The Pope and the Koran

Greetings from Rome as the Eternal City prepares for Holy Week! (I have just begun to send out “tweets” as I speak to different people in Rome and attend different events. If you would like to follow my “tweets” go to )

The email I sent out earlier this week, about the Vatican’s decision to set the annual Feast Day for Blessed Pope John Paul II as October 22 (he will be beatified May 1) prompted many responses from readers, some enthusiastic, but many highly critical of the late Pope and of the decision to beatify him.

Rather than go through all the praises of Pope John Paul, and all the criticisms of the man, of his actions (or lack of action) as Pope, and of the decision to beatify him, tonight I wanted to say something rather provocative — prompted by a long discussion this evening with a Vatican monsignor, an expert on the Middle East who speaks Hebrew and Arabic fluently, having studied for years in Jerusalem.

Premise: my profound hope is for peace in the Middle East for all who live there.

Corollary: my profound fear is that a way to peace will not be found, or chosen, causing fear and suffering for many, in the region and throughout the world, especially the children, who are innocent — before the long-hoped for “time of peace” finally comes.

One of the great charges against John Paul is that (it is said) he kissed a copy of the Koran on May 14, 1999.

John Paul’s critics say this was a profound mistake, indeed, an act of profound infidelity inconceivable for a man chosen to sit on the throne of Peter and to be the faithful Vicar of Christ on earth — since one of the key tenets of the Koran is that Jesus Christ is not the Lord of History and Son of God, but merely a prophet.

The Koran denies this central tenet of Christian faith.

Even more than the assembly in Assisi in 1986, there is a general consensus among critics of Pope John Paul II and of his pontificate, and of Benedict XVI’s decision to beatify John Paul, that this “kiss” was the negative act of John Paul’s life as a Christian, and as a Pope, par excellence.

That is was the worst thing he could have done.

That it revealed that he was in some way unfaithful to Christ.

Like Judas, who betrayed Christ with a kiss…

That John Paul had betrayed Christ with a kiss.

I say no.

And I would like to think that many in the Muslim world would note this.

I say John Paul was not wrong to kiss the Koran (if he did kiss it.)

He was not wrong because the meaning of his kiss was not what his critics think it was.

And what was the meaning of this kiss (which may or may not have been a kiss)?

The meaning was that John Paul, in the context of a world which was barreling toward 9/11, and what has come since 9/11, wished to make a gesture which was against the developing trend: a gesture of respect toward something beyond and beneath profound theological disagreements.

A gesture which showed that he disagreed with a broad-stroke denigration of Islam which can stir in all believing Christians horrified sentiments of shock and even disgust.

A gesture which showed that he sought peace even with those with whom he was in profound theological disagreement.

A gesture of a peace.

Christians can be shocked when they learn of certain Muslim teachings, ranging from the denial of Christ’s divinity to the denial that he actually died on the cross.

So Christian feelings can be stirred up, and inflamed, and Christians and Muslims can be set against one another, if these teachings are emphasized and amplified, and history shows that this has in fact actually taken place. It is not just a hypothesis.

John Paul chose not to inflame, not to stir up.

He could, perhaps, have taken the Koran, given him as a gift, and, with a gesture of shock and horror, tossed it to the ground.

Would he have been a greater soul, a greater saint, a truer Christian, had he done that?

Some Catholics might even argue so!

But I think: no.

Such a gesture would have transformed him from an independent servant of God and agent of God’s peace into an instrument of all those forces which seek conflict, and benefit from it, thoughtless of the cost to the innocent.

I think it is the height of superficiality for anyone to imagine that the Pope of Rome, in receiving the gift of a book regarded as holy by the followers of Islam, and bowing toward it, and seemingly kissing it, was “kissing” those teachings in the book which run contrary to the Catholic faith.

I repeat: if anyone would argue that the Pope was kissing the passages in the book which deny the divinity of Christ, they would be reading his action with the utmost superficiality.

John Paul spent his life in prayer. John Paul saw millions of human beings enslaved and killed. John Paul loved people, individuals, as Christ commanded: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

John Paul did not wish the world to choose sides in a bloody, century-long conflict which might lead to the devastation of huge, fertile regions of the earth, to the loss of limbs and lives of dozens and hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians.

In his act of kissing the Koran (if he did kiss it), the Pope was kissing a hope.

A hope of peace.

A hope of finding a way to peace even when people disagree.

A hope of finding a way to peace even when people disagree in the most profound way, on essential matters — fighting matters… dying matters…

So I believe that John Paul, in this situation, was right to kiss the Koran.

I believe that, far from being an incident which disqualifies him from beatification and canonization, it reveals the true depth of his sanctity, able to go beyond all commonly accepted limits in a search for God’s will, which has always been — against Satan’s wiles — “peace on earth, good will toward men.”


But did John Paul actually kiss the Koran?

To this day, there remains a question mark about what he actually did.

Here is the photo of that moment, from May 14, 1999:

Some say the Pope was merely bowing toward the book, not kissing it.

From this photo, it is hard to tell, and I myself do not know the truth of the matter.

But at least one authoritative witness says he did kiss the book.

In an interview with FIDES News Service (June 1, 1999), Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid said that he was present on the occasion:

“On May 14th I was received by the Pope, together with a delegation composed of the Shi’ite imam of Khadum mosque and the Sunni president of the council of administration of the Iraqi Islamic Bank. There was also a representative of the Iraqi ministry of religion. ….

“At the end of the audience the Pope bowed to the Muslim holy book, the Koran, presented to him by the delegation, and he kissed it as a sign of respect. The photo of that gesture has been shown repeatedly on Iraqi television and it demonstrates that the Pope is not only aware of the suffering of the Iraqi people, he has also great respect for Islam.”

(Here is the full text of that interview:

But was the Iraqi Patriarch really in a position to see that the Pope’s lips actually kissed the book? I do not know.

“But the question is irrelevant,” the Vatican monsignor said to me this evening. “Whether he kissed the book or did not kiss it makes no difference. He bowed toward it. It was a sign of respect. But respect for what? Not for errors. It was respect for a piety toward the ultimate which is presupposed by any religious attitude toward reality. It was a gesture of humility, from a servant of that ultimate and holy reality, which bore witness to the grace that Pope John Paul hoped would touch and transform all those who adhere to Islam, not by force and hatred, but by invitation, by love. And this is why he truly was a great saint, and a great witness to the mysterious will of God for out world, which is not that it become a wasteland, but a garden, not a curse, but a blessing. And for this reason, we were privileged to know him, and will be privileged to call him Blessed.”

—Robert Moynihan

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