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September 20, 2012
Violence in the Middle East: the witness of Pope Benedict XVI
By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

On Friday, Sept. 14, Pope Benedict XVI began a three-day trip to Lebanon. As he was arriving in Beirut, in 20 countries all around Lebanon, angry extremists were clenching their fists and shouting anti-American protests. Surging mobs were swarming through city streets across North Africa and the Middle East. Enraged demonstrators were breaching the walls of U.S. embassies in capital cities. Many were killed, including the American ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

A video clip denigrating the prophet Muhammad ignited this most recent flare up of violence across the Muslim world. For many Muslims, lampooning, caricaturizing and insulting their prophet or their religion is not protected by free speech. Some judge such abuse of speech as a capital offense. Hence, the outrage. Rocks hurled. Fires set. Buildings destroyed. Many injured. Lives lost. Tragically, these are not isolated incidents.

Another chapter has been added to the legacy of hate too often witnessed in our day in the name of religion. British author Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel, "Satanic Verses," outraged many Muslims. The result: deadly riots in Pakistan and India. In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The result: violent attacks against Danish missions in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Lebanon and dozens killed in weeks of protests. In 2011, the congregation of Florida preacher Terry Jones burned the Quran. The result: protests across Afghanistan and the killing of seven foreigners in a U.N. compound in northern Afghanistan.

For all religious persons, any insult to their religion is rightly offensive. In our day of instant communication, it only takes seconds for some offensive video or statement to travel around the world. In such a world, it is not only irresponsible but morally repugnant for anyone to deliberately insult the religious sensitivities of others. Extremists delight to polarize political issues along religious lines.

Tolerance of others and respect for the religious beliefs of those who differ from us are foundational to a democratic society. Common sense dictates that freedom of speech is not a license to insult or incite another. But killing innocent people is even more morally repugnant than any offensive speech.

Some Muslims may see an insult to Islam as an excuse to further their own political agenda with violence. Others may confuse violence with zeal for the truth. But hatred and violence find no home in the heart of the truly religious.

Those who are convinced that their religion is the true religion are not thereby granted the right to use violence to force their religious convictions on others. Faith and reason are gifts of the same God. Those who have authentic faith act in a way consistent with the very nature of God. Thus, they are rational and non-violent. “Non-violence is an active force of the highest order. It is the power of God within us” (Gandhi, Harijan, November 12, 1935).

History has shown that no religion has been exempt from ridicule, insult and denigration. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has so astutely noted, “The great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries…Refraining from violence, then, is not a sign of weakness in one's faith; it is absolutely the opposite, a sign that one's faith is unshakable.”

It is with such unshakable faith that Pope Benedict XVI continued his journey to the Middle East even in the midst of the recent violence and protests. The pope’s presence there is a great witness to his message of peace. He urged that everyone must enjoy the freedom to practice their religion “without danger to life.”

Speaking in Lebanon, the pope said that “it is not uncommon to see two religions within the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society?” The answer is found within the heart of each of us, whatever our religion.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.
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