April 20, 2005 | Indianapolis Star

Benedict Should Face Off with Persecutors of his Flock

By: Dr. Walid Phares.

As soon as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pontiff, the new Pope Benedict XVI fell in the crosshair of a highly politicized media around the world, and particularly in the West. The ideological and cultural wars in America and Europe needs fuel to resume after having given respite to the Vatican, during the passing John Paul II.

Now all fronts are open. The election of Ratzinger to the peak of the 1.1 billion people Catholic Church is not a light matter. He can influence the destiny of humanity.

In the “Center” battlefield, the Roman church has to address celibacy of priests and priesthood of nuns issues. Ratzinger is a conservative and he will follow John Paul II's position. On his “Western” front, he'll have to tackle the liberal issues of Europe and North America such as abortion, sexual relations, gay integration, divorce and similar issues. Add to it the priest abuse scandal. On the latter, Ratzinger will be a reformist, and call for discipline and morality.

On his “Southern” front, mostly in Latin America, and parts of black Africa and India, Benedict XVI will have to address poverty, economies and the uprising of the Marxist-inspired “liberation theology.” Ratzinger will inspire economic revitalization to salvage the impoverished masses and isolate the rebel leftist clerics. But under his mandate his main geo-political battlefield is on his East.

There are tens of millions of Catholics whose worries are not how to conduct their lives, but if they will have a life: that is, persecution east of Rome and across the Mediterranean.

There are more than 200 million Christians undergoing religious and political persecution around the world. Most of them are not situated in the wealthy West nor in remote Latin America, but in the very dangerous world of totalitarianism.

People still living under Communist rule suffer from religious freedom deprivation — in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. Will Benedict resume the Polish struggle of his predecessor? Will he ask these faithful to tear down their walls, too?

Expect Benedict to follow the steps of John Paul II. Not only was he John Paul's disciple on freedom, but he too has lived under totalitarian rule. Yet, communism will not be his gravest challenge; jihadism will be.

A hundred million Catholics live under the threat of jihadists on several continents. Many millions have already been exterminated, ethnic cleansed, or forcibly converted by the radical regimes and organizations over the past few decades. Some argue the Vatican has had excellent interfaith dialogues since Council II in the early 1960s.

But Islam, as a faith, isn't the problem; it is the ideology that uses this religion, which has been targeting Catholics and other “infidels,” including Muslims in more than 40 countries. The facts of persecution are overwhelming: in Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, governments have been engaged in actions against the followers of Jesus.

In the Philippines, Lebanon, and Algeria, jihad terrorism killed and raped Catholics. Last but not least, genocide has taken place in Sudan and Biafra, with about 1 million black Catholics massacred; hundreds of thousands could easily be defined today as Catholic slaves!

What will the “tough” new pope do about this?

In the West, it's about lifestyles; in the Latin South, it's about hard lives; but in the East, it's about life, period.

The new pope is expected to testify for freedom and human dignity. As he and John Paul condemned Nazism and Bolshevism, Benedict should face off with the persecutor of his flock and the threat against humanity. He has the support of the world, as there is an American-led campaign against terror, a Middle East drive toward democracy and a war of ideas to be led by moderate Muslims.

The Vatican has no divisions, as Stalin said. But Rome doesn't need tanks, either, because it has the power of the word. But it is a word that the Holy Father must at some point utter. His predecessor had the courage to name evil by its name. Until now, the Vatican has preferred allusions to pronouncements when it comes to jihad. It was argued that too many Catholics would suffer if a pope would raise their issues east of Rome. True, but they are suffering anyway, and one day they may not be there to fill the churches.

Benedict's Eastern front seems to be his hardest after all.

– Phares is a professor of religion and world politics at Florida Atlantic University and a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.