The Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and Church World Service (CWS), two aid organizations operating in Afghanistan, were suspended yesterday from carrying out relief projects in the country. The damning transgression? An offending telephone book listing.
Controversy over the operations of the two groups first ignited when Noorin TV, a broadcasting company in Afghanistan, aired footage of baptisms and Christian prayer meetings in the country. Noorin sought to link the clips to NCA and CWS, but later conceded they had no conclusive evidence that either organization is involved in missionary activity. The company's director, Muhammed Arif Noori, admitted he was prompted to raise the alarm when skimming a directory of non-government organizations working in Afghanistan: the word "Church" in the names of both groups caught his eye and wound up inspiring his attack.
In spite of Noorin's dubious fact-finding, the government responded by suspending both groups-an action they say is fully backed by the law: in Afghanistan, proselytizing isn't merely frowned upon. It's downright illegal. The country's Constitution bans converting from Islam, or even just trying to get someone else to convert. Both NCA and CWS deny taking part in any evangelical activity. (Indeed, even Mohammed Sediq Amarkhiel, spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Economy, acknowledged both groups are known for "doing a good job.") The NCA general secretary expressed hope for a "speedy and positive solution" to the fall-out, but at least for now, his organization-and its 8 million dollar budget for Afghanistan alone-will have to sit on the sidelines.
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It hasn't gotten the same attention at developments in Europe and the United States, but the Catholic Church's pedophilia has been increasingly making news around Latin America in recent weeks.
In Brazil, an 83-year-old priest who allegedly molested altar boys as young as 12 has been placed under house arrest -- some of the cases were caught on video and released on the Internet. The Mexico City archdioece barred a priest after it came to light that he had pleaded guilty to assaulting an 11-year-old girl in 1989. A priest in Chile is under investation for molesting five young men. Bishops in Chile and Brazil have condemned the abuses and asked forgivenes while Colombia's Cardinal controversially defended the church's past practice of keeping abuse allegations private.
As Steve Kettmann wrote recently Pope Benedict XVI has made reviving the church in increasingly secular Europe one of the main goals of his papacy -- a goal that's been severely undermined by the unfolding scandals in Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere.
But the damage to the church's credibility in Latin America may be an even bigger concern for the Vatian, particularly given the increasingly popularity of Pentacostalism and other protestant offshoots.
As survivors and the descendants march at Auschwitz today for Holocaust Remembrance Day, election results yesterday in nearby Hungary, where the far-right Jobbik party earned 16.7 percent of the vote, evoked memories of that time in a very different way:
Jobbik’s leader, Gabor Vona, 32, is a former history teacher who tapped into a growing nationalism fanned by economic hardship. He is a founding member of the Magyar Garda, an association whose uniforms are reminiscent of those worn by the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s wartime Nazi party. The group, which was outlawed last year but has not disbanded, has revived dark memories of World War II, when Jews and Roma were deported to concentration camps.
Analysts said Jobbik’s growing popularity illustrates how the economic crisis was helping to fuel a regional backlash against minorities, as people look for someone to blame. In Hungary, at least five Roma have been killed in the past two years and Roma leaders have counted about 30 firebomb attacks against their people’s homes.
Hungary’s Jewish population of nearly 100,000 has also been one of its targets, with Jobbik claiming that “foreign speculators,” including Israel, want to control the country. A recent edition of the party magazine showed a statue of St. Gellert — an 11th-century martyred bishop — holding a menorah instead of a cross. “Is this what you want?” it asked.
Pope Benedict's personal preacher Father Raniero Cantalamessa also had the Holocaust on the mind last week when he compared attacks on the church over the ongoing sex abuse scandal to the "collective violence" inflicted on Jews by the Nazis. A retired Italian bishop also reportedly blamed the scandal on "Zionists," though he has denied making the comments.
While it's certainly not fair to say sentiments like these are widespread, these incidents provide a disturbing contemporary backdrop to a day of historical commemoration.
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What's a girl to do when she's not a living goddess anymore? Apparently aim for a career in finance:
Chanira Bajracharya, 15, has been the Kumari or “living goddess” of Patan, an ancient town south of Kathmandu, for nine years, blessing devotees at the temple and riding in decorated chariots 18 times a year during Hindu and Buddhist festivals.
Now, with her time as living goddess drawing to a close — the young virgin deities retire on reaching puberty — Bajracharya is contemplating a career in banking if she makes grades good enough to study commerce or accounting.
Last week she became the first living goddess ever to take the school leaving certificate examination, which was administered to her in her temple, which is housed in her home.
