China's atheist authorities have decided to play God—they have banned Tibet's Buddhist monks from reincarnating without permission. The State Administration for Religious Affairs said the new regulations on reincarnation are "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation."
What the Chinese government is really trying to do is limit the power of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political leader who has been living in exile in India since 1959. The 72-year-old monk will not be allowed to reincarnate without approval from Chinese authorities. In practice, this means that when the Dalai Lama passes away, there could be two new dalai lamas: Beijing's approved reincarnation and the one identified by Buddhist monks.
The Dalai Lama, however, has said he won't be reborn in any place that's under China's control, which would make it rather difficult for Chinese authorities to locate his successor.
In all, this whole attempt to regulate reincarnation serves as a reminder: Even the most authoritarian governments in this earthly world face limits to their power. Too bad Chinese authorities don't realize that.
With parliamentary elections due next year, Iran's center-left coalition might be the latest victims of the YouTube effect. The would-be reformers are crying foul over the above video, which has been posted on a number of conservative Web sites and allegedly shows former President Mohammed Khatami shaking hands with a female supporter on a recent trip to Italy.
Khatami says the video is a fake and claims never to have shaken hands with any woman, an act considered taboo by many conservative Muslims. A mid-level cleric, Khatami has formed a coalition with more conservative former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi to attempt to stem the tide of Iran's rightward drift. Though emboldened by the defeat of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardliners in last December's local council elections, reformers still worry they could be disqualified by Iran's religious Guardian Council, which vets parliamentary candidates.
To Western eyes, Iran's Handshakegate looks pretty silly—and it gets much sillier (video)—but with some clerics calling for Khatami to be defrocked, Iran's struggling reformers certainly aren't laughing. It doesn't help, apparently, that Ahmadinejad himself is guilty of the horrible crime of touching a woman; this is about gutter politics, not bedrock principle.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan intended to give the children of Khost province a gift they could enjoy. Instead, they ended up giving them a gift—soccer balls—that some residents in the region found blasphemous.
The soccer balls roughly resembled the photo at left, but had flags of the world printed on them, including Saudi Arabia's flag. The Saudi flag bears the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith whose recitation is one of the five pillars of Islam. One Afghan MP explained the offense by saying, "To have a verse of the Koran on something you kick with your foot would be an insult in any Muslim country around the world." (For a Christian, it would be roughly analogous to kicking the Lord's Prayer or the Apostles' Creed around the field, but worse.) In the past, Saudi Arabia has complained to World Cup officials about the use of soccer balls bearing its flag.
Around 100 people in Khost, a province of about 300,000 people, chose to express their anger by holding a demonstration. The U.S. military said it simply didn't realize that some would find the soccer balls offensive. A spokeswoman said that U.S. forces work with local leaders to ensure they respect local culture. Perhaps, though, they also need a cultural "copy editor," a native of the region who reviews such actions for possible offense before giving the green light to go ahead with them.
The discount airline craze that dominates Europe's airways took a leap of faith on Monday. In hopes of getting more Catholic pilgrims out to religious sites, the Vatican is now providing low-cost charter flights from seven Italian airports to places like the shrine of Fátima in Portugal, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, Poland. Signing a five-year agreement with Mistral Air, a parcel transport company founded by Italian movie star Bud Spencer, the airline is hoping to transport 150,000 passengers a year to their divine destinations (and hopefully make a worldly profit in the meantime).
But not even God's nod of approval can shield you from the cut-throat competition on the runway these days. Here is what Ryanair, another bargain carrier, said of its new rival:
Ryanair already performs miracles that even the Pope's boss can't rival, by delivering pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela for the heavenly price of €10.
But is the Ryanair flight crew "specialized in voyages of a sacred nature"? Didn't think so. Nor do they have "I'm Searching for Your Face, Lord," imprinted on headrest covers throughout the cabin. And for those tired of the same old, mainstream in-flight entertainment, the Vatican's flights will be broadcasting religious videos instead. No word yet on whether Pope Benedict XVI, who usually charters a private plane for his voyages, might be next to you at the check-in.
A Tamil-language newspaper in Malaysia has had its printing permit suspended for one month as punishment for publishing an image of Jesus that many Christians, as well as people of other faiths, found offensive.
The picture depicts Jesus holding a cigarette and what looks like a can of beer. The caption accompanying the image translates roughly as "If someone repents for his mistakes, then heaven awaits them." The picture appeared as part of the newspaper's regular "thoughts for the day" feature, which spotlights quotes from famous leaders and philosophers.
Last year, two Malaysian newspapers got shut down after publishing offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed—the notorious ones that were the subject of protests from Nigeria to Indonesia. In the case of the Jesus image, some Malaysian Christians have demanded that the newspaper that published it, Makkal Osai, receive the same treatment.
At least one Malaysian Christian blogger, however, believes that shutting down civic discourse isn't consistent with the principle of WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?). I would add that at the very least, it isn't consistent with the principle of free speech, which requires us to defend the right of people to say things that offend us deeply.
In the United States, it's legal to burn the country's flag; it's legal to put a Christian cross in a glass of urine and call it art; and it's legal to create a painting of the Virgin Mary that incorporates elephant dung. Despite the fact that many people understandably find these acts to be highly repugnant and offensive, they are protected as free speech.
Last Friday, however, a 23-year-old man was arrested on hate-crime charges after surveillance photos linked him to two incidents of throwing Korans into toilets at Pace University in New York. Granted, the behavior was offensive and inappropriate: It does not elevate the debate about Islam and terrorism.
But in the compelling interest of protecting free speech, this man's alleged Koran flushings should be treated as property crimes, not hate crimes. He appears to have taken the Korans from the university's meditation room. If true, then he should be charged with theft. If the toilets' plumbing was damaged, then he should also be charged with vandalism.
In fact, Pace University initially classified the first book flushing as an act of vandalism, but later referred it to the hate crimes unit of the New York Police Department. If the university wishes to punish such asinine behavior, then as a private university, it has the right to establish a code of conduct that takes disciplinary action against those who create a hostile environment on campus.
Free speech is essential for democracy. It doesn't require us to agree with what everyone says, but it does require us to tolerate—and even defend—the right of others to express themselves in offensive ways.
Apparently, the South Korean government has finally had it with Christian missionaries causing trouble abroad. With 23 members of a Korean church group being used as bartering chips by the Taliban, the foreign ministry in Seoul has added Afghanistan to the short list of countries to which travel is now a criminal offense for South Koreans. The ban, which takes effect Tuesday, also applies to Iraq and Somalia.
I'm certainly inclined to agree with David that these people—whether or not they were on a mission to proselytize—made a foolish decision and put themselves in harm's way. Surely, the Korean foreign ministry would be well-advised to better educate their people about the dangers of the places on this list, and perhaps recommend some alternative destinations for determined evangelicals.
But I'm not convinced that punishing travel to these countries is really the right course of action. Given that people have access to information about what they're walking in to, restricting their liberty to make that decision has some unsavory qualities to it. Or maybe that's just the young, freedom-loving American inside me talking.
At 2:01 a.m. on the dot this Saturday, Israeli bookstores are scheduled to participate in the world-wide synchronized release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the highly anticipated final book in J.K. Rowling's seven-part series. But never mind Voldemort. Harry's most unrelenting opponents might be Orthodox Jewish government officials, who are outraged that the release is scheduled on the Sabbath. By law, most businesses in Israel are required to close on this holy day of rest and cannot forces employees to work, which could pose a small problem for book retailers preparing for one of the biggest launches of the year.
But for many, Harry Potter trumps the law. Steimatzky, Israel's biggest bookstore chain, is holding a gala event in Tel Aviv beginning Friday night to celebrate the launch. Spokeswoman Alona Zamir said:
We will hold the launch as planned because we are contractually bound to do so. The book will go on sale here at the same time as in other places around the world.
Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai has made it known that he isn't taking the rebellion lightly. He plans to dispatch inspectors to report on stores that take part in the book launch.
For ardent fans of magic and wizardry, it is going to take more than a little controversy to dampen their excitement. Steimatzky has already received tens of thousands of advance orders for Deathly Hallows in English. With all the speculation flying around about Harry's possible demise, Israeli fans may have to start looking for a secluded hiding spot for Saturday to make sure nobody ruins the ending before they can actually get their hands on a copy.
In the past week, both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have featured vastly different takes on the caste system in India.
A 'Broken People' in Booming India
Low-Caste Dalits Still Face Prejudice, Grinding Poverty
India's high-tech revolution helps 'Untouchables' rise …
The Post is more pessimistic, saying "India may be booming, but not for those who occupy the lowest rung of society here." It mentions the case of a Dalit woman (a member of the lowest caste, the "untouchables") whose two children died after a health center refused to help them.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal takes an optimistic tone, saying "… India's rapid economic expansion—and its booming high-tech sector—are beginning to chip away at the historical system that reserved well-paying jobs for upper castes and menial jobs for Dalits." It profiles the story of a Dalit man who is now a software developer and earns more in one month than his father did in a year.
So who's right? It's probably too early to tell, but one factor is sure to make a difference in the outcome: access to education. Many Dalits don't get a decent chance at a quality education. Affirmative action plans, which have been in place for nearly 60 years, can help them get into universities, but if they aren't academically prepared in the first place and have weak English skills, then it's hard to compete.
Probably the biggest challenge, though, is lack of leadership. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the caste system "a blot on humanity." But, unfortunately, the rest of the country's elite doesn't seem to have made egalitarianism a priority. As one publisher of books on caste says, "There's not even the pretension to fight caste. It's not trendy or a Bollywood star's cause célèbre to say you care about the working-man untouchable."
BURGOS, SPAIN - JUNE 10: A man dressed as the devil jumps over babies at the 'El Colacho' fiesta on June 10, 2007 in Castrillo de Murcia, near Burgos, Spain. Since 1620 Castrillo de Murcia has celebrated Corpus Christi with men representing the devil leaping over babies to cleanse them spiritually. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Calling on all Catholics to send their donations elsewhere, the Vatican lambasted Amnesty International Wednesday for the human rights organization's stance on abortion.
The Vatican's beef is that in April, Amnesty shifted its official position from a neutral stance to one of urging governments to ensure access to abortion services in the case of rape, incest, or when pregnancy represents a risk to the mother's life. But Cardinal Renato Martino's accusation that Amnesty is "promoting abortion" is a misrepresentation, the human rights organization says:
Amnesty International's actual policy, however, standing alongside its long-standing opposition to forced abortion, is to support the decriminalisation of abortion, to ensure women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion and to defend women's access to abortion, within reasonable gestational limits, when their health or human rights are in danger.
While Amnesty doesn't take a dime from the Vatican itself, provoking the Holy See's condemnation will certainly hurt the organization with devout Catholics.
The Roman Catholic Church and Amnesty International have historically found a great deal of common ground. Both believe their mission is to protect victims of persecution, particularly when it comes to armed conflict, the death penalty, and world poverty. It would be a shame if abortion caused the Church to lose sight of these shared goals.
Bush would now like to con Pope Benedict XVI. The Iraq War doesn't exist, it doesn't cost a cent, not one drop of blood has been spilled, nor have hundreds of thousands of innocent people died as part of a shameless bartering of lives for oil and gas, imposed by force of arms on the peoples of the Third World. Nor does the danger of another war against Iran exist, including possible tactical nuclear strikes to impose the same infamous formula.
Likewise, the Pope will tell Bush that the Catholic church has no involvement in politics.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made clear that promoting dialogue between religious faiths will be a centerpiece of his retirement. He's kicking things off this week with an international conference hosted by Cambridge University entitled, "Islam and Muslims in the World Today."
Blair said today that the conference is an opportunity "to hear Islam's true voice." Among the participants (pdf) who apparently represent this voice is Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt who is said to be on the liberal end of the Sheikh spectrum. Yet among Gomaa's more famous beliefs is a fatwa that condemned artists and banned the displaying of statues in people's private homes, a statement supporting the terrorist group Hezbollah during last summer's war with Israel, and this bizarre comment justifying the beating of women in some instances:
Women in some cultures are not averse to beatings. They consider it as an expression of masculinity, and as a kind of control, which she herself desires. In other societies, it is the exact opposite. [...]
I got a question from Canada. The man said: "Here, it is a crime to beat a wife, even with a toothbrush. Is this prohibition acceptable in Islam?" Yes. Islam accepts that the beating of Canadian wives, in this culture and ambience [...] From childhood they are taught that beating women is a type of barbarism, savagery, and so on. There is nothing wrong with taking this into consideration, and adapting to society, because Islam did not command us to be aggressive towards women.
If in their culture, this constitutes aggression towards women, then we are forbidden to be aggressive towards women. [...] But when Allah permitted wife-beating, He permitted it to the other side of culture, which considers it as one of the means to preserve the family, and as one of the means to preserve stability.
Interfaith dialogue is an admirable goal. We need more of it and, particularly, those of us in the West could use more exposure to the "true" voices of Islam. But it's sad when these efforts amount to little more than pathetic displays of cultural relativism.
(Hat tip: Damian Thompson)
Switzerland has just two small minarets. But two are more than enough for some members of the country's right-wing Swiss People's Party. They are collecting signatures to force a referendum that would ban the building of minarets. The problem isn't that minarets would be a large eyesore; a minaret that has been proposed by an ethnic Albanian in the small town of Langenthal would only be 5 meters (16.5 feet) high. The problem isn't loud calls to prayer; the country's two minarets are silent, as would also be the Langenthal one. No, the problem seems to be fear of change.
