The images of Pope Francis kneeling to wash and kiss the feet of Muslim, Christian and Hindu refugees on Thursday sent a strong message of brotherhood and coexistence in the wake of the Brussels attacks and the ongoing debate particularly in Europe over the influx of Syrian asylum-seekers.
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The global media widely circulated the news of the 79-year-old pontiff visiting a refugee center outside Rome and performing the traditional pre-Easter ceremony – a reenactment of the New Testament account of Jesus washing the feet of his 12 Apostles before being crucified.
Much less attention was paid to the remarks the pope made after the ceremony, in which he offered a rare and surprising insight into his views on the root cause of terror attacks, not least that which targeted the Belgian capital last week, killing at least 34 people.
Drawing a parallel between the Brussels bombings and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, he noted that behind those who were directly responsible for terror there were “others.”
In Judas’ case, they were “those [the Jewish priests of the Temple, according to the Gospel] who paid for Jesus to be delivered to them”. While behind the Brussels attacks stood “the manufacturers and dealers of weapons who want blood, not peace; who want war not brotherhood,” he said.
Francis reiterated this alleged link, by contrasting the foot-washing ceremony, described as a symbol of friendship and coexistence of different religions, with “those wretches who buy weapons to destroy brotherhood.”
One can assume that here the pope was referring to general arms procurement efforts by the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations, since by then it was already known that the Brussels bombers had used TATP, a homemade explosive made with cheap and readily-available household materials, which wouldn’t have required an entree into the international arms trade.
Nevertheless, the pope’s seeming reference to a direct collusion between the arms industry and Jihadi terrorism seemed more at home in the pages of a Ken Follett spy thriller than in the homily by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Does Francis really believe, as his remarks seem to suggest, that behind the Brussels attacks and ISIS, which claimed responsibility for those bombings, stands a secret conspiracy by unscrupulous arms manufacturers who are financing or otherwise backing this terrorist group to sow dissent among humanity, foment war and create a market for their wares?
Francis has had harsh words for the arms industry before, saying last year that those who manufacture weapons or invest in the sector cannot call themselves Christian.
This stance is in line with the Vatican’s longstanding anti-war position and the Argentine pope’s own roots in a country and continent where weapons dealers have undoubtedly made fortunes on the back of lengthy civil wars, coups and dictatorships of every color.
But Thursday’s remarks went beyond a general reproach for profiting off the world’s miseries, and pointed to the arms industry as actively plotting at least some of those misfortunes, in the same way that the Jewish priests instigated Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion.
Perhaps the pope did not intend for his words to be taken literally, and merely wished to suggest an indirect link – but his was still a dangerous choice of words, which can be easily misunderstood or manipulated by conspiracy theorists and political demagogues.
More than that, the pope’s remarks are indicative that Francis, like many Western leaders, is reluctant to publicly identify and criticize radical Islamism as the ideological and operational force fueling the recent terror attacks in Europe and the gains of ISIS and Al-Qaida in the Middle East.
Much criticism has been poured on U.S. President Barack Obama for refusing to point to “radical Islam” as the root of Jihadi terror – and explanations for this omission have ranged from a desire to prevent fueling anti-Muslim sentiments to avoiding giving terrorists a religious legitimacy they don’t deserve.
Francis may be taking this same approach out of similar considerations, plus a few more that are specific to his office. Firstly, the Church has always been reluctant to recognize any link between organized religion and violence, preferring to blame rampant secularism, communism or other ideologies for the tragedies of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, even though recent pontiffs have taken steps to recognize the role that centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism played in the Holocaust, in a 2010 speech in Britain, Pope Benedict XVI caused a stir by blaming the rise of Nazism on “atheist extremism” and warning against “aggressive forms of secularism.”
Francis himself sparked controversy in the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine when he indicated that freedom of expression should have limits and suggested, only half-jokingly, that those who insult religion could expect a violent response.
When reacting to terror, the Vatican has also trod cautiously out of fear that open condemnation or even mention of the radical fringes of Islam could further endanger the already beleaguered Christian communities of the Middle East.
The pope has in fact strongly condemned acts of terrorism and their perpetrators: a day before his visit to the refugee center he called the Brussels bombings a “cruel abomination” and prayed that God would “convert the hearts of those who are blinded by cruel fundamentalism.” But what kind of fundamentalism drove those attacks was not mentioned. Even when, during a trip to Bolivia in July, Francis denounced the “genocide” being perpetrated against Christians in the Middle East, those responsible for such a heinous crime were left unnamed.
Since his election to the papacy, Francis has presented himself as a plain-speaking fighter against injustice and violence, but on this issue he has remained guarded and obscure – as he did in his remarks on Thursday.
The pope’s twist on the traditional foot-washing ceremony was a brave symbolic gesture that sought to remind all – particularly those in Europe and the United States who are riding a wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments – of our duty to reject bigotry and come to the aid of all those in need, whatever their religion.
Francis should now show equal courage and resolve in recognizing that religion is indeed a driving force behind ISIS’ violence and condemn the strains of radical, messianic and bloodthirsty Islam that are spreading largely unchecked across the Middle East, Europe and the rest of the world, and are destabilizing whole regions while threatening to hijack the entire Muslim faith.
Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz and other English-language publications. He has worked for five years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican.