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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Vatican Official Calls for Talks on Crusades
By Stacy Meichtry - Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY-- Amid global anger over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, the Vatican's top mediator with Islam is pushing to heal long-festering wounds of history -- the Christian Crusades and the Muslim conquests of medieval Europe.

"It is a question that needs to be addressed. How do we read history? Can we read history together and come to some common understanding?" Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said in an interview Thursday (Feb. 16).

Fitzgerald, who is slated to leave his current position soon to become Pope Benedict XVI's ambassador to Egypt and the Arab League, also rejected a recent call from an Italian lawmaker for the Vatican to lead a showdown with Islam. Instead, Fitzgerald called for Vatican and Muslim scholars to examine the legacy of Christian-Muslim conflict to build historical consensus.

Beginning in the 12th century, popes launched military campaigns, called Crusades, with the aim of retaking the Holy Land from Muslim control. Muslims responded by pushing into Europe, conquering the Balkans and attacking states along the Mediterranean coast.

By calling for a conversation about this history, Fitzgerald broached one of the most vexing issues in interreligious dialogue, underscoring a sense of urgency within the Vatican to avoid what some academics have called a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and Christianity, as well as East and West.

Seated in an antechamber to his office, Fitzgerald did not offer details on exactly how, when or where this history could be revisited or say how an Islamic-Christian consensus could eventually emerge. But he did acknowledge the difficulty of the task and said scholars should be involved.

"It's going to be a long process because you need to get people who are well-qualified historians to look at this and produce a more measured appreciation of what were the Crusades and what were the Islamic conquests," Fitzgerald said. "Things on both sides need to be examined."

Tensions between Europe and the Muslim world have flared recently amid violent protest over the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad. On the same day Fitzgerald gave his interview, about 40,000 people protested in demonstrations in Pakistan. Islam prohibits images of the prophet as blasphemous, but European papers that published the drawings consider them an exercise in free speech.

In comments made in early February, Roberto Calderoli, Italy's right-wing reforms minister, called on the pope to lead a campaign in defense of European identity akin to the Christian armies mounted by medieval popes to fend off Muslim invasions.

Calderoli cited Pius V and Innocence XI as "Renaissance popes who mounted armies" and "stepped in for the governments. They forged grand coalitions to defeat the Islamic emergency." The comments made news in both Europe and Islamic countries.

In the interview, Fitzgerald dismissed Calderoli's appeal as "extremism."

There are signs that the Vatican has already begun reviewing its understanding of the Muslim-Christian legacy, but it is unclear whether the push will ultimately lead to a consensus, even within the Vatican.

In December, Vatican scholars gathered at a conference at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome to mark the 500th anniversary of St. Pius V, the pope who waged the battle of Lepanto -- a port where Turkish armies were decisively turned back from European shores.

Addressing the theme of "Christianity and Islam, Yesterday and Today," Monsignor Walter Brandmuller, a top Vatican historian, said the true nature of the historical conflict had to be addressed for candid dialogue to begin.

Asked about his comments during an interview in January, Brandmuller said the two religions should avoid "political correctness" and address their differences out in the open.

"Dialogue cannot mean that I am looking for a middle ground between Islam and Christianity. I cannot question whether two plus two equals four or five." The goal of Christian-Muslim dialogue, he said, is not so much to reach consensus, but "to understand the issues so we can coexist peacefully."

Benedict XVI has publicly called for increased dialogue with Islam and announced on Feb. 9 that he will visit Turkey in late November, meaning the pope's first visit outside Europe will be to a predominantly Muslim country seeking entrance into the European Union.

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