“I want to study commerce or accounting and be engaged in the banking sector,” she told Reuters in a rare interview, dressed in her ceremonial costumes, her eyes rimmed in black kohl and a third eye painted in the middle of her forehead.
Despite the attention, being a goddess doesn't sound like much fun. Bajracharya isn't allowed to attend school or mingle with other children and says she has no friends her age. She receives only about $20 a month for her services. A Nepalese Supreme Court order in 2008 forced the temple to provide the Kumaris with education and medical care.
Hopefully Bajracharya makes it through school and into the career of her choice. She's certainly earned it and the global banking sector could use a little divine intervention these days.
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The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report examines abuse and discrimination the world over, featuring China, Iran, and... Western Europe?
Europe is not exactly at the forefront of one's mind when thinking of places with poor human rights records. But creeping into European society are widespread and insidious anti-Muslim sentiments, says the report. These prejudices are increasingly visible across the Continent, with numerous cases last year highlighting the issue. The document puts it rather bluntly: "Discrimination against Muslims in Europe has been an increasing concern."
The biggest headline grabber was the Swiss ban of minaret construction, passed by a significant majority (57.5 percent in favor) in a popular referendum. (Notably, the ban was opposed by majorities in parliament and the Federal Council, but still won handily.) Compared to its bigger neighbors, Switzerland has a relatively tiny Muslim community, and there are only four minarets in the entire country -- making the ban mostly symbolic. But the message, another contribution to the growing trend of Swiss hostility towards Muslims, resonated. The report further stated,
Islamic organizations have complained that authorities in many cantons and municipalities discriminated against Muslims by refusing zoning approval to build mosques, minarets, or Islamic cemeteries.
Switzerland was hardly the only country the Report criticized. France's anti-headscarf laws were criticized, as was French President Nicolas Sarkozy's claim that burqas are "not welcome" in France. In the Netherlands, right-wing politician Geert Wilders is cited for frequently stoking anti-Muslimsentiments
The spiraling child sex abuse in the European Catholic church keeps getting closer and closer to Pope Benedict XVI himself:
The man, identified only as H., was allowed to stay in a vicarage while undergoing therapy — a decision in which then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger was involved, the statement said. It said officials believe it was known the therapy was related to suspected "sexual relations with boys." However, it says a lower-ranking official — Gerhard Gruber — then allowed him to help in pastoral work in Munich.
The archdiocese says there were no accusations against the chaplain relating to his February 1980 to August 1982 spell in Munich. However, he was convicted of sexually abusing minors during a stint in nearby Grafing between September 1982 and 1985.
The church continues to maintain that Benedict was unaware of the decision to reassign the priest:
Gruber told The Associated Press by telephone Friday that he was in sole charge of staffing decisions. "Personnel matters were delegated," Gruber said. "I decided that on my own."
Gruber also said Benedict would not have been aware of his decision because the case load was too big. "You have to know that we had some 1,000 priests in the diocese at the time," Gruber said. "The cardinal could not deal with everything, he had to rely on his vicar general."
Gruber's statement nominally protects Benedict but also implies that the reassigning of a priest suspected of sexually molesting children was such a non-issue that if fell under the general category of "personnel matters" to be handled by a lower-ranking official. It also implies that Benedict knew about the priest's case but didn't consider it worth following up.
In any event, even if Benedict had no idea what was happening, he should still take responsibility for the decisions of subordinates under his command. If it's true for the CEO of Toyota, it should at least be true for the spiritual leader of millions of people.
Sex abuse scandals have rocked the catholic communities in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Ireland in recent months. Patsy Mcgarry of the Irish Times wrote recently for FP about how this has undermined Catholic institutions in Ireland.
In his FP piece on the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Patsy McGarry described the disatisfaction of Irish catholics with the Pope's tepid response to their country's priest sex abuse scandal. Now Benedict may have to do some damage control on a scandal much closer to home:
Angelo Balducci, a Gentleman of His Holiness, was caught by police on a wiretap allegedly negotiating with Thomas Chinedu Ehiem, a 29-year-old Vatican chorister, over the specific physical details of men he wanted brought to him. Transcripts in the possession of the Guardian suggest that numerous men may have been procured for Balducci, at least one of whom was studying for the priesthood.
The explosive claims about Balducci's private life have caused grave embarrassment to the Vatican, which has yet to publicly comment on the affair.
