The passage quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in his speech at the University of Regensburg that caused an uproar in the Muslim world was written by Manuel II Palaeologus, Byzantine emperor from 1391 to 1425. The "empire" over which he presided consisted of the city of Constantinople, a tiny area around the city of Thessalonica in Thrace in northern Greece, a few islands in the Aegean, and a small territory in the Peloponnese at the tip of southern Greece. In the eleventh century, before the rise of the Seljuk Turks (predecessors of the Ottomans), the entire territory¯Asia Minor, the Balkans, and Greece¯was solidly Christian as it had been since the fourth century. When Manuel became emperor, this region, which had been part of the Byzantine Empire, was under the hegemony of the Ottoman Turks who were Muslims.
In the course of three centuries, the Turks had systematically conquered the whole region, displaced large segments of the Christian population, sent others off to Muslim slave markets, deprived the churches of their property and transferred it to Muslim institutions, driven bishops from their sees, and Islamicized the crippled and disoriented Christian communities. By the fifteenth century, in most areas (the Balkans excepted) the number of Christians that remained in the region was less than 10 percent.
The Turks established Islamic institutions in formerly Christian towns and cities and deprived Christians of their civil rights¯for example, the right to testify in a Muslim court. In the seventh century, when Arab Muslims conquered the Middle East, they put in place the dhimmi system that granted Christians certain rights as a "protected people." But in Asia Minor, the dhimmi system was not workable because the region was ruled by tribes and small petty kingdoms with a weak central authority. As a consequence, the conquered Christians were given no special status and were encouraged, rewarded, and at times forced to convert to Islam. Because conversion back to Christianity was a capital crime, there could be conversion in only one direction, and this led to the gradual decline of the Christian presence in the region.
With this history in mind, Manuel II Palaeologus entered into dialogue with a Persian Muslim scholar. But the emperor was faced with a more pressing challenge. In 1394, three years after he became emperor, the Ottomans blockaded the city in preparation for a siege. For a time, the Byzantines, with the help of Venetian warships, were able to hold out. Manuel knew, however, that if the city fell, the great Christian metropolis on the Bosphorus, the second Rome, would eventually be transformed into a Muslim city. Which is, of course, what happened after Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the spring of 1453. Today there exists only a minuscule Christian community in Istanbul and almost no Christians in Turkey, that is, in ancient Asia Minor, where St. Paul first established Christian churches and Christianity flourished for centuries.
Whether Manuel was correct in asserting that the Prophet Muhammad had commanded his followers to spread his message by the sword is a moot point. The inevitable consequence of the triumph of Islamic armies in the formerly Christian empire was the displacement and destruction of Christian life and institutions and the establishment of a Muslim society that had no place for Christians. With this history in mind, one surely should show a little forbearance to a ruler who used harsh words for his adversary.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia.