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Martyrdom and Muslim Fundamentalism

Interview With Robert Royal

NEW YORK, FEB. 15, 2006 (Zenit) - The main culprits behind the martyrdom of Christians appears to be shifting from the ideologies of yesteryear to the Muslim fundamentalism of today.

So says Robert Royal, author of the 2002 book "The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century."

The most recent, high-profile example of the tendency was the case of the teen-ager in Turkey arrested in the murder of Father Andrea Santoro. The young Turk reportedly told authorities that he was driven by hatred aroused by the cartoons of Mohammed published in the Western press.

For more perspective on the problem, the Catholic newspaper Avvenire interviewed Royal, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute.

Q: What reactions do you elicit when you speak of "martyrs" to a contemporary public?

Royal: It is a difficult concept to understand, even for Catholics. It is thought that it is something that could only happen in the times of the first Christians, in the Colosseum, and that no longer happens. But in numbers, martyrdom has never been more prevalent.

Q: What makes it possible today?

Royal: In my book I pointed out the ideological nature of the century that just ended. But lately I have noticed a worrying tendency which perhaps within a year will be clear in all its seriousness.

It is the resentment of many Muslim fundamentalists toward Westerners and the ease with which it is manipulated by radical leaders and regimes.

Q: Could you give an example?

Royal: Look at Turkey itself. It has always been dangerous for Catholic priests. Although it describes itself as a secular regime, in fact tolerance of Christians is very low.

Therefore, I am not surprised that Turkey was the scene of Father Santoro's murder. But this case shows the type of degeneration of events that we might continue to see in the near future, because of the growing tension between East and West.

It reveals that there are many fanatics, in this case Muslims, ready to take recourse to violence at the least provocation.

Q: How far back does this tension go? Does it precede September 11 and the invasion of Iraq?

Royal: In my opinion, yes. A clear example is the murder of John Joseph, bishop of Faisalabad, in Pakistan, who died in mysterious circumstances in May [1998], which reflects an ever more frequent Muslim fundamentalist view of the West that makes it almost impossible for Muslims to find work or take part in public life and, therefore, creates a climate in which their persecution is legitimate.

It is a form of forced Islamization, of a campaign for "religious purity" now common in many Muslim countries.

Not all scholars of the Koran or Muslim religious justify it, but the pressure of the fundamentalists is ever stronger.

Suffice it to think that some Muslim countries have formally requested the United Nations to prohibit the very use of the word "Islamization" by groups for the defense of human rights.

Q: Which are the countries where Christians are most at risk?

Royal: One, certainly, is Saudi Arabia, which is even more rigid than Pakistan. Any public expression of the Christian faith there is prohibited and in theory one can be arrested for praying on one's home.

When the Americans were in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, for example, they were ordered not to pray before the battles. And there, as almost anywhere in the Muslim world, a Muslim who converts to Christianity can be punished with death.

But the rights of Christians are regularly violated, and by law, in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the Arab Emirates and Turkey. And things are getting worse. I see, for example, outbursts of anti-Christian violence also in Egypt, in addition to, of course, Iraq.

Q: Do you think, then, that in the coming years the martyrdom of Christians will occur more frequently in the Arab Muslim world?

Royal: There is also China and North Korea, and threats exist in the Western countries themselves. In many European countries we are witnessing in fact the birth of anti-Christian and anti-religious movements that can be very violent.

And it must not be forgotten that in the Muslim world opportunities for dialogue also arise continually. But it is a very difficult dialogue, which clashes constantly with the determination of regimes to exploit any occasion to drive the masses to anti-Western violence.

Q: Do you think that hatred in these countries is directed at Christians as such or at Westerners?

Royal: In many countries of the Muslim world this distinction does not exist. Anti-Western feeling extends to Americans and Europeans, Jews and Christians.

Religious such as Father Santoro are seen as representatives of Western governments, in the same way that in the Muslim world religion and politics are the same thing.

It is a hatred born from a feeling of profound humiliation that has its roots in the history of the past century, beginning with World War I.

But now the resentment is sharp. Of course there are many reasons to reflect on the conduct of the West vis-ŕ-vis the Middle East. But the difference is that Christians are prepared for dialogue, while in many Muslim countries the atmosphere is too poisoned to allow for an honest confrontation in equality.

Suffice it to say that, although it is true that the cartoons on Mohammed are blasphemies for a Muslim, the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish caricatures and articles are the order of the day in Arab newspapers. But very few are willing to acknowledge it.


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Muslim, Royal, Martyrdom, Islam, Mohammed

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