Religions and empires

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The Manila Times, March 17, 2013

Painter’s depiction of the Battle of Tours, 732 A.D.: If the Christian Franks lost this battle, we would have been Muslims

It is when a new Pope needs to be elected that most people, through television,   get to witness the majesty and glory of Catholicism’s capital, the Vatican in Rome

Never mind that it was mainly financed by Pope Leo X’s so-called indulgences, basically pay-to-get-to-heaven schemes that triggered the Lutheran revolt that led to Protestantism. The Basilica of St. Peter must be the most magnificent building on earth, and as you walk beneath Michelangelo’s dome, the largest in the world that it signifies the heavenly firmament, you can very easily imagine – with the colossal statues of the evangelists, saints, and Popes looking down on you – that you’re no longer on earth but in the Palace of the Gods.

Thanks to the spread of television and in the Philippines, to the networks’ cerrado Catolico devotion, millions of the Catholic faithful watched the Vatican’s spectacle for choosing the new Vicar of Christ.  What they saw seemed unearthly scenes, and for many, a confirmation that the Roman Catholic Church indeed represents the Deity that rules all of the Cosmos.

A proselytizer would follow up an assertion of faith: 1.2 billion Catholics can’t be wrong in their belief.

The quick answer to that: There are 1.6 billion Muslims, 800 million Protestants, one billion Hindus, 800 million Protestants and other types of Christians, and 500 million Buddhists.  Scratch the surface of ancestor worship, and China (population 1.3 billion) and Japan (127 million) are atheist countries. Although difficult to estimate, atheists either of the strong or weak varieties are believed to number 1.1 billion, and by all accounts growing.

The long answer, which explains why Christianity and Islam are the two biggest religions of the world, and in one word: Empire.

In the case of the Catholic church, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes as the early 17th century summed it up: “The Papacy is nothing other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”

Indeed, even the Church’s official language is that of the Roman empire — Latin.    The Jesuit-run Ateneo even required it as a high-school course, and we studied the sacred language of the church of peace mainly by translating military treatises such as Caesar’s “Gallic Wars”.  Even most the Church’s leaders – the Popes – have been descendants of the Roman Empire’s citizens:  217 or 82 percent of the 266 “Vicars of Christ” were Italians.

Christianity grew because it was adopted as the state religion of the greatest empire the world has seen, the Roman Empire starting in the 4th century by Constantine the Great.  The European states that emerged when the empire fell to ruin also adopted Christianity as their state religions. Why not? Christianity was useful for their ruling classes as it upheld the hoax that the kings and the nobility were anointed by Christ himself, so the exploited peasants should acquiesce to their fates.

State religions are more often enforced through arms, and Catholicism was no exception.  Heretics were routinely burned to death. In the 13th century in France Pope Innocent II ordered the massacre of some 200,000 Christian Cathars who had beliefs – such as the equality of men and women – that were contrary to Vatican doctrines.

Europe emerged as humanity’s advanced center of civilization, yet with its dark side: more efficient weapons created by technology.  So with their muskets and cannons, European states starting in the 16th easily conquered the continent at the other side of the world, which ironically will be popularly known as Latin America.   Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores’ subjugation of the natives certainly became easier when they were converted to Christianity and believed that they were being saved in the name of Christ.

If Spain had not colonized in the 16th century what was to be the Philippines, and stopped the quickening spread of Islam by Sufi missionaries in Luzon and the Visayas,  the high point of our religious life, as it is for most of our neighbors,  would have probably been the 30-day Ramadan fast and its Eid al-Fitr end, and not Easter and Christmas. None of our newspapers would have had huge banner stories like “Hail Francis” or “Francis: Lowly but chosen.”

But it was divine intervention that made the Romans and then the Europeans believe in Christ, a believer would argue.

But that would probably be the same argument of a Muslim, pointing to the Prophet Mohamed’s caliphates which spread Islam in the span of two centuries from Mecca to engulf the Arabian peninsula, the Middle East, North Africa, Asia Minor, and even Spain, which would be the most aggressive country in spreading Catholicism to Latin America and Asia.

Being a Christian nation, we have been mostly ignorant of the fact that the Islamic Caliphates by the 8th century made up a huge empire at rivaled the European world.  Indeed historians claim that if the Ummayad Caliphate’s army had won over the Christian Franks in 732 in the Battle of Tours in France, Europe would been an Islamic continent (and we would have likely been Muslims).

However, although emerging a thousand years later, it is the Ottoman Empire, which conquered Christian Constantinople in 1453 that would be to the Islamic religion what the Roman empire and European states  were to Christianity.  It consolidated Islamic territories won by the caliphates and expanded it as far as Eastern Europe.  Much of what is now the Islamic world is that which was the Ottoman Empire.

The landscape of the modern world in fact is the result of the bloody wars between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe that raged for several centuries since the 15th.  As in the Battle of Tours, historians say that if Venice had been overrun in 1529 by the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent army, Europe would be flying the crescent flags today.

And as Catholics are awed to religious tears by the Basilica of St. Peter, so would Muslims by Masjid al-Haram (“The Sacred Mosque”) in Mecca in Saudi Arabia, especially during the pilgrimage period when a hundred thousand faithful walk around the mysterious black–curtained 43-foot-high Kaaba (“The Cube”) , the religion’s holiest site.

Check out the list of the other religions of the world — Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Bahai, Taoism, and a host of others.   They’re small and don’t have the magnificent edifices of Catholicism and Islam because they were never empires’ ideologies.