Acting on faith in politics means exactly what it does in personal life: to do what is right even when it is dangerous to do so, when received opinion howls against it, and when the ultimate consequence of such actions cannot be foreseen. After Pope Benedict XVI showed unprecedented courtesy to visiting American President George W. Bush last week, much has been written about the Christian faith that binds the pope and the president.

It is not only faith, but the temerity to act upon faith, that the pope and the president have in common. In the past I have characterized Benedict’s stance as, “I have a mustard seed, and I’m not afraid to use it.” (See Ratzinger’s mustard seed Asia Times Online, April 5, 2005.) Despite his failings, Bush is a kindred spirit. That is what horrifies their respective critics within the Catholic Church and the American government, who portray the president and the pope as destroyers of civilizational peace. The charge is spurious because there was no civilization peace to destroy, but like many calumnies, it contains an element of truth.

Never before did a pope descend to the Vatican gardens to greet a national leader as Benedict did for Bush, returning the unprecedented deference that the president showed in meeting the pope’s plane at Andrews Air Force Base in April. More than mutual courtesy is at work here; the two men evince a natural affinity and mutual sympathy. Prelates in the Vatican’s permanent bureaucracy fumed at the warmth with which Bush was received, the Italian daily La Repubblica noted June 12, given that the US president “is very distant from papal exhortations condemning war,” the Iraq war in particular.

Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, disagrees with American policy in Iraq, but not the way that the European or American left would like. “There was not a word from the papal throne about the possibility of an attack on Iran during the coming months, the catastrophic results of which terrify all the bishops of the Middle East,” Marco Politi fulminated in La Repubblica June 14. “In the Holy Land, the Holy See is being towed behind the snail’s pace [in peace negotiations] of Washington and the Israeli government.”

Despite his position on Iraq, Benedict’s critics within the church regard him as a civilizational warrior as dangerous as the US president. Bush might denounce “Islamo-facism,” but continues to believe that Islam is a “religion of peace.” Muslims suspect that the pope wants to convert them, a threat they never have had to confront in Islam’s 1,500-year history.

The May issue of the Jesuits’ international monthly Popoli [1], for example, featured a blistering attack on Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam, who this year converted from Islam to Roman Catholicism, and the circumstances of his conversion, by the prominent Italian Jesuit Father Paolo dall’Oglio, of the Deir Mar Musa monastery in Syria. By officiating at Allam’s conversion, Father Dall’Oglio charted, Benedict confirmed Muslim suspicion that his campaign for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience is a “Trojan Horse” whose aim is to cause Islam to disintegrate. On this more below.

The pope and the president are less at odds over the Iraq war than the Vatican’s anti-war position might suggest. America invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein for reasons of state that no religious leader could bless.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, American intelligence had no means to determine which Muslim governments were in league with terrorists. Middle Eastern governments do not resemble Western nation-states so much as they do hotels at which diverse political factions can rent accommodations, including factions who provide weapons, passports, training and intelligence to the sort of men who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Elements within the governments of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others, supported terrorists, besides Saddam.

The only way to resolve the matter quickly was to make a horrible example out of one of these regimes. That got the undivided attention of the others. “Kill the chicken, and let the monkey watch,” say the Chinese.

Bush chose Iraq simply because existing United Nations Security Council resolutions provided a pretext in international law. Did the American president “lie”? Not exactly, but head of states do not tell the whole truth about such matters, and religious leaders do not put their imprimatur on the rougher side of raison d’etat.

Bush was magnificently right to conduct a punitive expedition against Saddam, but horribly wrong to wade into the mire of nation-building. He should have found a cooperative dictator to replace Saddam and marched out, as American neo-conservative historian and political commentator Daniel Pipes suggested at the time. Nonetheless, as I wrote in 2004, “The West should be thankful that it has in US President George W Bush a warrior who shoots first and tells the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to ask questions later. Rarely in its long history has the West suffered by going to war too soon. On the contrary: among the wars of Western history, the bloodiest were those that started too late.” (See In praise of premature war Asia Times Online, October 19, 2004.)

Going to war in Iraq was a leap of faith, a repudiation of half a century of American commitment to stability in the region, to the enduring dudgeon of the foreign policy establishment. Until the last moment the establishment did not believe that Bush would go through with it. A former British prime minister assured me privately in December 2001 that he had it on the personal authority of George Bush Senior that war was out of the question. Despite the grave policy errors that followed, Bush had the faith to upset the existing order of things without foreknowledge of the consequences, because he knew that it was the right thing to do.

