Last week, the Vatican took pains to deny that Pope Francis is in the crosshairs of the Islamic State (IS). And yet, there is reason to believe that there is more to the threat than the Vatican wants to let on.
While on the surface, threats like this from the Islamic State against the pope may seem shocking or unealistic, they are entirely consistent with an authentic understanding of the antithetical relationship between Islam and Catholicism. Further, there are specific aspects of the papacy of Pope Francis that appear to be inviting this conflict.
Here are the five biggest reasons Catholics should be concerned:
1) Pope Francis’s Statements Praising Islam Make him a Target
As I’ve previously written, the public statements made by Pope Francis concerning Islam are not only incorrect, but dangerous. Despite the pope’s attempts to be conciliatory towards Islam, it is a religion inherently prone to violence. According to Islamic theology, an individual’s human dignity is conditional upon their belief in and practice of Islam. Non-Muslims, while they possess the form and attributes of persons, are (according to long-held Islamic understanding) no different than animals, and can be treated as such. This makes violent treatment of non-Muslims entirely acceptable according to the precepts of the Islamic faith.
The Catholic Faith instructs us that God is Love (1 John 4:8), and that we must show charity even to our enemies. As Catholics, we abhor ideology that does not honor basic human dignity.
But for Muslims, the understanding of non-Muslims as somehow less than human is simply a reality that cannot be changed, since Islam teaches that this is a truth which has been divinely revealed. Islam defines Allah’s nature in terms of his will, since Allah does what he wills (Quran 14:29) for no reason other than will itself. The Catholic Faith honors and rewards mercy and love, and spreads by encouraging the hearts of men to seek the true way to go to God in a world filled with sin and evil. Islam, however, honors and rewards force and power, and promises the pinnacle of worldly delights and even vengeance as the consummate measure of blessing in this life and the hereafter.
Islam teaches that a Muslim may lie if it is done “in the cause of Allah.” What is this cause? It is traditionally defined by Islamic theologians as the process of making converts to Islam, or in fighting jihad. Muslims have a name for this form of lying: taqiyya. One of the most common forms of taqiyya in modern times has been the effort to spread the notion that Islam is a “religion of peace.” In reality, Islam is very clear that aggressive war against non-Muslims and religious piety are inseparably related:
“Verily, Paradise is under the shade of swords”
(Bukhari, Book 52, #73)
Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: Allah’s Apostle said: “I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and offer the prayers perfectly and give the obligatory charity, so if they perform a that, then they save their lives and property from me except for Islamic laws and then their reckoning (accounts) will be done…
The fact is that from an Islamic viewpoint, Pope Francis’ statements about the Muslim faith actually further Islamic beliefs. However, he is not only not of their faith but is the leader of the largest group of Christians in the world. In the Muslim mind, this sets up a paradox — an infidel of the highest order is supporting their religious ideas, yet he is manifestly not a Muslim. The question about Pope Francis for Muslims becomes whether is he going to fully accept Islam (since he is already promoting it) or persist in his infidelity, and thus merit the punishment for infidels. What Pope Francis may see as an act of outreach and solidarity to Muslims is actually interpreted by Islamic theology as a form of partial consent to the Islamic faith, and thus merits an aggressive push to encourage him to complete the process of his conversion to Islam.
How aggressive? There’s a reason why Islam is known as a religion which “converts by the sword.”
The fact is, despite the pope’s overtures of friendship toward Islam, it is impossible for Muslims to ever love and respect non-Muslims, as their theology forbids them from doing so. What they do respect is power. The way Catholics can earn the respect of Muslims is not to apologize for our beliefs, but to stand firm in them, and persist in spite of all opposition. To win converts from Islam, the Catholic Church must show strength and promulgate truth greater than that shown Islam itself. It can do this by holding its ground, professing without fear the Gospel of “Christ crucified” and the doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus – outside the Church, there is no salvation.
Anything less is asking for trouble.
2) The IS Has Already Succeeded in Eliminating Christianity from Iraq – and it Won’t Stop There
The Catholic Faith in Iraq had been around since the time of the Apostles. In a mere matter of months, it has been completely eradicated from the area, and it shows no signs of being able to return. To Catholics around the world, this is persecution on a criminal level. But to Islam, it is the fulfillment of the will of Allah:
Abu Huraira reported that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: By Him in Whose hand is my life, the son of Mary (may peace be upon him) will soon descend among you as a just judge. He will break the cross, kill swine and abolish Jizya and the wealth will pour forth to such an extent that no one will accept it. (Muslim, Book 1, #287)
Islam holds that part of its divinely ordained goal is to spread its beliefs to the whole world, eventually wiping out all non-Muslim people and lands by Allah’s divine providence. What the IS has done to Iraqi Catholicism, according to Islamic logic, is the fulfillment of Allah’s will. This victory indicates to an orthodox Muslim that Allah’s will is now actively empowering them in their jihad against Christianity, and that they should continue to pursue their campaign even more aggressively and with bigger targets – targets like the pope.
