Apr.*9, 2005. 01:00*AM

John Paul II forged links with Islam


The year 1492 A.D. is branded on the Muslim psyche. It is the year Granada fell to the Spanish armies of Ferdinand and Isabella who sought to wipe out the Muslim and Jewish presence, not just from Spain, but from the continent of Europe altogether.

Encouraged by Pope Sixtus IV's endorsement, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand began their Holy War: "The desire we have to serve God and our devotion to his holy Catholic faith cause us to subordinate all our own interests in the hope that Christendom should be rid of the infidels of Granada, uprooted and driven out of Spain" (Chronicles of the Crusades, edited by Elizabeth Hallam, Bramley Books, 1997).

What followed was an all-out holocaust, referred to euphemistically as an "Inquisition." It was one of the darkest periods in human history which left 2.4 million Muslims dead, millions more expelled and the rest forcibly baptized.

The "Andalusia syndrome" is never far from the Muslim mind. Throughout the centuries since the fall of Granada, Muslims could never recover from the sense of injustice, of the catastrophic loss of a pluralistic society.

Andalusia was a tolerant synthesis of cultures, a seat of higher learning, open debates, flourishing arts.

It was a social mosaic with a remarkable notion of harmony, involving Judaism, Christianity and Islam living together in tranquility for more than 700 years. It was Andalusia that sowed the seeds of the Renaissance in the West.

On May 6, 2001, Pope John Paul II visited the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a historic event in Christian-Muslim relations unequalled since a group of Christian missionaries visited Prophet Muhammad at his mosque in Medina during the early days of Islam. The Pontiff's gesture was hailed in the Muslim world as a step towards healing the long-festering wounds of the past.

The mosque courtyard houses the tomb of Yahya, one of Islam's prophets who is revered by Christians as Saint John the Baptist.

The Pope's visit to the mosque was not just a ceremonial one; he meditated at the saint's tomb, listened to the recitation from the Holy Qur'an and conferred with Syria's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaro.

John Paul II was touched by the warmth and the serenity of the historic place. "You know," he said, "it is the first time in 2,000 years that a Pope enters a mosque. For me, too, it is an important day."

Earlier, the Vatican set the tone for its new vision of reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and other major religions when the Pope offered an apology for his Church's intolerant attitude towards other faiths throughout its nearly 2,000-year history.

The high point of the visit was his sincere prayer that Muslim and Christian scholars will henceforth "present our two great religious communities in a respectful dialogue and never more as communities in conflict."

Critics in the Muslim world believe that the Vatican's talk about mutual forgiveness by Muslims and Christians is not enough.

They marvelled at the Pope's reluctance to apologize for the Catholic Church's role in launching and funding the Crusades and the unequivocal support for the Inquisition.

They pointed to apologies he had earlier offered to Jews and to Greek Orthodox Christians in an effort to take the Catholic Church on a path of spiritual purification.

A similar apology to Muslims would have transformed his visit to the Umayyad Mosque into a major turning point in history. It would have brought to a close painful memories in the spirit of acknowledging the wrongdoings of the past, thus infusing the future with renewed hope.

Pope John Paul II was a supreme leader of the Catholic Church who, in a number of magnanimous gestures, acknowledged the wrongs of the past.

In the Muslim world, he will be remembered as the Pontiff who wanted to forge links with Muslims.

His legacy challenges the next Pope to continue along this path, taking further steps to bring these two major monotheistic religions closer and to erase the lingering sad memories of the Crusades.

Religion and revelation should bring us together and must not separate us into warring camps.

In the meantime, Muslims continue to wait for the dawn of a new era, an era when the Christian spirit of love and respect prevails over man's greed, arrogance, and lust for power, money and oil.

Javed Akbar is director of outreach at the Pickering Islamic Centre.