At this Christmas season it is difficult to be joyful about the state of the world because there is so much sad news about the situation of Christians in Islamic countries. The Arab "spring" in Egypt turned into an ordeal for Coptic Christians with many killed.
In Libya there was the macabre extra-judicial execution of Gaddafi and now plans by the National Transitional Council to impose the misogynist Sharia law which allows polygamy, and from Pakistan there is weekly news of young Christian girls kidnapped, raped, forced to marry their abductors and to convert to Islam. When the heart-broken parents of the victims complain, the police and law enforcement officials show little interest in pursuing the criminals.
The free world is not only involved in a war against terrorism, it is involved in a civil war which is internal to Islam, and we are also involved in dealing with that dimension of Islam which is not just a religion but also a political ideology.
The Rev Mark Durie, Anglican vicar of St Mary's Caulfield (Melbourne), who is an expert on Islam, in commenting on the plight of Coptic Christians writes: "The Islamic political vision, which is the root of the Copts' sufferings, demands that non-Muslims accept a place defined for them by Sharia law. This is the status of the dhimmi, who is permitted to live in an Islamic state under terms of surrender as laid out in the dhimma pact. These terms are a well-established part of Islamic law, and can be found laid out in countless legal text books."
Among the restrictions imposed on dhimmis (i.e., Christians and Jews) is that they are not allowed to repair places of worship. The Copts' offence was their effort to repair a church. Rev Durie writes: "For some pious Muslims in Egypt today, the act of repairing a church is a flagrant provocation, a breach of the peace, which amounts to a deliberate revocation of one's rights to exist in the land. This becomes a legitimate topic for sermons in the mosque, as the faithful are urged to use their hands to uphold the honour of Islam. It is seen as no injustice, and even a duty, to destroy the church and even the lives of Christians who have the temerity to repair their churches. Likewise those who go to the streets to protest church destruction are also rebels who have forfeited their rights to 'safety and protection'.
"It is this theological worldview which motivates both the church destruction, and the killing of protestors by members of the military chanting 'Allahu Akbar' (Allah is greater)."
This is why Pope Benedict's Regensburg Lecture, given at his university in Germany around the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the destruction of the Twin towers of the World Trade Center, is so significant. The Pope analysed what must change in Islam so Islam can live in peace with the rest of the world, and I would add, with itself, because Muslims are killing even more Muslims than non-Muslims, e.g., the bombing of mosques in Pakistan.
Pope Benedict identified two key issues. He said Islam must affirm religious freedom as a fundamental human right that can be known by reason. Religious freedom includes the right to change one's religion. Islam must find a path to this reasoning from within its own legal, religious and theological traditions.
It is not a matter of yielding to secularism, but rather a development of doctrine similar to the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom.
The second issue is for Islam to find a path from within its own religious and intellectual reasoning for a distinction between religious authority and political government. The Catholic Church has found such a path, inspired by Jesus' injunction to render unto Caesar what is owed to Caesar and render to God what is owed to God (Mt. 15:21)
An Islam that affirms religious freedom, including conversion from one faith to another, and that buttresses that affirmation through its own religious self-understanding and the arts of reason, is an Islam with which the rest of the world can live in peace. An Islam in which religious and political authority are distinct is an Islam in which a genuinely civil society can begin to take root - and a robust civil society is one barrier against the corruption and the tyranny of dictatorships which have plagued Islamic states for centuries.
At the present time English-speaking democracies - and probably European ones as well - are spending small fortunes on grants to Islamic educational institutions in the hope of eliminating radicalism and promoting moderate cultural norms. In my view an essential component of such grants should be the wide distribution of Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg Lecture, a requirement that it be studied and conferences and seminars be held on this topic.
One hundred and fifty Islamic scholars did in fact respond to the Pope and some intermittent dialogue has commenced between them and the Vatican. However, such dialogue needs to be far more widespread and localised and every imam, sheikh and Islamic preacher in Western democracies should be presented with a copy of the Regensburg Lecture and invited to respond to it in writing, particularly if the cleric is applying for a teaching or immigrant visa.
In the meantime at this Christmas season pray for Christians in Islamic countries who are enduring a slow martyrdom.
Babette Francis was born in India and has lived in Muslim-majority provinces before the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.