Christians, Muslims and the Destruction of Ancient Sites (Le Monde, France)
Like the fundamentalists of Islamic State, Christians, too, had a period in which ancient sites were destroyed as a form of idolatry. However, according to Gérard Leclerc, a journalist and philosopher with France Catholique, a cultural chasm separates the two: unlike the radicals of Islamic State, ‘Christianity was from the start a scholarly religion that could not have existed in the context of barbarity.’
In an interview with Le Figaro, Gérard Leclerc, who writes primarily about Christianity and Catholicism, lays out why he sees a world of difference between the Christian destruction of Pagan shrines 1700 years ago and what the radical Islamists of ISIL are doing to Iraq’s most priceless sites, primarily of the ancient Assyrians, dating back almost 3,000 years:
LE FIGARO: Why go after these historic sites?
GÉRARD LECLERC: The terrorists refer to the iconoclastic tendency found in the history of religions, including Christian theology. The image, considered a form of idolatry, is in effect biblically prohibited. We must remember the celebrated quarrel over the icons of Byzantium that lasted from 723 to 843. During these hundred years or so, the Byzantine emperors forbade the worship of icons and had images representing Christ or the Saints systematically destroyed. This was finally brought to an end with the triumph of Orthodoxy and restoration of the veneration of icons at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.
That would result in the emergence of Western religious art and the production of unparalleled artistic marvels. Nevertheless, at a religious level, there is a constant struggle between representation and the denial of representation. It must not be forgotten that in 16th century Protestantism, there was also an iconoclastic rage that went on to wreak havoc on our cultural heritage. Needless to say this is not to hazard an equivalence between Calvinism and radical Islam, but the Islamists are falling back on an iconoclastic religious tradition that was defeated by Christianity. They have taken up the task of suppressing all representation which in their eyes is idolatrous. This scorched-earth policy refers to a certain conception of the divine, which ignores the epiphany of transcendence that can shine out through works made by the hand of man. That leads them to turn against the entire culture, even if their fury is greater with regard to all civilizations foreign to Islam.
LE FIGARO: Didn’t the Christians commit the same acts against ancient cultures?
GÉRARD LECLERC: At the end of Roman Antiquity [a period widely considered to be from the end of the Roman Empire’s Third Century Crisis (235 – 284 AD) to the re-organization of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Muslim conquests in the mid-7th century] they [Christian] pagan statues and temples were attacked. The fact is undeniable. It is all too certain that Emperor Theodosius I, in his desire to abolish paganism, put in place practices the effects of which were not always fortunate. That is the least that can be said. However, care must be taken before assimilating current events with these ancient practices. The relationship of Christianity to ancient culture, notably with Greco-Roman, was not at all as an eradicator. Quite the contrary! Certainly, paganism was contrary to the Christian faith and there was necessarily a clash over the most critical questions about the meaning of life. However, as shown by [Historian] Henri-Irénée Marrou, Christianity was from the start a scholarly religion that could not have existed in the context of barbarity.
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