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Greek legend has it that the day Constantinople was stormed by the Ottomans in 1453 two priests were saying prayers above thousands of panicked Byzantines who had congregated in front of the huge Hagia Sofia Church. The two, goes the myth, soon disappeared inside the cathedral, but are still somewhere inside it until today, and are due to emerge upon Constantinople's restoration to Christian rule.
Charming though this tradition is, right now history is actually proceeding in the opposite direction, with Christianity increasingly on the defensive not only in Bethlehem and Nazareth, but also in Europe proper. It is in this context that the latest bout of Muslim-Christian friction, and next month's papal visit to Constantinople, should be seen.
The clash unwittingly sparked last month by Pope Benedict XVI between Islamism and Christendom was neither about Catholic slips of the tongue nor about Islamist shots from the hip: rather, it was part of a war of faiths that is well under way, and looms ominously as this century's major threat to world peace.
True, the pope's medieval quote was taken out of context, and the rioters who stormed churches worldwide, and in one case also murdered a nun, did not represent mainstream Islam. Still, even when not at loggerheads with it, millions of Muslims are indeed at odds with the West, and the pope for his part really has a problem with contemporary Islam.
Considering his deep concerns over Islam's growth in Europe and his pre-papacy opposition to Turkey's admission into the European Union, the pontiff's remarks indeed do reflect an Islamist predicament that is even more daunting than the communist challenge that inspired his predecessor John Paul II's papacy.
WHEN THE Polish-born John Paul became pope in 1978, he lost no time waging war on the main threat to Christianity at the time: communism. Back then, the Leninist dogma's status as Vatican-enemy No. 1 was obvious, considering its philosophical rejection of God and assault on His worshipers.
Today many feel that yesteryear's communists have been succeeded by today's Islamists. Pope Benedict has now given more people reason to believe that is how he sees things, and that his very appointment came in order to confront history's next great challenge to Catholicism.
The papal sense of threat is not farfetched.
With Europe already home to a moderately estimated 20 million Muslims, with Muslim ghettos and grand mosques sprouting in major European metropolises including Rome, and with conversions to Islam steadily rising even in a Catholic bastion like Spain, the Vatican is arguably facing an attack as formidable as Lenin's.
Add to that the Muslim harassment in the Middle East of ancient Christian communities like Nazareth's and Bethlehem's, not to mention the plight of Egypt's, Lebanon's and Iraq's Christians, and you get an imbalance that from a papal viewpoint is politically alarming and theologically intolerable.
It follows that Benedict refrained from apologizing not only because of Catholic dogma, which insists that the pope can make no mistakes, but also because he really feels attacked by Islam, the way Christian Europeans did when the Umayyad Arabs invaded France in 732, or when the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1529 and 1683.
THE MUSLIM response to Pope Benedict's remarks was also less impulsive than assumed, having provoked among others a formal protest by the 57-member umbrella organization of Islamic states, a Pakistani reprimand to the local papal envoy, a personal condemnation of the pope by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and even a comparison to Hitler by the deputy leader of Turkey's ruling party.
Added up, the Christian sense of siege and the Muslim sense of insult at play here are no less explosive than the nuclear arsenals that dominated the Cold War. And so, the question is whether Benedict would be right to see in any Islamic advance westwards a threat, and whether the rest of the world can afford such a papal attitude.
Is any mosque's emergence in Europe the equivalent of Stalin's festive destruction of age-old gold-plated churches and their replacements with Soviet shrines? Are the daily conversions of Europeans to Islam as threatening to Christianity as the constant loss in the late 1920s of priests to communism? Well, all this Jew can say about such analogies is that whether or not historically valid, they sure are emotionally potent, especially if one sees Europe as inherently Christian, as the Vatican evidently does.
Still, even if Benedict is consciously out to confront Islamism as boldly as his predecessor confronted communism, he must also engage in the business of bridge building. And for that, no place is better than Turkey, which next month hosts the pope for a historic visit.
THE SECULAR post-Ottoman republic that emerged between the Mideast and Europe has pioneered democracy in the Muslim world and nurtured a cultural synthesis between East and West. No other Muslim country, from Nigeria to Indonesia, can match that record. And yet Turkey's 42-year effort to join what is now called the European Union has been resisted by powerful Europeans such as former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who decried Turkey's weak European roots and rich anti-Christian history.
Such an attitude is as selfish and tunnel-visioned as the West's betrayal of Hungary and Czechoslovakia during their anti-Soviet revolts in 1956 and 1968.
With religious strife threatening world peace the way it hasn't for centuries, few things are as precious to the West as Muslim Turkey's embrace of modernity, freedom and tolerance. The pope, whose Islamist concerns last month sparked a despairing chain reaction, can next month chart a course of hope by standing in Constantinople and calling on the EU to allow modern Turkey in.