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Late last year, my colleague Blake Hounshell and I sat down with Anwar Ibrahim here in Washington, where he was attending a conference on inter-religious understanding. The Malaysian opposition leader (who is #32 one of our Top Global Thinkers of 2009) is today in a very different setting: the beginning of his trial for charges of sodomy that he says are politically motivated. Here are a few excerpts from that interview, including his thoughts on democracy, religion, and being an opposition figure.
FP: One criticism in the United States of the Muslim world is, people will say: the Muslim world is not addressing its own problems; The Muslim world is more likely to blame America for what is going on then to do soul searching about the state of discourse in Islam today. What is your response to that?
Anwar Ibrahim: I just answer, be equally responsible. You can't just erase a period of imperialism and colonialism. You have to deal, you can't erase, for example, the fault lines, the bad policies, the failed policies, the war in Iraq for example, and ambivalence you support dictators inside the top democracy. ...This night [in Malaysia], [there are] emails [circulating within] the national media, the government television network. They will start a 5 to 7 minute campaign: Anwar is in the United States, he is a lackey of the Americans, he is pro-Jew. Period. And they go on with impunity, [as they have done] for the last 11 years. Because they want to deflect from the issue of repression, endemic corruption, destruction of the institutions of governance.
There is a difference. You [the United States] have Abu Ghraib and it is exposed -- and the media went to town. The atrocities in the Muslim world, in our prisons, [and I am] not talking about my personal experience, [are] all knitted up.
What we need is credible voice in the Muslim world, independent. Some liberal Muslims become so American in their views, so Western. I don't think you should do that. Americans need to appreciate the fact that I am a Muslim, there don't need to be apologies for that. But at the same time we must have the courage to address the inherent weaknesses within Muslim societies.
FP: When was it that you first decided this debate between religion was something you wanted to be a part of?
AI: In Malaysia, [this] is so critical. [It's] a multi racial country, a religious country. [There is a] Muslim majority of 55 percent, then Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians of various domination. I grew up being involved in the Muslim youth work, even when I was a student, engaging in this. The Vatican supported the East Asian Christian Conference at the time and we started having these discussions. My initial work in the youth work when I was leading the Malaysia youth counsel which is an umbrella of all the Hindu youth and the Buddhist youth and the Christian youth. I benefited immensely ... we started engaging them. ... Then of course there was tolerance when we hosted a conference; they were mindful of the Hindus were strictly vegetarian or if the Christian organized, they were aware we did not eat pork or drink.
When I was I government the Muslim Christian dialogue was promoted, in fact I supported the program. There was a Muslim Christian center in Georgetown and we went to New Manila University. The majority of the Malaysians non-Muslims are not Christians but Confucianists, so we brought in Professor Tu Wei-ming one of the Chinese scholars of Confucianism from Harvard to come and tell us about Confucianism and we tell him about Islam. There is so much in common between Confucianism and Islam.
FP: How do you balance your life as a thinker and a politician?
AI: People do suggest that, but I quite disagree. Of course you simplify the arguments but the same arguments, the central thesis remains constant but the way you articulate it may differ. People say, Anwar you are opportunistic, how can you talk about Islam and the Quran here and then you talk about Shakespeare there and then quote Jefferson or Edmond Burke. I say it depends on the audience. [If] I go to a remote village, of course I talk about the Quran. In Kuala Lumpur ,and you quote T.S Eliot. If I quote the Quran all the time, to a group of lawyers, I am a mullah from somewhere.
[Some] think because I do court [Islamic votes] these days they think I am a Islamist. [But] you ask the question -- is it true, Anwar, that you are sound and consistent in your views and you are not actually a closet Islamist? I say, Why do you say that? [The] six years [I spent in] prison is not enough? And they say no, but you engage with the Islamists, and I said yes.
After months of resistance against international pressure to overturn Uganda's now-notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda's politicians seem to be pulling back. In early January, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni expressed concern that the bill was too harsh and on Jan. 12th noted:
"Because it is a foreign policy issue, it is not just our internal politics, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles but also takes into account our foreign policy interests."
The U.N. and the U.S. government, along with countries such as Britain, Canada and Sweden, have expressed their strong disapproval of the bill. Their displeasure has had an effect: during a January 19th cabinet meeting, the Ugandan government agreed to form a committee to amend the bill, with cabinet members citing the possibility of aid cuts by Western governments as a chief reason behind their reservations. The bill's author, MP David Bahati, held strong for a little longer. That is, until today when he expressed willingness to change some key clauses of the legislation.
Of course, none of this means that gay Ugandans will be getting a fair shake anytime soon -- especially when 95 percent of those surveyed in the country believe homosexuality should continue to be criminalized.
Although the U.S. government has condemned the bill, the American evangelical influences behind it are widely known. For example, Rick Warren, who advised most of the bill's leading supporters (such as Pastor Martin Ssempa), was barely ahead of Museveni in distancing himself from it. Also heavily circulated were the allegations by Jeff Sharlet that President Museveni, his ethics minister Nsamba Buturo and David Bahati, all have ties to U.S. politicians linked to The Family (a secretive evangelical organization with plenty of political influence).
Now, with human rights activists and journalists fully in the mix, friction over the bill has led to a proxy battle over the U.S.' cultural influence in the region.
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
Kirill, speaking during a weekend visit to Kazakhstan, said the Haitian people bore responsibility for the calamity because they had turned away from God, the Ferghana.ru news agency reported late Monday.
"Haiti is a country of poverty and crime, famine, drugs and corruption, where people have lost their moral face," Kirill was quoted as saying.
He compared Haiti with the Dominican Republic, which are located on the same Caribbean island.
"I've visited the island divided between two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. One of them is developing, while the other is affected by crimes, economic recession and political unrest. That part of the island was shattered by the earthquake," he said.
The patriarch also compared Haiti with Kazakhstan, noting that Kazakhstan has not experienced any earthquakes recently despite its seismological position, the news report said.
I suppose it's possible from the quotes that Kiril was just making a David Brooks-ish argument about Haiti's "culture of failure" making them more vulnerable to the damage rather than their sinful ways actually causing the quake, but the comparison to Kazakhstan really doesn't make much sense in that context.
Guess Kirill's not a Jon Stewart fan.
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For the last few weeks influential U.S. pastor Rick Warren has been under fire from critics for refusing to condemn the proposed draconian anti-gay laws in Uganda -- which would punish homosexual behavior with jail time or even death and punish those who fail to report gays to the authorities -- despite his longstanding involvement in the country and having had one of the main campaigners for the law as a speaker at his church. Warren had previously said, "It is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."
Of course, there are thousands of evil laws enacted around the world and I cannot speak to pastors about every one of them, but I am taking the extraordinary step of speaking to you – the pastors of Uganda and spiritual leaders of your nation – for five reasons:
First, the potential law is unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals, requiring the death penalty in some cases. If I am reading the proposed bill correctly, this law would also imprison anyone convicted of homosexual practice.
Second, the law would force pastors to report their pastoral conversations with homosexuals to authorities.
Third, it would have a chilling effect on your ministry to the hurting. As you know, in Africa, it is the churches that are bearing the primary burden of providing care for people infected with HIV/AIDS. If this bill passed, homosexuals who are HIV positive will be reluctant to seek or receive care, comfort and compassion from our churches out of fear of being reported. You and I know that the churches of Uganda are the truly caring communities where people receive hope and help, not condemnation.
Fourth, ALL life, no matter how humble or broken, whether unborn or dying, is precious to God. My wife, Kay, and I have devoted our lives and our ministry to saving the lives of people, including homosexuals, who are HIV positive. It would be inconsistent to save some lives and wish death on others. We’re not just pro-life. We are whole life.
Finally, the freedom to make moral choices and our right to free expression are gifts endowed by God. Uganda is a democratic country with remarkable and wise people, and in a democracy everyone has a right to speak up. For these reasons, I urge you, the pastors of Uganda, to speak out against the proposed law.
All well and good, except no one is expecting Warren to comment on every unjust law in the world, just ones in countries where he has an extensive history of involvement, are sponsored by his onetime ally, and concerns a subject that he frequently discusses. After the Ugandan Anglican Church threatened to leave the Church of England, Warren rose to their defense, saying, “The Church of England is wrong and I support the Church of Uganda on the boycott.” So it's not as if he's afraid to wade into Uganda's culture wars.
Warren says that, "some erroneously concluded that I supported this terrible bill, and some even claimed I was a sponsor of the bill." But people only came to these conclusions because of his refusal to comment. Warren might not think it's fair that he was asked about the law, but he's a public figure that many people look to for moral guidance and it shouldn't be an unreasonable demand to expect him to condemn the state-sanctioned murder of innocent people.
Moreover, reports yesterday indicated that the Ugandan parliament had actually removed the most controversial portion of the bill -- the possibility of the death penaly or life infrisonment for homosexuals. So Warren actually waited for the death-penalty provision to be dropped before speaking out against it.
