Mohammed wouldn't have approved
By Uwe Siemon-Netto
UPI Religious Affairs Editor
PARIS, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- The prophet Mohammed's admiration for the Christian monks of his time may have indirectly caused the quick release Tuesday of Mosul's Archbishop Georges Casmoussa by his radical Muslim abductors.
"According to (Islamic) tradition, Mohammed instructed the faithful not to harm monks," said Christine Schirrmacher, president of the Bonn-based Islamic Affairs Institute.
Casmoussa heads the Syrian Catholic Church in northern Iraq. Its bishops are monks, like those of all Eastern-rite denominations, many of whose parish priests are married.
Early in his ministry, Mohammed had a high regard for Christians, possibly due to the influence of one of his wives, Mary, Heidelberg University's renowned New Testament scholar, Klaus Berger, wrote in his latest volume, "Jesus."
Perhaps, Berger added, Mohammed had himself started out as a Christian.
Close to the beginning of the Koran, this esteem was expressed in Mohammed's advice to believers, "You will certainly find the nearest in friendship to those ... who say: We are Christians; there are priests and monks among them and because they do not behave proudly." (5:82).
Later in Islam's holy book, though, monks are accused of turning men "from Allah's way" (9:34).
Casmoussa's kidnapping occurred Monday at the most embarrassing moment for the world's Muslim community - just as 1.2 million faithful from all continents converged on Mecca to fulfill their most sacred obligation -- the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to their religion's holiest site.
"I guess 95 percent of all Muslims would consider the kidnapping of a senior Christian cleric a heinous crime," commented Schirrmacher, one of Europe's most prominent experts on Islam.
Asked whether this crime would be condemned from Mecca's pulpit during the Hajj, Schirrmacher was less certain: "The preachers might call for peaceful relations (with Christians), but it is not customary to condemn acts of other groups of Muslims on such an occasion."
The kidnapping had a curious side effect, however. It drew the world's attention to the continued existence on one of the most ancient Christian bodies, which came into being almost immediately after Christ's crucifixion.
The Syrian Catholics are a Vatican-related offshoot of the Church of Antioch, founded by some of Jesus' apostles in 34 A.D. Ten years later, Saints Peter and Paul both preached in Antioch, See of the Christian Church's original five patriarchates; the others were Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome.
While the present-day Syrian Catholics split from the Church of Antioch and entered communion with the Vatican in the 17th century, both denominations have retained the "Liturgy of Saint James," the world's oldest. It has traditionally been attributed to Jesus' brother James the Just, first bishop of Jerusalem.
Northern Iraq, Casmoussa's province, is one of the few regions of the world where this liturgy is still celebrated in Aramaic (Syriac), Christ's language.
There are only about 150,000 Syrian Catholics left. They are part of a family of Middle Eastern "uniate" churches (linked to Rome) that include Maronites, Melkites, Vatican-related Copts, Armenians and Chaldeans. The latter is the largest Christian body in today's Iraq.
On the other hand, the original Syrian-Orthodox Church of Antioch, which is independent from Rome but ritually closest to the Syrian Catholics, is faring quite well, especially in India, where most of its 3.5 million members live.
It maintains some of the world's oldest monasteries, including one in Mosul and another in Tur Abdin in Turkey; both date back to the 4th century. Another convent belonging to this venerable denomination is in Jerusalem and owns the spot said to have been the "upper room" where Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, or Eucharist.
While Bishop Casmoussa's Syrian Catholics retain a relatively stable, though small, membership, their Orthodox sister, the Syrian-Orthodox Church of Antioch, is making inroads in surprising quarters.
Like other Eastern Orthodox denominations, it is attracting converts from Protestant churches, including evangelical groups, especially in the United States.
Antioch mission churches, often led by former Episcopal priests or Lutheran pastors, are springing up in many parts the country.
When asked why they switched, these clerics cite not only the crisis of faith and morals plaguing their old denominations but also the authenticity of the church of Antioch that traces its lineage back to a time when Mohammed's appearance was still 600 years off - and the follies of the today's sex-obsessed denominations almost two millennia in the future.