It is an annual international gathering that has been taking place for almost 1400 years! People are not invited by an organizing committee or an authority but by God personally! No one attends in lieu of another; every person represents oneself. There are no delegates. By wearing simple and similar clothes, people lose all signs of where they came from, or what their positions are, and become simply the persons they are.
For almost 1400 years, millions of people have been meeting every year on equal footing and interacting in a free and honest way. This spirit was violated for the first time by the modern concepts of institutions, organizations, and national governments all of which started interfering with people’s free movement and open interaction. How different such a gathering is from international conferences today! I would definitely recommend that organizers of international conferences put effort to try to embody this spirit in their conferences.
The Islamic prayer is another aspect that fascinates me in Islam, especially in today’s world. To‘unplug’ oneself – five times a day – from the routines of modern living and to connect with God, with the cosmos, and with one’s inner soul, is so much needed in the modern world. In s sense, the Islamic prayer nicely combines spiritual and physical exercises (similar in some ways to yoga practices) and, thus, forms part of what modern people need – especially those who sit all day in classes, offices, or the like.
A fifth aspect that I loved while growing up was the call to prayer in the mornings. Because of my age, I lived many years hearing the call for prayer in the morning through human voices. It was beautiful, soothing, and spiritual. What ruined that beauty was technology, through replacing human voices by loudspeakers.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of Islam is jihad . If you search the whole early literature of Islam, you would not find the concept of holy wars as war against other religions. The Crusaders brought the concept. When Prophet Muhammad was asked about the best form of jihad, he replied, “Saying a word of truth in the face of an unjust ruler” – in today’s language, ‘speaking truth to power‘. In this sense, Jesus embodied the spirit of jihad in many positions: in challenging the Pharisees and rulers in Jerusalem ; in confronting the moneylenders in the temple; in addressing those in power as hypocrites…
Another aspect (shared by most peoples in traditional societies) is the fact that none of the Muslim families I know ever put a member of the family in an elderly home. An elder is given the center place at home; s/he becomes the center of attention, love, and respect.
Another aspect that fascinates me about Islam – which I wish churches have – is how old mosques in big cities are open for all people as hospitable places where, in addition to praying, people can sit, read, discuss, even sleep if the person is tired and it is hot outside, and where families bring their children to play in the mosque yard. I experienced this in the old Mosque in Damascus, Syria and in al-Qarawiyyeen Mosque in Fez, Morocco. It was true about al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before the British occupied Palestine after WWI and put regulations where certain days were allotted to Muslims, others to Christians, and others to Jews. This practice was deepened under Israeli occupation.
One last aspect… When Muslims realized that they were losing in Granada, Spain, they offered to leave the city and keep Granada beautiful. Granada is still beautiful. When the Israelis left Yamit in 1981 (a city they built in Sinai), they destroyed it completely. When the Americans realized they were losing in Vietnam, they poisoned as much of the land as they could. Does this tell you anything about Islam, dear Pope Benedict?
It is probably worth mentioning also that during 1300 years of Muslim rule, many things were developed – except weapons. It is true about most nations outside modern West.
The above are what I experienced as inspiring original aspects that Islam brought. There are of course other aspects that other people experience. There is no culture that has no beauty in it (and naturally some drawbacks too). Not to see what is beautiful in others says something about the beholder rather than about what is seen.
I want now to follow on a promise I made earlier: to tell stories that convey the spirit of Christ as manifested in my parents’ world. The first story is about my father when, in the 1930s, he agreed with my uncle to open a grocery store in Jerusalem. The only condition my father had was not to sell cigarettes or alcohol. He refused to sell them not because there was a law against selling them, not because it was against custom, and not because of research then that proved they were harmful, but because his faith forbade him to do harm to people. Watching smokers cough, as a result of smoking, was enough to tell him it was harmful. My uncle tried to persuade my father otherwise, but failed.
The second story happened much later, in 1978. My father came back after a demonstration in Ramallah where he saw two Israeli soldiers holding a little boy by his hair and smashing his face against the wall. He stopped the car and went down. One soldier pointed his gun at him and ordered him to get back in his car and leave. He came home very disturbed and his face was red. I will never forget his comment after he told us what he saw: “these cannot be Jews”. In a sense, he was defending Judaism against the behavior of the Israeli soldiers!
The third story is about a practice that was common among Palestinian Christian women from Jerusalem who could not conceive, so they would go to Hebron (an Islamic town), to pray under the tree of Abraham (a Jewish symbol) to Christ! Living the three religions in one practice is an instance of aesthetic harmonious relations. Such practice is alien to having a “pure” identity. No person is pure anything; every person is a unique combination of many “worlds”, every person can be “home” for several worlds that live together in a harmonious way within the person.
Fourth story: al-Khader is a village near Bethlehem. Al-Khader is the name of a saint who is revered by both Muslims and Christians in Palestine . The village is inhabited by Muslims but has a church that carries the name of the saint. Both Muslims and Christians celebrated al-Khader’s day inside the church. Some Muslims even baptized their children as a form of blessing. That practice is a good example of respect and recognition towards others, rather than of tolerance and assimilation. People interacted with one another in a way that transcended the difference between them without dissolving them into one shapeless “whole”.
It is a beautiful example of harmonious relations. Every person kept his/her beliefs but when they met, there was a lot that they shared together. The church did not belong to one group but was a space where relations among people were nurtured and deepened. [Unfortunately, these relations and practices have been disappearing, and thought of as backward, by educated Muslims and Christians who perceive such practices as a sign of ignorant illiterates!]
Finally, I would like to say a word about why I think Islam seems to be more alive and inspiring in today’s world, and makes more sense to many people than either Christianity or Judaism.
Put simply and concisely, it is because in today’s world, Islam in many places is perceived as being on the side of people, while Christianity and Judaism are taking the side of the Caesars. (This also explains why communism was popular in the 1950s and 1960s: it was perceived as being on the side of people).
As I mentioned earlier, it is worth differentiating between people’s Islam/ Christianity/ Judaism/ communism and institutional Islam/ Christianity/ Judaism/ communism. Experiences that helped me understand people’s religions stem from how Christianity was manifested in the lives of people like my mother, and from how Islam was manifested in the first intifada. In both cases, people did not need professionals to guide them; people felt free, and they trusted themselves to understand and act. Religion meant that connecting with God and doing good do not need a mediator.
People’s Islam today inspires people at the personal and community levels, and it is the one that is least connected to power. This is the secret of its vitality, inspiration, and the hope people draw from it. It gives its believers freedom to interpret it in light of their realities.
People who carry the spirit of Christ in their lives or try to make sense of Christianity in their daily lives and contexts (i.e. those who take the side of people) are being disvalued, suppressed, killed or co-opted by centers of powers that try to monopolize what Christianity is.
Oscar A. Romero is one of the greatest symbols of Christian love and solidarity. “As Archbishop of El Salvador, Father Romero was a source of strength and hope for the poor and the oppressed of his country. He worked with and for them, taking their struggles as his own. Father Romero wrote and spoke passionately about the need for Christians to work for justice, and he frequently faced threats and danger from those opposed to his ideas.
On March 24, 1980, while celebrating the Eucharist, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed at the altar by a death squad assassin… Because of his courageous stand for justice, he became a martyr not only for poor Salvadorans but also for all people struggling to overcome oppression and poverty. Today, his sermons are read as powerful reminders of Christians’ obligation to fight for a just society. The example of Romero’s courageous life and death continue to inspire those who struggle for human dignity and justice”..
Another person who embodied in his life people’s Christianity is Archbishop Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, who was disliked by CIA and the church for his activities with the poor, mainly through his poetry that expressed his love of people and gave voice to the voiceless.
A third person is Leonardo Boff, a priest in Brazil, who was officially silenced by the Vatican for eleven months in the mid-eighties as the result of his publishing books that had an ideological alignment with liberation theology, which evolved following the 1968 Second Latin American Bishops Conference, and called the Church to engage itself in the political and economic struggles of poor people.
I mentioned earlier how people’s Christianity in Palestine is practically wiped out. Similarly, Judaism that, during the 18th and 19th centuries, was a main voice on the side of people lost that spirit with the rise of Zionism.
Today, an independent and freethinking Jew is labeled as self-hating Jew. The same is true about any Christian who stands today on the side of Muslims, who are victims of “Christian” or “Jewish”armies: he is labeled as misled at best. The Palestinian movement that was perceived for decades to be on the side of people is losing its inspiration as it increasingly serves Caesars. In other words, Islam’s aliveness and inspiration today stem from the fact that it is perceived – by people who are dominated by foreign armies – as a religion that is taking the side of people.
Thus, the “secret” to attract people to a religion is not related to the marketing, recruiting skills or material incentives but to whether that religion is perceived as being on the side of Caesar or on the side of people. People can easily tell the difference. It is worth mentioning that Jesus felt the pain of people – he lived in the midst of people and felt exactly what they were going through. He never lived in an ivory privileged tower. Any Christian who carries his spirit today would be on the side of Muslims who are currently experiencing tremendous suffering and destruction at the hands of those who proclaim themselves as the guardians of Christianity and Judaism!
You go to mosques today, they are packed with people (please see the attached picture of Muslims who were risking their lives by climbing the apartheid wall that Israel built around Palestinians in order to go and pray in the mosque in Jerusalem in Ramadan). In contrast, churches are becoming increasingly deserted. The reason is not that Christians are less interested, but because anything that is institutionalized becomes repulsive.
A good part of Islam – especially within the Shi’a tradition – is still not institutionalized. It dwells in the hearts of people more than in institutions. A consequence of institutionalizing religion is robbing people of their dignity. Dignity and power do not go together. In today’s world, people’s Islam provides dignity to many people.
It is time for westerners to realize and accept a most obvious fact in the world today (one that is crucial to bring back sanity and peace into the world): western civilization is one way, not the only way and – for many – not the best way. One step you could take, dear Pope, in this regard, and as a start, is to reinstate the interfaith initiatives inaugurated by your predecessor, John Paul II; it is desperately needed in today’s world. Another step is to add your voice against the wars that are planned ahead.
What Jesus brought very strongly 2000 years ago into the world is love, freedom, faith in people, and responsibility (in the sense of compassion and refusing to do harm to anyone or anything) – all of which are contrary to the logic of institutions and big organizations.
The freedom that Jesus advocated was freedom from rules and laws that are inhuman and harmful to people, which are usually guarded by institutions and professionals. The love he spoke about was “love one another”; it is a commandment for all people, and is higher than any other commandment. But love, freedom, and responsibility are meaningless if one does not have faith in people. Jesus’ limits to freedom were not laws of a state or rules of an institution but the love and responsibility among people.
Feeding the wolf of love, peace, and justice – in each one of us – is the challenge we face and, in particular, for the church – if it is going to reside again in people’s hearts and ways of living.
I submit this with respect… and hope,
Letter composed October 2006