Lessons of the Past
The tower of a church and the minaret of a nearby mosque are seen in the West Bank city of Ramallah in October 2010. (CNS photo/Mohamad Torokman, Reuters)
Lions of the Faith chronicles the lives of saints, martyrs, and heroes who were caught up in the struggle between Islam and Christianity that commenced in the seventh century and continues to this day. The 800 martyrs of Otranto who were recently canonized by Pope Francis appear in these pages, as do the seven monks of Tibhirine, Algeria whose death at the hands of Islamic terrorists in 1996 is the subject of the 2010 film Of Gods and Men. The author also tells the story of many lesser-known saints, such as St. Casilda of Toledo, who was a Muslim but converted to the faith as a result of her contact with the Catholic prisoners for whom she secretly cared. In addition to saints and martyrs, Lions of the Faith also provides brief accounts of the exploits of Catholic heroes such as Charles Martel, who turned back a Muslim army in the pivotal battle of Poitiers in 732, and King John III Sobieski, whose 1683 victory over the Turks at the Gates of Vienna initiated the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Although most of the book is concerned with the first thousand years of struggle between Islam and Christianity, it is as contemporary as today’s news. As the author observes, nothing has really changed: the basic problems and differences between Christianity and Islam remain. Chief among these is the Islamic conviction that all other religions must be subjugated under Islam. Thus, as Bieszad notes, “The reality which the seventh-century Church faced is the same in the 21st century.”
One of these realities—a reality that is still very much with us—is that Western Christians were rarely able to achieve unity in resisting Islamization. In fact, on numerous occasions Christian kingdoms allied themselves with the Muslim Ottoman Empire against other Christians. “Better a Turk than a Papist” was a popular slogan among Dutch Calvinists, and in their fight against Catholic Spain, Dutch sailors wore a crescent-shaped medal with that inscription.
Throughout much of the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholics were fighting a two-front war—against Muslims in the south and east and against Protestants in the north. The Muslim leaders understood the differences between Catholics and Protestants and were adept at exploiting them. At various times, alliances were formed between the Ottomans and Dutch Calvinists, French Huguenots, English Protestants, and Protestant princes in Hungary and Transylvania. It should be noted, however, that Catholics sometimes allied themselves with the Ottomans against other Catholics, as when King Francis I of France formed an alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent against the Hapsburgs.
Muslim successes in Europe were owed, at least in part, to political and religious divisions within Christendom. A similar situation exists today. The rapid worldwide expansion of fundamentalist Islam in recent years is due in no small part to the fact that Western powers have thrown their weight behind the fundamentalists. The recent accession to power of the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood-type governments in Egypt and North Africa was made possible by Western political pressure and sometimes by Western military intervention. Likewise, Western pressure and influence contributed greatly to the rise of Recep Erdogan’s Islamist government in Turkey and to the decline of secular rule there.
In the Third World the spread of Islam has been enabled by military interventions, in the West its spread has been facilitated by numerous cultural interventions. In Europe and increasingly in America, politicians, academics, journalists, judges, and assorted multicultural elites have essentially taken sides with Islamic interests and against their own peoples and traditions. The most obvious example of this pro-Islam bias can been found in European immigration policy, which has allowed the influx of massive numbers of Muslims into the West with little concern for its effect on the native populations. In effect, Islam was allowed to establish a cultural beachhead in Europe. In combination with high Muslim birth rates and with the rejection of assimilation by Muslims and multiculturalists alike, these misguided immigration policies have worked to insure that Europe’s Western/ Christian heritage is unlikely to survive for much longer.
Western educators have also taken the side of Islam against Western tradition. Textbooks routinely present Islam in a positive light while presenting Christianity in various shades of sepia. Textbooks also obligingly transmit the myth of the “Golden Age” of Islam in Spain, a myth that was created in part by Protestant historians eager to embellish Islamic accomplishments at the expense of their Spanish Catholic rivals. In England many schools have dropped the Crusades and the Holocaust from the curriculum so as not to offend Muslims (many Muslims deny the Holocaust or else claim that it was greatly exaggerated). In the latest act of educational obeisance, a Viennese elementary school will no longer teach about the defeat of the Turks at the Gates of Vienna because Turkish students might feel insulted. Thus, the Islamic version of history prevails. And thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, students graduate from schools believing that Islam means peace and tolerance, while Christianity means inquisitions, witch hunts, and slavery.
In short, what Islam was unable to accomplish in the 16th and 17th centuries is now within its grasp thanks to what must be counted as one of history’s most shameful examples of la trahison des clercs—the betrayal of the intellectuals. The sentiment “Better a Turk than a Papist” seems to have taken root once again in the West. It finds its most literal embodiment in the Obama administration’s hostility toward the Catholic Church and in President Obama’s simultaneous embrace of Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan—a man who has made no secret of his desire to restore the Islamic Caliphate that vanished with the Ottomans.
There are a number of other contemporary variations on the theme of “better a Turk,” although none of them have been spelled out. But if they were, we might come up with a list something like this:
- “Better an Islamophile than an Islamophobe”
- “Better the Palestinians than the Jews”
- “Better to pretend that Islam is a religion of peace than to bring down the wrath of the elites”
- “Better that African Christians perish than to offend our Muslim brothers with embarrassing questions”
Moreover, as in the Ottoman era, many Christians still champion the cause of Islam or, at least, enable it. The split this time, however, is not between Catholics and Protestants but between liberal Catholics and Protestants on the one hand, and conservative Catholics and Protestants on the other. The former tend to support Islam, the latter tend to resist it. If they had one, the motto for the liberal Christians might read something like this: “Better our cultured Muslim dialogue partner than an alarmist Christian critic of Islam.”
Bieszad presents the lives of these saints, blessed, and heroes in the hope that the Church will “derive inspiration from their examples, and seek their prayerful intercession and guidance in her dealings with Islam and Muslims.” Their example and inspiration is needed now as much as it ever was. The Church has entered into a new age of persecution at the hands of Muslims which may well turn out to be bloodier than anything in the past. Christians made up 20 percent of the population of the Middle East in 1900; today they have been reduced to 2 percent. Almost two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians have fled in the past 10 years. In Egypt, during the year of the Arab Spring, more than 200,000 Christian Copts fled their homes to avoid violence at the hands of Muslims. In Nigeria, many thousands of Christians have been shot, burned, or hacked to death. Between 1983 and 1995, Muslims in the Sudan killed an estimated two million Christians and displaced another four million.
Many of the stories and histories recorded in Lions of the Faith have been forgotten. Bieszad has done us a favor in reminding us of them. Santayana’s maxim that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” was never more apt than it is today. The current widespread persecution of Christians is a repeat of what has happened before. And, as Bieszad observes, it is happening for the same reason: Islam’s inherent hostility toward Christianity. Yet, today’s persecution is scarcely acknowledged in the West, and when it is acknowledged, it is chalked up to poverty, or colonialism, or geographical disputes—anything, in short, except religion. Until we make the connection to the past and to the real reason for the hostility, the persecution will continue and it will spread—eventually to the West.
The Lions of Faith: Saints, Blesseds, and Heroes of the Catholic Faith in the Struggle With Islam
By Andrew Bieszad
Lux Orbis PressPaperback, 463 pages