I'm glad that he made this statement and hope that it makes a difference in Uganda, but it's not exactly a profile in courage.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed an effort by Islamic countries to ban religious criticism last week.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference pressured the U.N. Human Rights Council to ban defamation of religion, like this cartoon that inspired the measure. Secretary Clinton fired back, "Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion," she said. "I strongly disagree."
Although she is opposed to the negative depictions of certain faiths, a blanket ban of discourse isn't the right path, she said; instead countries should focus on tolerance.
Her statement came as the State Department announced its annual report on international religious freedom. The OIC has 56 member states, 18 of which were listed in the report as "countries where violations of religious freedom have been noteworthy."
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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah will apparently only put up with so much from his clerics. Sheikh Saad al-Shethry has been removed from the kingdom's highest council of religious scholars by royal decree, after he criticized a newly-opened multibillion-dollar university for being un-Islamic. Shethry had a particular problem with co-ed classes:
"Mixing is a great sin and a great evil," al-Shethri was quoted as saying. "When men mix with women, their hearts burn and they will be diverted from their main goal (which is) ... education."
Abdullah has acquired a reputation as an unlikely reformer after this year's Valentine's Day reforms, in which he sacked the head of the infamous religious police and appointed a woman to his cabinet for the first time. But as Saudi Arabia expert Toby Jones argued at the time, Abdullah is probably less interested in liberalizing Saudi society than he is eliminating threats to his family's power.
The firing of Shethry certainly seems to be an example. The university -- which is named after the king, of course -- is something of a legacy project for Abdullah. He has touted it as a "beacon of tolerance" and as part of his plan to make Saudi Arabia a center of technological innovation. His patience for unsolicited sharia advice from the peanut gallery is likely to be pretty low.
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Two Scientology groups brought their case to the court because they wanted to be listed as religious organizations, but Russian authorities denied their request because to be on that list a group must exist for at least 15 years. The court sided with the Scientologists.
This development comes not long after Germany's battle with the religious group. When Scientology's Berlin church opened, many Germans complained they were being harassed to join the group, and were worried about cult-like practices. For this reason, some German politicians called for the church to be banned. Germany's domestic intelligence has been gathering information on the group and its potential threat to "Democratic order."
The church claims that after all of the surveillance, no wrongdoing has been discovered and that they are merely a church committed to understanding the human spirit.
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After German voters sent the Christian Democrats -- led by Chancellor Angela Merkel -- back to power with 13 more seats, it seemed appropriate to ask: In a secular country, what exactly makes it "Christian?"
The Christian Democratic Union says its "policies are based on theChristian view of Man and his responsibilities before God." HoweverGermans shy away from being connected with other versions of politicalChristianity.
Christianity Today recently interviewed Merke's minister of state on this issue. "Germans don't want to be called evangelical because theyare labeled by an image dominated by American evangelicals," Grohe said. He does want to see more German Christians discussing their faith in public, mixing personal with civil life, citing the United Kingdom as an example where religion and politics mix well.
Fighting abortion rights is an important issue for German Christians, but Grohe said fighting poverty and climate change are also imperative.
Talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, Grohe said, "We are still struggling to put together two very different societies." This is especially evident looking at the electoral map from the recent election. (Sorry it is in French, scroll on the semi-circle to see how each party did in each region)
The former East Germany had the strongest support for The Left and the least support for the Christian Democrats. This is paralleled in East Berlin and West Berlin. The difference is more for political reasons than for religious reasons, but anti-religious feelings in Eastern Germany are prevalent.
"In East Germany, there's still a strong non-religious presence. Religion is for your grandma," Grohe said. "People say they forgot they forgot God."
Grohe said the pacifist aspects of the religion don't play much of a role in German politics, most people who want out of Afghanistan want out because they think it is unwinnable, not because of any feeling of religious necessity. However, a dislike for Islam is present in some German Christians.
"I'm very shocked when I see Christians talking hatefully about Muslims," he said. "When I talk about the need for freedom to build Islamic mosques, I receive shameful letters from Christians filled with hate."
Update: The link to the Christianity Today interview is down, but should be working again soon.
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A new Islamic law in Indonesia's devoutly Muslim Aceh province takes a strict interpretation of Sharia law including a provision to stone adulters to death. The "Islamic Crime Bill," passed by the regional parliament on September 15, 2009, authorized the following punishments for adultery and homosexuality:
“Any person who deliberately commits adultery is threatened with 100 cane lashes for the unmarried and stoning to death for those who are married.”
“Any person deliberately performing homosexuality or lesbianism is threatened with up to 100 cane lashes and a maximum fine of 1,000 grams of fine gold, or imprisonment of up to 100 months.”
Additionally, the law outlines the punishment for rape is a minimum of 100 cane lashes and a maximum of 300 cane lashes or imprisonment of at least 100 months and up to 200 cane lashes or a maximum imprisonment of 200 months for pedophiles.
The regional parliament passed this law in order to target "behavior considered morally unacceptable."
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No, this is not a Mel Brooks movie:
On Monday morning an Arkia airlines plane took off from Ben Gurion Airport carrying rabbis and kabbalists and flew over the country in a flight aimed at preventing the swine flu virus from spreading in Israel through prayers.
"The purpose of the flight was to stop the epidemic, thus preventing further deaths," explained Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri whose father, Rabbi David Batzri had initiated the flight. "We are certain that because of our prayers danger is already behind us," he added.
During the flight the passengers blew the shofar seven times and said prayers intended for abolishing illnesses.
There have been over 2,000 recorded cases of swine flu in Israel.
Hat tip: On Deadline
Wherever in the world you may be, your focus should now be on cleaning up natural water resources rather than building gurdwaras (temples).
An entrepreneur in Jerusalem is using Twitter to bring the prayers of the Jewish Diaspora to the Western Wall. After seeing the social networking site's potential in last month's Iranian elections, Alon Nil began a service where Jews abroad could tweet him their prayers, which he then prints out and places in the sacred spaces between the 2,000-year-old stones at Judaism's holiest site. Nil has been besieged with messages since he started the "hobby" three weeks ago:
You name the country, I've gotten prayers from them. I hope in some way that by tweeting their prayers, these people are helping themselves somehow. Once you figure out what you want, in 140 characters or less, you can start to take action.
I'm swamped. I can't keep up with all the tweets...But I'm determined to not lose even one prayer.
Anxiety over swine-flu infection is mounting, casting a particularly long shadow of caution and concern in Britain. Last week, Sir Liam Donaldson, the UK's chief medical officer, predicted that the country could see as many as 65,000 deaths by this fall, and yesterday newspapers reported that British airlines may ban passengers exhibiting symptoms from traveling. While there have only been 29 reported deaths so far in Britain, it appears the storm of H1N1 is coming early. And now it's jeopardizing a holy journey.
Today, health officials from the Association of British Hujja warned Muslims to reconsider this year's pilgrimage to Mecca, releasing this statement:
British pilgrims have always been at high risk of infections due to the crowded conditions at ceremonies, accommodation sites and on public transport. Therefore pilgrims must follow the guidelines issued by the authorities and they should be vaccinated against the swine flu virus once this vaccine is available at least two weeks before their departure to perform pilgrimage."
The notice came after officials in Saudi Arabia advised all travelers to be vaccinated prior to making the trip, adding that those most vulnerable, "pregnant women, children, chronically ill and elderly people," should simply stay at home this year. Other countries in the Middle East and Africa have issued similar warnings. Egypt did so after a woman, infected during a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, died of swine flu earlier this month -- the first H1N1-related death in the country.
Ramadan begins late next month, and there's no real sign yet how many Muslims planning to make the annual pilgrimage will be affected. Some 25,000 Muslims are expected to come from Britain alone. So far, religious leaders, like Egypt's top cleric, are looking to the World Health Organization for guidance "on whether to issue a fatwa or decree barring all Egyptians from making the pilgrimage."
So far, the death toll worldwide is 700, according to the WHO, representatives of which have said the virus is spreading with "unprecedented speed."
It's enough to make anyone look forward to getting their shots this year.
Everyone hates cell phones going off at inappropriate times -- movies, classrooms, funerals (especially bad for anyone with a cheerful disco ringtone), and of course religious services come to mind. Kenyan Muslims are ecstatic to discover a device that jams mobile phone signals:
Imams in Kenya have long complained that mobile phones constantly rang during prayers, disrupting services.
Imam Hassan Kithiye says he bought the machine in Dubai and it has been well received by his congregation.
A BBC correspondent in north-eastern Kenya says other mosques around Garissa town are now trying to raise enough funds to buy their own device.
One mosque has resorted to fining congregants $3 if their phones ring during a prayer service.
But this failed to solve the problem, imam Sheik Abbi-Azziz Mohamed told the BBC.
"We used to use that tyrant approach but it didn't work. Some people are so poor that they cannot even afford to buy airtime. We couldn't expect them to pay," he said.
It's a effective solution, but it still doesn't answer my question: "why does every cell phone user over 40 forget about a little compromise known as 'vibrate?'"
SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images
Official Iranian news agency Fars has reported that two pilgrims recently returned from the Hajj have contracted swine flu. Mecca plays host to about two million Muslims every year including nearly 12,000 from the United States and 25,000 from the United Kingdom, both of whom top the World Health Organization's table of reported swine flu cases. Fears about the rapid spread of the pandemic during the Hajj have prompted swift action from countries across the Middle East, which have as yet reported relatively few cases. Saudi Arabia has already put in place facilities at its major airports to quarantine pilgrims suspected of carrying the H1N1 virus.
Meanwhile in England, the Bishop of Chelmsford has advised that churches remove holy water which, when exposed in stoups, can easily become a source of infection. Revered John Gladwin recommended that parishioners exhibiting flu-like symptoms should stay at home where possible, and priests who must make pastoral visits "wear sterile gloves, an apron and a face mask." He also said those taking holy communion should not drink wine from the chalice if ill, and would still receive the full communion by taking the wafer of bread alone.
Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty images
It's finally here. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens in theaters tomorrow after an eight-month delay. The world is abuzz with anticipation for this picture, the sixth film to be released in the last eight years. This morning I spotted four sleeping teenagers who had camped out overnight already in line for tickets in front of DC's Uptown Theater.
Apparently, this magical mood surrounding The Half-Blood Prince has even traveled as far as the Vatican, casting its spell on the pope. In its review of the film L'Osservatore Romano -- the Vatican's official newspaper -- praised this latest cinematic adaptation of J.K. Rowling's work (written by Steve Kloves and directed by David Yates) as being the best one yet, highlighting its distinct moral compass.
There is a clear line of demarcation between good and evil and [the film] makes clear that good is right. One understands as well that sometimes this requires hard work and sacrifice."
While longtime Potter readers all over the world might respond with a resounding, "duh," this is certainly a shift for the pope who, until recently was not a Potter fan, once condemning the books as "subtle seductions." In 2008, the Vatican newspaper said young Harry "...proposes a wrong and malicious image of the hero, an unreligious one, which is even worst that an explicitly anti-religious proposition."
David Hardenberg/Getty Images
It's another great moment in advertising history: Burger King bringing together a Whopper and a Hindu goddess.
Burger King has been forced to apologise to Hindus after it showed a revered Indian goddess with a 'forbidden' Whopper burger.
The fast food chain quickly withdrew the advertisement from its stores in Spain after Hindus across the world complained at the denigration of their religion.
The advertisement shows a picture of Lakshmi, the Indian goddess of wealth, above one of the burgers, which are forbidden under Hindu religion[...]
The goddess and the burger were placed under a slogan claiming 'La merienda es sagrada' – the snack is sacred.
Though the main complaint is of course the implication that Lakshmi enjoys cow, it turns out the entire meal does not agree with the rules of strict Hindus:
It includes an all-beef patty, a beef chilli-con-carne slice, egg-based Cajun mayonnaise, all forbidden by strict Hindus. Some devotees would even be offended by the inclusion of onions which they believe inflame passions."
Not to mention the fearsome power of onion breath.
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It sounds like the beginning of a joke," writes The Guardian. "What do you get when you put a Muslim imam, a Greek Orthodox priest, a rabbi, a Buddhist monk and 10 atheists in the same room?" I initially thought the answer had something to do with light bulbs, but it turns out this is part of the premise of a new Turkish game show:
Viewers of Turkish television will soon get the punchline when a new gameshow begins that offers a prize arguably greater than that offered by Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Contestants will ponder whether to believe or not to believe when they pit their godless convictions against the possibilities of a new relationship with the almighty on Penitents Compete (Tovbekarlar Yarisiyor in Turkish), to be broadcast by the Kanal T station. Four spiritual guides from the different religions will seek to convert at least one of the 10 atheists in each programme to their faith.
Those persuaded will be rewarded with a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their newly chosen creed – Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Christians and Jews, and Tibet for Buddhists.
The programme's makers say they want to promote religious belief while educating Turkey's overwhelmingly Muslim population about other faiths.
"The project aims to turn disbelievers on to God," the station's deputy director, Ahmet Ozdemir, told the Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review.
What kind of spiritual guide is this show going to be using? With each week's suspense inherently built off of contestants' conversions, I look forward to quotes like "yes, my son, you may come forward to accept Jesus... but please, wait until after these commercials."
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Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who is currently visiting Italy, has agreed to meet with members of Rome's Jewish community -- many of whom were forced to leave their homes in Libya by anti-Jewish pogroms decades ago -- but says he will only meet with them on Saturday.
