- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

PARIS — After backing calls by Muslims for respect during the furor over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the Vatican is urging Muslim countries to reciprocate by showing tolerance toward their Christian minorities.

“Enough now with this turning the other cheek. It’s our duty to protect ourselves,” Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican’s supreme court, thundered in the daily La Stampa.

“The West has had relations with the Arab countries for half a century, mostly for oil, and has not been able to get the slightest concession on human rights,” he said.

Bishop Rino Fisichella, head of one of the Roman universities that train young priests from around the world, told the daily Corriere della Sera that the Vatican should “drop this diplomatic silence.”

“We should put pressure on international organizations to make the societies and states in majority Muslim countries face up to their responsibilities,” said Bishop Fisichella, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University.

Roman Catholic leaders at first said Muslims were right to be outraged when Western newspapers reprinted Danish caricatures of Muhammad, including one with a bomb in his turban.

After criticizing both the cartoons and the violent protests in Muslim countries that followed, the Vatican this week linked the issue to its long-standing concern that the rights of other faiths are limited, sometimes severely, in Muslim countries.

Vatican prelates have been concerned by recent killings of two Catholic priests in Turkey and Nigeria. Turkish press linked the death there to the cartoons furor. At least 146 Christians and Muslims have died in religious riots in Nigeria.

“If we tell our people they have no right to offend, we have to tell the others they have no right to destroy us,” Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, told reporters in Rome.

“We must always stress our demand for reciprocity in political contacts with authorities in Islamic countries and, even more, in cultural contacts,” Foreign Minister Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo told Corriere della Sera.

Reciprocity — allowing Christian minorities the same rights as Muslims generally have in Western countries, such as building houses of worship or practicing religion freely — is at the heart of Vatican diplomacy toward Muslim states.

Vatican diplomats argue that limits on Christians in some Islamic countries are far harsher than restrictions in the West that Muslims decry, such as France’s ban on head scarves in state schools.

Saudi Arabia bans all public expression of any non-Muslim religion and sometimes arrests Christians for worshipping privately. Pakistan allows churches to operate, but its Islamic laws effectively deprive Christians of many rights.

Pope Benedict XVI signaled his concern on Monday when he told the new Moroccan ambassador to the Vatican that peace can be assured only by “respect for the religious convictions and practices of others, in a reciprocal way, in all societies.”

He mentioned no countries by name. Morocco is tolerant of other religions but, like all Muslim countries, forbids conversion from Islam.

Iraqi Christians say they were well treated under Saddam Hussein’s secular policies, but believers have been killed, churches burned and women forced to wear Muslim garb since Islamic groups gained sway after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Christians make up a fraction of the population in most Muslim countries. War and political pressure in recent decades have forced many to emigrate from Middle Eastern communities.

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