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1054 & All That

By David Warren

"We spit on the tomb of Jesus' S Kikeerguard," read perhaps the most intriguing sign at the last legal Istanbul rally before the Pope's visit to Turkey began. According to the BBC correspondent who spotted it, and guessed that it was English, the bearers of the sign were unable to explain it. He noticed, however, that they were very angry. I would myself guess that the slogan commemorates some heroic effort to combine Jesus, and by extension the Pope, with Soren Kierkegaard, and by extension Danish cartoonists, into a single object for hatred.

References in protest signs to the "Barnabas Bible" were more comprehensible. The Gospel of Barnabas was an obvious forgery from the 16th century (not the 14th, as reported by BBC). It purports to give a life of Jesus, in which Christendom's founder denies his own divine Sonship, and instead points forward to the Prophet Muhammad. But it also incorporates Gnostic and other apocryphal and heretical materials from earlier centuries. It is widely believed in the Islamic world to be the true gospel of the apostle Barnabas -- "the one the Christians tried to suppress". In the West, it enjoyed a brief vogue among some of the battier deists of the early Enlightenment. It is as long, rambling, ignorant, and senseless as the Da Vinci Code. The consensus of modern scholars is that it was written originally in Istanbul, then circulated to Europe in Spanish and Italian. It contains a number of giveaway Turkish features, including a Turkified version of the Islamic "shahadah" (or creed).

People believe what they want to believe, which is one of the reasons the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" continues to enjoy a good circulation. That, and the fact that this Russian-fabricated late 19th-century blood libel against the Jews has been big-budget dramatized on state television in Egypt and many other Muslim countries. Turkish television recently showed a massively popular dramatic series in which basic elements from the Protocols were recast, as an "exposé" of baby-eating U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

It is worth remembering such things when we consider the possibilities for "dialogue" between cultures. It is also worth considering with what great difficulty the West was raised out of the barbaric welter of superstition and paranoia, and how easily we could slump back into it. I look, for instance, at the garbage that is being studied and taught in the politically-correct English departments of our universities, and am reminded that we are ourselves on the skids. The ability to distinguish even between what is sane, and insane, is slipping away.

But let us return to Constantinople (as it was called through the centuries before it fell to the Ottoman conquest in 1453). It remains the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, of Eastern Christendom.

The Pope's visit to Turkey was primarily for the purpose of meeting this Patriarch, Bartholomew I. It was intended secondarily as the latest Vatican act of outreach to the Islamic world. The international media managed to frame it as an act of contrition for remarks Pope Benedict made in Bavaria, touching on Islam, which were twisted viciously out of context, at first by the BBC. Their coverage has been a kind of death-watch, in anticipation of the possibility the Pope might be assassinated.

I could not myself understand why His Holiness would want to go through with the Turkish journey. There would be no fond crowds, as Muslim and Christian Turks alike feared to be seen near his entourage. His formal statements in political venues, such as to the diplomats in Ankara, were necessarily too plain and sane to be worth reporting: That religious believers should everywhere enjoy the freedom to organize their own institutional lives; that religious authorities should not exercise direct political power; that none should advocate violence; that Muslims and Christians alike should "promote the dignity of every human being and the growth of a society where personal freedom and care for others provide peace and serenity for all".

But the answer came, as ever, by reading the stated agenda. This week's joint declaration with Patriarch Bartholomew offered the most scintillating demonstration of the growing will, both Catholic and Orthodox, to overcome divisions that "are a scandal to the world".

I do not know where "the dialogue between Christianity and Islam" can go, but the real effort to heal the breach between Eastern and Western Christendom, that became fixed nearly a thousand years ago, in 1054, is something certainly consequential, over a longer historical view.

© Ottawa Citizen

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