In that sense, the president’s war policy and the pope’s pacifism arise from a common source, the politics of faith. Despite the exigencies of state security, which make necessary the employment of deadly force as well as harm to civilians, someone must speak the voice of mercy, and pray that the stern decree will pass from the world. A religious leader must say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” while a head of state must follow the maxim, “Do unto others before they do unto you.” What divides the president and the pope is not so much their conflicting positions, but rather a difference in the existential vantage point from which each must respond to the great events of the world.

Benedict XVI may preach against violence, but in his own fashion he takes a tougher stance than the American president. That surely is not the way it looks at first glance. Bush invaded an Arab country, while Benedict preaches reason to the Muslim world, receiving in the past few months Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah as well as delegations from Iran. He has agreed to a meeting with a group of 138 Muslim scholars at the Vatican in November. Why should Muslims fear Benedict?

For the first time, perhaps, since the time of Mohammed, large parts of the Islamic world are vulnerable to Christian efforts to convert them, for tens of millions of Muslims now dwell as minorities in predominantly Christian countries. The Muslim migration to Europe is a double-edged sword. Eventually this migration may lead to a Muslim Europe, but it also puts large numbers of Muslims within reach of Christian missionaries for the first time in history.

That is the hope of Magdi Allam, the highest-profile Catholic convert from Islam in living memory (see The mustard seed in global strategy Asia Times Online, March 26, 2008).

As noted above, the Jesuit Arabist Paolo dall’Oglio warns that the pope has confirmed the worst fears of the Muslim world. His views on the subject bear careful reading. As the editors of Popoli introduce his article, Dall’Oglio is “someone who has carried out years of apostolic activity in the Muslim world, and in position to understand the sensibilities and to intuit the possible repercussions and ways in which the event might be exploited.”

Dall’Oglio began his article (in Italian – citations are my translation), “We hope that we are dealing with an eclipse of the sun,” that is, a one-time event, and adds:

The moon of urgent concern for freedom of conscience and religion has blocked the sun of charitable discretion, of respect for Muslim feelings, and of the renunciation of proselytism … [Magdi Allam’s baptism] discouraged numerous efforts to construct harmony and friendship, in the quarters of European cities as well as in the countries, for secular and peaceful Islamic-Christian coexistence. It neutralized attempts to defuse inter-religious violence and to show how far the Church is from the neocolonialist logic of the Western hegemonic powers, and how a great majority of Muslims are opposed to the logic of hostile confrontation …

Before the world, and on the occasion of his baptism, Magdi Allam has declared his intent to affirm “the authentic religion of truth, of life and of freedom” against the “the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive.” In this fashion he confirmed the Muslim impression, intentionally or not, that there is an objective strategic convergence of Christian neo-proselytism and the blasphemous actions against the holiest realities of Islam promoted by the northern European media [ie, the satirical cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper].

In other words it is difficult to escape the impression that the sacred banner of freedom of conscience is being used by the West to introduce a Trojan Horse into Islam with the aim of causing it to disintegrate [emphasis added].

What seems to the West a low-key appeal to reason and Western norms of religious freedom, Dall’Oglio warns, looks like a Trojan Horse to Muslims. Islamic leaders already have noted that months before Allam’s baptism, the Vatican published a “doctrinal note” on evangelization that specifically repudiates the notion that Catholics should refrain from attempting to convert people of other faiths. Church-watcher Sandro Magister notes [2] that one of the 138 Muslim scholars scheduled to meet with the pope in November already has filed a protest in the Vatican monthly Mondo e Missione.

Mustafa Cherif, an Algerian Islamic scholar prominent in dialogue with the church, singled out the December 3, 2007, doctrinal note [3] from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith affirming that “evangelization is aimed at all of humanity,” and seeking to correct “a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective.”

As Father Dall’Oglio warns darkly, Muslims are in dialogue with a pope who evidently does not merely want to exchange pleasantries about coexistence, but to convert them. This no doubt will offend Muslim sensibilities, but Muslim leaders are well-advised to remain on good terms with Benedict XVI. Worse things await them. There are 100 million new Chinese Christians, and some of them speak of marching to Jerusalem – from the East. A website entitled Back to Jerusalem proclaims, “From the Great Wall of China through Central Asia along the silk roads, the Chinese house churches are called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ all the way back to Jerusalem.”

Islam is in danger for the first time since its founding. The evangelical Christianity to which George W Bush adheres and the emerging Asian church are competitors with whom it never had to reckon in the past. The European Church may be weak, but no weaker, perhaps, than in the 8th century after the depopulation of Europe and the fall of Rome. An evangelizing European Church might yet repopulate Europe with new Christians as it did more than a millennium ago.

Notes 1. See Popoli.
2. See Dialogue among the Religions. The Vatican Prepares the Guidelines.
3. See Doctrinal note on some aspects of evangelization