Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Theology of Kidnapping



The Theology of Kidnapping

Posted: 05 Sep 2010 04:36 PM PDT

Camillia Shehata

The news from Egypt this week is about what could be a new case of clerical kidnapping to save a soul. Camillia Shehata, age 24, is (or was) the wife of a priest in the Coptic Christian church named Thaddeus Samaan Rizk, and the mother of one child. In July, she disappeared from the family home in Minya, a town about 150 miles south of Cairo, and was missing for five days. Egyptian police found her, and returned her to her home.

What was she doing during the five days? Trysting with a lover? Hiding from an abusive husband? Binge drinking? We don’t know. What we do know is that Egyptian Muslim organizations are claiming that she was undergoing a spiritual experience, in which she decided to convert from Christianity to Islam. After she was returned home, the story goes, the Coptic Pope Shenouda III was terribly upset about this, and decided to lock her away in a monastery until she returns to her senses. A dramatically different version of the story is that Camillia was kidnapped by Muslims and subjected to five days of abusive brainwashing to force her to convert to Islam, and that the Coptic authorities are now giving her some privacy to help her recover from the trauma.

Pope Shenouda III

One response to this would be to storm the monastery and liberate Camillia by force. The Muslims are not doing that. Instead, they are bringing lawsuits, against both Pope Shenouda III and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak (who has the power to appoint and remove Shenouda) to obtain her release. Those of us in the legal profession believe that the more lawsuits there are, the better.

If you are looking for an answer here as to what really happened to Camillia, you can stop reading now, because you won’t find one. What you will find instead is some background on the concept of kidnapping someone in order to prevent him or her from making the terrible mistake of believing what the wrong God experts say, instead of believing what the right God experts say, as both sides here are claiming happened to Camillia.

The most well-documented cases of this type come from central Italy, during the years when Popes ran the civil government as well as the Catholic Church. The Inquisition did a good job of rooting out Protestantism, but since pre-Christian times there had always been pesky Jewish communities to worry about. In some ways, the Church liked having Jews around, because it was always able to soak them for extra taxes and bribes to help support the hierarchy in its accustomed lifestyle. Officially, though, it was concerned for the welfare of their souls, which could only be saved from eternal damnation by converting to Catholicism.

“Converting” meant different things at different times in a person’s life. Under the Catholic doctrine of “original sin,” every child comes into the world with a soul stained with sin, relating back to the time Adam had sex with Eve. The only way to get rid of that sin was through the ritual of baptism, in which water is poured on a person while certain magic words are recited. If a person should die without being baptized, his or her soul would be barred from heaven, at least until the Last Judgment. This is a terrible fate for a child too young to have committed any sins; in an age of high infant mortality, it was often impossible to get a priest in time before the child died, so laymen were authorized to perform baptisms. Even children in Catholic schools were taught the procedure and the magic words, in case an emergency should ever arise. When I was taught this, I thought it was way cool to have this kind of power, and couldn’t wait to find some dying infant to try it out on.

In 1809, a Catholic widow named Maddalena Pacifici ventured into Rome’s Jewish ghetto to do some shopping. She was not too familiar with the layout, and a Jewish girl named Rachel volunteered to help her – an early version of today’s personal shopping assistants. Rachel was carrying a sick and crying 3-month old baby girl, though, so Maddalena offered to watch the baby while Rachel went around and picked up various items. Maddalena took pity on the poor little thing, imagining the torment awaiting her immortal soul. She spied a puddle. Next thing you know, the world had one more Catholic. There was no point in telling Rachel about this when she returned with her packages, though, as it might have upset her.

Pope Pius VII

Maddalena did tell her parish priest about it, wondering if she had done the right thing. The priest wasn’t sure, so he reported it up the chain of command. Politics then intervened, when Pope Pius VII was temporarily driven from Rome by Napoleon’s armies. But when he returned to power five years later, the paperwork was still there. Next thing you know, Papal police are at Rachel’s door, demanding the now 5 year old little girl, named Rosa. They got her, too. Jews were allowed to raise Jewish children, but it was unthinkable that a Jew should be allowed to raise a Catholic child, teaching her all sorts of lies that would condemn her to hell forever.

Rosa was taken to a place called the House of Catechumens, the role of which was to brainwash Jews into becoming Catholics. Interestingly, all the expenses of maintaining the House of Catechumens were paid by a special tax levied on Rome’s Jews. Despite bitter protests from the leaders of Rome’s ghetto, Rosa was never returned to her mother.

Most of Rosa’s fellow inmates at the House of Catechumens got there by a different route. The laws imposed such severe restrictions on job opportunities for Jews that many decided to convert to Catholicism for economic reasons. When a husband and father did this, his family would have to come along. By one law, a man had the right to sexual relations with his wife. But by another law, a Christian could not be married to a Jew. And he certainly could not have sexual relations with a woman he wasn’t married to, which God found extra repulsive if the woman was a Jew. The only solution, therefore, was for the Papal police to go into the ghetto, drag out the wife and children, and shut them up in the House of Catechumens, where loving mother Church could guide them on the path to salvation.

In 1816, 63-year old Roman Jew Sabato Rosselli decided, for reasons unknown, that he really ought to become a Catholic. The bureaucrats at the House of Catechumens told him that was wonderful, and he just needed to sign a paper transferring his wife and three children to the Church as well, which he happily did. That night, Papal police entered the ghetto and hauled his 50-year old wife, Preziosa, off to the House of Catechumens.

The kindly fathers there endured holy hell for the next three weeks. Preziosa was not about to convert to Catholicism, and let her spiritual guides know in the most emphatic terms where they could stick their seven sacraments. In bureaucratic understatement, the rector noted that “Always persisting in her Jewish wickedness, in twenty days she never gave even the slightest hope for her conversion.” She was ordered back into the ghetto, while Sabato was given the freedom of Rome.

The kidnappings of Rosa and Preziosa were not isolated cases. Historian David Kertzer tells us that in the three and a half years between the middle of 1814 and 1818 alone, Papal police entered the Roman ghetto on 22 different occasions, always at night, and carted off 17 married women, 3 fiancées, and 27 children. At least the money the Jews were forced to spend on the House of Catechumens wasn’t going to waste.

I cannot read minds, especially across 200 years, but somehow I am picturing a small smile on old Sabato’s wrinkled face. As for Camillia, the trial is scheduled for November, so perhaps we will learn more then. I am quietly rooting for the “trysting with the boyfriend” explanation, but I’m a hopeless optimist.

Related articles:

1.       Pope's Preacher: Criticizing Church for Child Rape is Like Anti-Semitism

2.      In Brief: Weekly Poll: Should Pope Benedict XVI be Arrested and Put on Trial?

3.      Pope Picket Sunday in San Francisco



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