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When Will the Pope Apologize for the Long History of Christian Violence?

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Predictably, the backlash incited by Pope Benedict's quotation of what a medieval emperor said about the prophet Mohammed has led to a further backlash.

During a speech at the University of Regensberg on September 12, the Pope quoted from a letter written about the year 1400 in which the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paloeologus said that the only thing new about Mohammed's teaching was "things evil and inhuman," especially "his command to spread by the sword the faith." In response to the Pope's quotation of these words, Palestinian militants have attacked and destroyed churches in the West Bank and Gaza; Somalian gunmen have shot dead an Italian nun; and radical clerics across the Middle East have variously demanded a "day of anger" or a deadly manhunt aimed at the pope and his followers. Not even the Pope's apology of yesterday-in which he claimed that the emperor's words did not express his own views-has appeased the vast majority of Muslims.

In response to these expressions of outrage, both physical and rhetorical, Western observers have been quick to note the irony: Muslims are once again showing how violent they can be. In a cartoon by Glenn McCoy, a bearded, turbanned radical brandishing a bottle-bomb yells, "Ours is a peaceful religion-and we'll kill anyone who says otherwise!!" Besides portraying the radicals as hypocritical peacniks, the cartoon clearly implies that truly civilized people should be free to say what they please without incurring death threats. Anne Applebaum makes this point explicit in the Washington Post. Western commentators, she writes, "should stop apologizing-and start uniting" under the banner of "freedom of speech-surely the pope is allowed to quote from medieval texts-and of the press."

Very well then. Setting Benedict aside for the moment, let us freely explore the irony embedded in the words of Emperor Manuel, who condemns the violence advocated by Mohammed while saying nothing about the violence wrought in the name of Christ.

On October 28, 312 A.D., nearly three hundred years before Mohammed was born, the Roman Emperor Constantine took command of Rome by defeating the army of Maxentius near the Milvian Bridge on the Via Flaminia northeast of Rome. One ancient source says that Constantine won the battle after seeing in the sky the sign of the cross with the words "Hoc Vince" (by this [sign] you will conquer). Another ancient source tells us that a dream before the battle led Constantine to inscribe the sign of Christ (the superimposed Greek letters chi and rho) on the shields of his soldiers. Either way, Christian tradition has firmly established that Constantine fought and won this decisive battle in the name of Christ. In January 313, shortly after the battle, he and his brother-in-law Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, which granted the hitherto persecuted Christians the right to worship as they pleased.

In Christianizing the Roman empire by force, Constantine set a precedent for the crusades, which began in 1095 and lasted for two centuries. To reclaim the Holy Lands from Muslims, Christian forces conquered Jerusalem in 1099, killed every Muslim in it, herded all Jews into the synagogue, and burned it. In 1204, after Jerusalem had been reconquered by Muslims, armies of Franks and Venetians sacked Constantinople-capital of Eastern Christianity-and brutally vandalized its greatest church, the Hagia Sophia.

Since Manuel II (who reigned from 1391 to 1425) was not only surrounded by Ottoman Turks but under vassalage to the Sultan of Byzantium, he might be forgiven for forgetting the history of Christian violence and focussing instead on the savagery of Muslims in the letter from which Benedict quotes. But if the Pope aims to make religion less violent and more reasonable, as he said yesterday, he should recognize that Mohammed did not preach a gospel of violence. Though he fiercely defended Medina in the Battle of the Trench, when his men defeated an attacking force of Meccans that outnumbered them by more than three to one, his ultimate goal was peace. According to the Quran, war is so catastrophic that Muslims must do all they can to restore peace as soon as possible whenever it is broken (8: 16-17).

Why doesn't the Pope remind all Muslims of this passage? And while he's at it, why doesn't he remind all Christians-especially our war president--that Christ repeatedly preached a gospel of peace, that he resolutely refused to be a warrior, that he counselled us to turn the other cheek when attacked, and that he rebuked one of his followers for cutting off the ear of the servant of a high priest who came to arrest him: "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26: 52). Is it not time for Christians and Muslims alike to recognize what our prophets share, and to admit how far we have strayed from their teachings?