Will there be shrimp cocktails, too?
Madonna was bad enough, but this is really beyond the pale.
Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, currently imprisoned at the Hague awaiting trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone, has apparently decided to convert to Judaisim, one of his wives tells BBC radio (my transcript):
Q. So he's now a practicing Jew?
A. He's now a Jew. He's practicing Judaism.
Q. Tells us about that? What led him to that?
A. Because of the difficulties, he always wanted to know God in a very diffent and special way. From a very small boy -- because we talk about his childhood a whole lot -- he asked himself questions about Christianity. Too many questions about why certain things happened. And why, this one and that one. Just too many question in Christianity and the whole thing about Christ because he does believe in Christ. When he got to the Hague, he got to know that he really, really wanted to be a Jew. Wanted to convert to Judaism. And that...
Q. Does that mean he has rejected Christianity then? Because that's quite a radical departure.
A. No, no, no he hasn't rejected Christianity. He has always been a Christian. He just decided to become a Jew. He wants to follow the two religions.
Least. Welcome. Convert. Ever.
I also can't help wondering if he got this idea from George Bluth on Arrested Development.
MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP/Getty Images
The new book "Sex as you don't know it: for married couples who love God," written by a franciscan friar named Ksawery Knotz is flying off the bookshelves in Poland, selling out its initial print run within weeks. While Knotz's message, that even godly married couples should enjoy sex, is all fine and good and probably a smart move for the struggling Polish catholic church, isn't there something a little strange about taking sex tips from a guy who's celibate?
He also dismisses those that have questioned the competency of a celibate monk to write about sex, saying his experience comes from counselling married couples and from running a website giving sexual advice for almost a year.
There's an interesting quote from the Post's account of Pope Benedict's visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial:
Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev said he considered Benedict's remarks a "serious and important" acknowledgment of what the Holocaust represents, but said he also found the language "a bit restrained." He and other officials at the memorial said they were expecting a more personal expression of empathy, rather than the general remarks Benedict delivered. "Maybe our expectations were too high," Shalev said.
If Shalev was expecting a Larry King-style expression of remorse for Benedict's youthful involvement with Nazism or his pardon of Richard Williamson, he was definitely expecting too much. If this pope has demonstrated anything so far, it's that he has little patience for the ritual expressions of "humanity" demanded by the modern news cycle. (And Benedict's spokesman probably did him no favors by denying that he was ever a member of the Hitler Youth, even though the pope had admitted as much himself in his autobiography.)
For even the most media-savvy public figure, this trip would hae been a tough act to pull off. Some had hoped that the pope could use his spiritual authority to make a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but at this point, Benedict probably has too little credibility with either Jews or Muslims to pull that off. Any non-platitudinous statement he made on behalf of Palestinian rights would just reinforce Jewish skepticism of him and vice versa.
As for doing damage control, the Holy Land actually seems like the worst possible place to reach out to Jews or Muslims (particularly if you're trying to reach out to both.) As Marc Lynch noted in his discussion of why Jerusalem would have been an ill-advised choice for Barack Obama's address to the Muslim world, it "would have been a security nightmare, a political football, and at any rate would have turned it into an 'Israeli-Palestinian' event instead of a Muslim world event."
The pope must have realized this all too well when he had to leave a conference in East Jerusalem yesterday after a Palestinian began railling against Israeli crimes. It would have been difficult enough for this pope to pull off a high-profile conciliatory gesture to Jews, or to Muslims. But trying to do both at once while standing on top of the world's most volatile political-religious fault-line is damn near impossible.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. military today denied the allegation made in this Al Jazeera piece that evangelical chaplains are urging U.S. toops in Afghanistan to protelytize for Christianity:
The reporting here does seem a little dodgy. The piece implies that this line from a U.S chaplain's sermon is a violation of U.S. policy:
"The special forces guys - they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down."
But it's not at all clear that this refers to converting Afghans and this seems like a line that one could hear in any evangelical sermon in the United States. None of the officers "caught on camera" in the segment ever actually instruct troops to proselytize, in fact the only discussion of the practice is about how it's against military rules.
As for the bibles in Dari and Pashto, the conversations in the video actually seem to better support the military's explanation that a soldier had "showed them to the group and the chaplain explained that he cannot distribute them."
Afghanistan's former prime minister has called for an investigation after seeing the segment. This is a serious issue and one that has gotten the military into trouble before. But without more evidence, this particular case seems like a manufactured controversy.
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