3) There Has Been a Feckless Response to the Death of Iraqi Christianity, Encouraging More Violence
Can you imagine if Catholics succeeded in murdering and expelling all Muslims from a majority Catholic country in modern times? The Muslim world would not stand for it, and neither would secular leaders. There would be immediate economic, political, and even military reactions against any perceived “Christian” nation. And yet, a group of Muslims just succeeded in murdering or expelling millions of Catholics from a Muslim nation, and there has been only a few general, flaccid “condemnations” from world leaders before the matter was ignored.
Exterminating Iraqi Catholicism was horrifying. But the Western world’s apathy has made it even worse. The lack of response sends a signal to the Muslim world that the West is weak and does not care about Christians and will do nothing to defend them. This furthers the belief of those engaged in jihad that Allah himself is fighting with the Muslims against the Christians and giving them the advantage. It therefore encourages Muslims to press Islam with greater urgency upon Western soil.
Give them an inch, and they’ll take every inch they can get.
4) To Conquer Rome is to Conquer Christianity
In the Islamic mind, there are three great “cities” of the Christian world – Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome. The former two are regarded as having already entered into the “Dar Al-Islam,” (the realm of Islam and its possessions) since Muslims constitute a majority of the persons living in those areas. Rome is the last city – and because of the Catholic Church, the most important.
Recently, the holy father invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to an interfaith prayer service for peace in the Vatican gardens. In the Arabic prayer from the Muslim Imam was the following unscripted section:
“Oh God, to you all praise, O Lord, to you all praise, O Creator of the heavens and the earth, O You who know the unknown and the manifest, O Lord of everything and its sovereign, we testify that there is no god but You alone and You have no partner, we seek refuge in You from the evil in ourselves and the evil of Satan, his partners….”
In addition to being an explicit denial of Christ’s divinity, the recitation of such a prayer in a specific location makes that location, according to Islam, a part of the Dar-al-Islam, and as such, “Islamic territory.” This makes even the Vatican itself a place now regarded by Islamic theology as subject to jihad, and ultimately, Islamic control.
Chapter 30 of the Quran is dedicated to the fall of “Rome.” While many of the Quranic commentators explain this to be the Islamic conquest of Constantinople, it is also understood as referring to the “final” Rome – namely, Rome, Italy. This is because for many Muslims, Rome — as the heart of the Catholic Church and the home of the Roman Pontiff — is considered the “center” of the Christian world. If it is conquered, Christianity will (Muslims believe) quickly be globally eclipsed by Islam. Given the large numbers of Muslims living in Italy and Rome, it is a small miracle that neither the Pope nor the Vatican has been attacked before now.
But there’s more: this is not just my reading of the Quran being applied to the present context. Even before the more recent threats on the life of Pope Francis, the Islamic State had specifically called for the conquest of Christian Rome. If they can find a way, there is no reason to believe they will not make such an attempt.
5) The Time is Now
With the confluence of all factors mentioned — the rise of Islamic populations and birthrates in the West, an increase in global Islamic piety, the concurrent decline of Christianity, the anemic reactions to Islamic violence by global leaders, Pope Francis’ statements, and the total victory of the IS in Iraq — the pieces are in play to indicate that the time has come for Islam to make its move.
Islam desires, as a theological principle, the elimination of Christianity and the establishment of its own global dominance in its place. Given the favorable climate towards Islam and against the Christian faith globally, what stands in the way of those Muslims willing to resort to extreme measures in an attempt to strike at the largest visible head of Christianity – the pope?
While there is room to debate the plausibility of such an attack, it is important for us to recall the damage done by just 19 hijackers on September 11th, 2001. It is presumptuous of us to assume that simply because at the present moment the army of the Islamic State appears unable, at this time, to march across Europe and sack Rome, that there are not other means at their disposal for accomplishing their ends.
The Islamic State has made the threat, and the threat should be taken seriously. Pray for the pope, those who protect him, and the Catholic Church. We are living in dangerous times.
Andrew Bieszad has an MA in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with concentration in the Islamic equivalent of Dogmatic Theology. He is the author of Lions of the Faith: Saints, Blesseds, and Heroes of the Catholic Faith in the Struggle with Islam. He is a sought after writer and speaker on Islamic topics.