Oskar Freysinger, a member of parliament for the Swiss People's Party, says:
We don't have anything against Muslims. But we don't want minarets. The minaret is a symbol of a political and aggressive Islam, it's a symbol of Islamic law. The minute you have minarets in Europe it means Islam will have taken over.
He doesn't have anything against Muslims? Yeah, right. And since when did minarets—the rough equivalent of a church steeple—become a symbol of "political and aggressive Islam"? Granted, concerns about extremist Islam are entirely legitimate. But banning minarets isn't going to stop radical Islam. In fact, isolating and angering a community is more likely to radicalize it.
The Pew Research Center just released the results of the first, nationwide random-sample survey of Muslim Americans (pdf) and has found them to be largely assimilated. But some findings are nonetheless troubling.
The good news: The survey found that the U.S. Muslims surveyed were middle class and mostly mainstream. A strong 71 percent believe you can get ahead in the United States by working hard. They also reject extremist Islam by larger margins than their counterparts in European countries.
But when asked the question, "Can suicide bombings of civilian targets to defend Islam be justified?", 13 percent of those ages 18-29 said "sometimes," 11 percent said "rarely," and 2 percent said "often." In all, one in four young U.S. Muslims surveyed agreed that suicide bombing of civilians was at times acceptable. (In contrast, among Muslims 30 and older, 6 percent said "sometimes" or "often," and 3 percent said "rarely.")
The survey report doesn't suggest reasons why there is a gap between younger and older Muslims' attitudes about suicide bombing, but it does say that similar gaps have been found among Muslims in European countries. The president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a U.S. organization that advocates the compatibility of Islam and democracy, suggests that the Internet and television may be exposing impressionable young people to extreme ideologies. Or perhaps it's a function of age: Young people, and young men in particular, tend to have more violent attitudes.
Whatever the reason, it's just plain unsettling.
A new social networking craze has hit the Internet: faith-based social networking sites, which have emerged as alternatives to popular, general social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. For instance, Xianz, which developed as a response to the loose behavioral codes on other social networking sites, explicitly markets itself as "The MySpace alternative for Christians!" At just one year old, it boasts 35,000 registered members and 500,000 unique visitors.
Shmooze, a Jewish social networking site, and its affiliated networks, have 200,000 members, and Naseeb, a Muslim social networking site, has more than 300,000 registered members. While they may not compare to MySpace's million members or more, their numbers in terms of both the number of sites and their memberships, reveal a growing virtual social bloc. And they may provide more than just "networking." Naseeb in particular frequently highlights the words "SOULMATES" on its home page, with an accompanying picture of a happy couple who met through the site. So apart from providing a virtual space for like-minded believers, free of bad language and obscene imagery, these sites can also be spaces where "Fairy tales do happen ..."
When she was 14 years old, Irshad Manji, a Canadian Muslim, asked her madrasa teacher, "Where is the evidence of the 'Jewish conspiracy' against Islam?"
Her teacher responded by kicking her out of the madrasa.
Since then, Manji has been using her own brain to study Islam and launch a campaign to reform her religion. Manji, who moved to Canada as a child when Idi Amin expelled the East Indian community from Uganda, has written the book The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith. Her latest endeavor is the documentary Faith Without Fear, which debuts tonight in the United States on PBS as part of the channel's series America at a Crossroads.
In 2003, the New York Times described Manji as Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare. She reads the Koran and abstains from pork and alcohol. She's also a lesbian feminist who admires Israel and supports the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I'm intrigued by Manji's current Project Ijtihad (pronounced "ij-tee-had"). On her website, Manji says that ijtihad is Islam's long-lost tradition of independent thinking that was stomped out at the end of the 11th century. Manji wants to create a network of reform-minded Muslims who engage in critical thinking and bring about a reformation of Islam that updates it for the 21st century. If Christianity could have its Protestant Reformation, it seems possible for Islam to have one too.
Manji has her critics on both the left and the right. She also has supporters ranging from Arianna Huffington to Glenn Beck. I plan to make my own assessment tonight when I watch Faith Without Fear. I encourage you to watch the documentary too.
Is there anyone left outside the White House who supports the war in Iraq? For some time now, the last large block of holdouts were the Mormons. More than any other religious group, Mormons have consistently told pollsters over the last couple years that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. As recently as last October, support for the Iraq war among Mormons stood at around 65 percent. Since then, however, that figure has plummeted some 21 percentage points—a massive shift. A poll by the Salt Lake Tribune shows that today, just 44 percent of Mormons back Bush on the war in Iraq.
