Italians show what religious tolerance is -
A Letter from Rome
By Marcus Aurelius
Sunday Times.lk - Columbo, Sri Lanka
Sunday January 27, 2008
The Roman Empire reminds us of the extraordinary power wielded by the
Catholic Church. Like Makkah to the Muslims and Buddhagaya to the
Buddhists, Rome is sacred to the Catholics around the world. The Pope,
the Holy Father, is the most revered religious figure in the world. At
that time the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church believed they had a
sacred mission to forcefully convert to save the souls of unfortunate
human beings from being burnt in hell forever.
From what is happening around the world, with religious fanaticism
giving birth to fundamentalism, this has become a major driving force
and thousands are dying to defend, what they believe to be, the word of
God. In India, where there is a pantheon of gods, religious intolerance
is becoming a major concern as terrorism thrives on the fertile ground
of religious fundamentalism. Even in the United States, fundamentalism
is growing to unprecedented levels. The mid-west states are called the
church belt and the extent to which some Americans exhort the greatness
of God and strive to convert the non believers is alarming.
Therefore, the expectations of a person who had not visited Italy or
Rome would be that there would be Catholic missionaries in every nook
and corner waiting to convert you and spread the message of the Gospel.
And like the Taliban, they would not tolerate any other faith and would
disparage them as unbelievers, who ought to know the truth about the
message of God.
In fact, there were rumbling in Sri Lanka when the present ambassador
was nominated. Many Catholics were concerned over the appointing of a
non-Christian as the Ambassador to this sacred city. But, the Roman
Empire has ceased to exist. The Holy Father's territory is confined to
the Vatican which is the smallest state in the World. In Rome, we find
the Italians are one of the most tolerant people in the world. Religion
or Religious beliefs are never the subject of conversation.
Recently, the Dalai Lama visited Italy. This visit created much
controversy amongst the politicians in Italy. As many in Sri Lanka would
expect, the controversy was not about a Buddhist Religious leader
visiting a predominantly Catholic country. No, the controversy was the
Italian reaction to the attitude of the Chinese government. China
opposed the visit of Dalai Lama, because of the Nobel laureate's
campaign for independence for Tibet which Beijing regards as part of China.
China will soon become an economic powerhouse and global giant. Most
industrialized countries like Italy have strong trade relations with
China. An angry Beijing informed the Italian Government that serious
consequences would follow if the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Italy.
In fact, the Chinese government warned that visa applications of
Italians seeking to visit China would be delayed by as long as three
weeks. Most countries would bow down to such pressure and refuse an
entry permit to the Dalai Lama. Some time ago, there was much
controversy in Sri Lanka when the Dalai Lama was invited to visit Sri
Lanka by 'Malewana Hamuduruwo'.
But, neither the Italian government nor the Mayor of Milan wilted under
such pressure. The football stadium, where the Dalai Lama was to make
his address, was packed with more than Ten Thousand people, some who had
paid nearly 1000 Euros (Rs. 160,000.00) to obtain a seat close to the
Dalai Lama. He spoke about the Four Noble Truths and the crowd was
engrossed in the content of his sermon.
He spoke about the Chinese intervention in Tibet and said China was
enforcing a policy of depriving Buddhist monks of essential food and
clothing. The visit of the Dalai Lama was a great success. The Italian
public and the main opposition party were furious that the Prime
Minister did not receive him. Others were critical of the Pope for not
affording the welcome that the Noble Peace laureate deserved. This is
Italy, a Roman Catholic Country.
It is my contention what most countries in the Middle East and in some
parts of Asia and even in the US are undergoing today what the Italians
had undergone many centuries ago. It was Russell who commented that when
one traverses the globe one could intertwine in a time wrap taking one
back to the middle or the dark ages and the Renaissance and
civilization. Many countries are still in the Middle Ages.
Killing for the glory of God was a trait common to the Roman Empire.
Throwing Christians to the wild beasts and burning them at stake too was
common. Then when the Emperor became Christian, the same applied to the
non-believers. But today, after centuries of civilization, Italians have
become so broadminded and tolerant that they could assemble and listen
to one of the most revered religious figures in the world like the Dalai
To all those who decide to commit murder for their belief, the Italian
example of tolerance, is a lesson for all. To understand the suffering
of a minority is a trait we have forgotten. This is the main reason for
the ethnic divide. Where else in the world, other than in Rome, do
university professors and students, together in unison, refuse to accept
the Pope as their chief guest?
For the first time, a Pope did not attend the ceremony in Rome at the
foremost University in Rome for security reasons. The Professors and
students expressed the view that the present Pope was against science.
The prosecution of Galileo became an issue and a professor insisted that
the Church must tender an unconditional apology for what they considered
a heinous crime against development and science.
Italy has reached the level of civilisation only few nations have
achieved. When any Sri Lankan says that Italians are the most tolerant
people in the world, I say amen!