SOMETIMES there are pleasant surprises from the much-maligned Church of England. Last week, its former Archbishop of Canterbury defended Pope Benedict's remarks about violence in Islamic history.
Archbishops of Canterbury have not always distinguished themselves politically. Archbishop Laud infamously helped Charles I persecute the Puritans in the 1600s, igniting a revolution, and losing his own head. In more modern times, Archbishop Lang supported British appeasement policies towards Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Archbishop Runcie often criticized Western resolve against the Soviet Union during the Cold War's final years in the 1980s.
But Archbishop Carey, who led the Church of England from 1991 to 2002, has remained politically temperate. He is so far one of the few major mainline Christian leaders who has dared to defend the Pope's recently articulated concerns about Islamic violence, concerns that in turn ignited violence by some angry Muslims.
"Islam had its darker moments too," Carey said, in a lecture at a Seventh Day Adventist college in Berkshire, England, on September 18. "It is undeniably the case that its expansion was largely due to military conquest, reaching at times, the heart of Europe."
Muslims were "quick to take offense" at the Pope's words while relying on "hearsay," Carey observed. "The incident is a sad reminder that political correctness rules these days," he said. "We find ourselves forbidden to ask awkward questions and to speak directly, without people concluding that we are attacking another faith."
Carey asked bluntly: 'Why is Islam associated with violence?' Noting the murder of a Catholic nun in Somalia in reaction to the Pope's remarks, Carey urged: "The Muslim world must address this matter with great urgency." He also differentiated between Islamic and Christian understandings of martyrdom.
"I find it difficult to understand the argument that a person can be a blessed martyr if, in the cause of his conflict, he knowingly kills innocent people," Carey said, pointing out that Christianity has no martyrology that honors people who kill innocent people. Instead, Christian martyrs honor their God not by killing but by suffering. "A terrorist by definition cannot be a martyr," Carey insisted. "The Pope's argument is that all action has to be squared with the character of a loving God."
Speaking historically, Carey noted that medieval Spain similarly had seen its conquest by Muslims as "as an alien invasion by fierce peoples intent on imposing their will on Christian lands." Other Islamic conquests reached into Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and Austria, he remembered.
The Christian crusades were a "shameful" time for the Church, Carey remarked, but they were "an attempt to regain former 'Christian' lands and to open up a route for pilgrims" denied access to Christian holy sites by Muslim conquerors. Christians and Jews living under Islamic conquest had to "accept the position as 'protected' (Dhimmi) citizens and pay a corresponding tax," Carey cautiously recalled. With equal caution, he also pointed out the current lack of religious liberty under Islamic regimes.
"I find it very strange that Muslims, who plead and argue so strongly for their rights when minorities, are unaware of the plight of Christians in Muslim lands," Carey mused. "The fact that Muslims may build their mosques and schools in the West, make converts and advertise their faith is, sadly, not reciprocated in Muslim lands."
Carey described the perils of Muslims who convert to another faith. Although the Koran disavows compulsion in religion, the archbishop archly observed that "all existing schools of Islamic law prescribe the death penalty for apostasy." Without the freedom to choose, clearly there is religious "compulsion," he concluded. Carey spoke of a young Malaysian woman, Lina Joy, who is in hiding while she struggles for her legal rights as a former Muslim who converted to Christianity. He also mentioned Saudi Arabia:
"Saudi Arabia, as we know, presents the greatest difficulties for Christians in that no other religion than Islam is allowed public expression in that country," Carey said. "As a result Christianity is driven underground." He complained that Western nations, prioritizing commercial interests over human rights, have too often been silent about Saudi Arabia's treatment of Christians and women.
The archbishop urged greater dialogue, respect and tolerance among Christians and Muslims. But he also warned that, "We are living in dangerous and potentially cataclysmic times." Carey's lecture on the "cross and the crescent" was diplomatic but startlingly realistic for a senior Western cleric. Perhaps his example will embolden other church leaders to engage Islam more rigorously.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.