Two sides of the same coin

via Shachi Rairikar published on September 16, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI has stepped into the controversy over Islam and violence by citing historic Christian commentary on holy war and forced conversion. He quoted from a book recounting a conversation between a 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor and an educated Persian on the truths of Christianity and Islam wherein the former says to the latter “show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. The Pope said, “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” Earlier, he had told at a gathering in Assisi, Italy, of Christian, Muslim and Jewish representatives that no one can “use the motive of religious difference as a reason or pretext for bellicose behavior toward other human beings.”

While what the Pope had to say about religion, violence and Islam is undeniably correct factually and historically, the same charges can be leveled against Christianity as well. Since the times of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, the history of the spread of Christianity is as much violent, at times even more inhuman, as Islam.

The intolerance of Islam is preceded by an intolerant Christianity. In many ways Islam seems to have executed a model for expansion through conversion created and successfully implemented by Christian predecessors. The concept of “heathen” and “pagan”, having pejorative connotations comparable to “infidel” and “kafir” in Islam, originated with Christianity. Early Christianity was against learning and burned books and schools, a model that early Islam also followed. The great university and library of Alexandria was only one of the many centers of learning in the ancient world that was destroyed by Christian fanaticism, which appears to be similar to the destruction of many universities and libraries like Nalanda by Islamic fanaticism. In the early centuries of Christian rule numerous pagan temples were destroyed or replaced by churches, their beautiful statues were broken and trampled upon as unholy idols, just like the destruction of Hindu temples and construction of mosques in their place by Islamic invaders in the middle ages. Like Jihad, the Crusades were a series of military campaigns waged in the name of Christendom, usually sanctioned by the Pope.

Before the birth of secularism, in the Christian world Church regulated every aspect of life and imposed its conservative views on the society with severe and inhuman punishments for the defaulters. In Europe, millions were brutally tortured and executed on the charges of witchcraft, allegedly being possessed by Satan, in the middle ages. The Catholic Church was opposed to scientific discoveries that did not agree with the religious scriptures. Inquisitions were established, with the approval or authority of the Pope, from time to time for securing religious and doctrinal unity through conversion, and often through persecution, of alleged heretics.

Towards the end of the 15th Century, when Portugal and Spain were at loggerheads as to who should claim suzerainty and where, the Pope was invited to give a ruling. According to the Treaty of Tordesillas signed in June 1494, it was agreed that everything beyond the meridian of longitude passing 370 leagues west of Cape Verde Islands was to be exploited by Spain. The world to the east of the ‘Pope’s Line’ went to Portugal. The Papal Bull thus allocated the two halves of the world to Spain and Portugal, which henceforward became the base of the missionary enterprise in the Americas and Asia, respectively. 

When the Spaniards newly arrived in America in 1492, they took the natives to be devils and for about forty years it was legal to hunt down the natives like animals. It was only in 1530 that the Pope relented and declared that American Indians were human! The declaration seems to have emanated from the Catholic Church’s eagerness to label the native Indians as worthy of conversion. Spaniards tore down Indian temples, destroyed Indian idols and often built Christian churches with the stones from destroyed temples. In trying to destroy paganism the Spaniards wiped out the historical records and ancient almanacs of the Indians. The Spaniards intentionally humiliated the priests of native religions to discredit them. Infectious diseases like smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus, brought to the continent by the immigrants and at times deliberately propagated to weaken the native civilizations’ ability to resist the invaders, combined with cruel systems of forced labour for enslaved natives, decimated the American population.

After Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the East in 1497-1499, the Portuguese, desperate to control the spice trade from India, conquered Goa. Soon after the Portuguese soldiers came the priests. This Catholic Clergy from Portugal was prepared to go to any length to spread their faith. They force-fed Goan converts beef and pork, forced them to change their life-styles and declared that the converts could never return to Hinduism. The Portuguese Viceroy in Goa was empowered to destroy all Hindu temples, leaving not a single one of them in any of the islands of Goa, and to confiscate the estates of all these temples for the maintenance of the churches which are to be erected in place of these hateful temples. Within decades of their occupation, the Portuguese had destroyed, according to their own records, hundreds of temples –all important Christian Orders taking part in this pious work.

St. Francis Xavier, after whom many schools and colleges are named in our country, came to India with the firm resolve of uprooting paganism from the soil of India and planting Christianity in its place. He wrote back home, “When I have finished baptising the people, I order them to destroy the huts in which they keep their idols; and I have them break the statues of their idols into tiny pieces, since they are now Christians. I could never come to an end describing to you the great consolation which fills my soul when I see idols being destroyed by the hands of those who had been idolaters,” (from The Letters and Instructions of Francis Xavier, 1993, pp 117-8).

Religious fatvas are not restricted to Islam alone. A religious fatva was issued by Christian rulers of Goa prohibiting Hindu rites, rituals and ceremonies related to marriage and death. Fasting on ekadashi and lunar eclipse was prohibited. Fasting could be done according to the Christian principles. Hindu men were not allowed to wear dhoti and women were not allowed to wear choli.

Like the Muslim rulers who imposed Jaziya, a tax for the infidels which the converts were exempted from, the Christian regime in Goa exempted the converts to Christianity from land taxes.

“The fathers of the Church forbade the Hindus under terrible penalties the use of their own sacred books, and prevented them from all exercise of their religion. They destroyed their temples, and so harassed and interfered with the people that they abandoned the city in large numbers, refusing to remain any longer in a place where they had no liberty, and were liable to imprisonment, torture and death if they worshipped after their own fashion the gods of their fathers.” wrote Sasetti, who was in India from 1578 to 1588. (source: Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar) – By Robert Sewell p. 211).

Even in the present times, when on the one hand India is facing horrendous Islamic separatism and terrorism, on the other hand we have clear evidence of international Christian organizations backing terrorism and separatist movements in the north-east. The demand for “Nagaland for Christ”, a separate Christian state, gets its inspiration directly from the Church. A detailed study of the entire history of Christian missionary activities in the tribal areas, especially the north-east, clearly reveals a systematic ethnic cleansing of Hindu and Buddhist tribals.

The African experience with Christianity is no different. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African cleric and activist who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 has said, “It was Christians, you know, not Pagans, (Heathens) who were responsible for the Holocaust. It was Christians, not Pagans, who lynched people here in the South, who burned people at the stake, frequently in the name of this Jesus Christ.”  

Given their history of intolerance and oppression and their continued zeal to convert the heathens or infidels at any cost, Christianity and Islam appear to be the two sides of the same coin. There is no point in one criticizing the other or assuming superiority over the other. The Church sponsored terrorism in the tribal areas and the American crusade in Iraq are as deplorable as Islamic terrorism and Jihad. In this respect, India takes pride in the fact that none of the Indian religions namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, ever preached exclusiveness or seek converts through violence. With the mottos “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah” (May all be happy) and “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (The earth is one family) at its heart, the Indic civilization, from times immemorial, has been guided by the doctrine “Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti” (There is only one truth, only men describe it in different ways).

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