What accounts for such a huge shift in group thinking? Officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no position on Iraq. A spokesman for the church says there is "no additional statement, clarification, changed policy or announcement that can account" for the change in the opinions of the church's members.
However, in an unprecedented break with Bush and the conservative cause, several prominent Mormons have in recent months begun to speak out against the war. In late October, the president of the LDS Church, Gordon B. Hinckley, gave a speech at Brigham Young University that condemned "the terrible cost of war," albeit without mentioning Iraq specifically. "What a fruitless thing it so often is," Hinckley continued. "And what a terrible price it exacts." Then, in November, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., an LDS Church member, said upon returning from Iraq that, "the security situation is Baghdad is out of hand .... I am less optimistic about a successful outcome." Senators Harry Reid and Gordon Smith, both Mormons, have also expressed similar skepticism.
Former Massachusetts governor and presidential contender Mitt Romney appears to be the last of the prominent staunch Mormon supporters of the war. Just last week, he said the United States should stay in Iraq "as long as there is a reasonable probability" of helping the Iraqis calm the country's raging sectarian violence.
When he goes, who's left?
Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL: "Unidos da Tijuca" samba school performs at the Sambadrome, during the second night of carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 19 February 2007.
Samuel P. Huntington began this ongoing debate when he argued that "the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future" in a controversial 1993 essay for Foreign Affairs. One of the main cleavages Huntington identified was between the West and Islam, which he doubted was capable of embracing liberal democracy.
In the new issue of FP, former Bush speechwriter David Frum argues that the events of the last few years have vindicated* Huntington's thesis:
As they turn against the Iraq war, Americans seem also to have rejected the sunny assumptions about the Middle East upon which it was founded. Bush argued that terrorism was the work of a tiny handful of extremists, repudiated by the vast majority of Middle Easterners. His fellow Americans no longer believe him. More and more are coming to believe that Islam really is inherently hostile to democracy and the West. Civilizations are clashing. Paul Wolfowitz has lost. Sam Huntington has won.
And in a recent web exclusive for ForeignPolicy.com, former senior intelligence officer Col. W. Patrick Lang, Jr. says that it's actually these sunny assumptions—widely held by Americans—that were wrong in the first place.
But lots of people still disagree with Huntington outright. A new poll by the BBC World Service and the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that "the global public believes that tensions between Islam and the West arise from conflicts over political power and interests and not from differences of religion and culture." Most of those surveyed blamed "intolerant minorities" for causing the clash between Islam and the West. That doesn't make them right or Huntington wrong, but it's an encouraging finding nevertheless (Political scientist Marc Lynch agrees, but sees some worrisome countervailing numbers). Much more detail here.
*UPDATE: David Frum writes in with a clarification: "I don't say that events have vindicated Huntington's thesis, but rather that events are leading Americans to believe it—a tendency I myself happen to think mistaken."
Here's a Friday afternoon prediction: The fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon will be the reason he is not elected to the White House—and everyone will pretend it isn't.
Behind the scenes, ABC's The Note tells us, the opinion of the "Gang of 500" media elites is that he's doomed:
Mitt Romney — Flip-flopping (Mormon); ruthless (Mormon); opportunistic (Mormon); slick (Mormon); a Mormon can't get elected (not ANY Mormon).
But in public view, the denial has already started. Don't believe it? Just pick up this morning's Washington Post, where the editors make a delusional attempt to take the high road by declaring, "Mr. Romney should be judged on a basis other than his faith." So, instead of slamming his religion, the Post criticizes Romney's flip-flopping on issues such as abortion, discrimination against homosexuals, stem cell research, and other issues. But don't be fooled. The Post's editors say that Romney's faith is "one topic that shouldn't matter," yet in the last six weeks or so alone, the Post has run no fewer than five articles that touched on that very subject.
The reason every article on Romney has to mention Mormonism is simple. At dinner parties and fund-raisers, even the Republican chattering classes may like to pretend that Romney will be judged at face value. But he won't. Romney will judged, ultimately, on his faith. Call it a form of soft bigotry if you like. It is. It's also a political reality.
This reality will first play itself out in the primaries, where evangelical Christians make up at least 30 percent of the Republican voting base. The debates will politely side step the issue. Oh, there might be an attack ad or two that alludes to it secondhand. For the most part, Romney's competitors will tread lightly in public. But behind closed doors, the dirt will by flying fast. As The Washington Monthly's Amy Sullivan presciently pointed out way back in 2005, the push polls coming out of McCain's shop practically write themselves:
Would you be more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney if you knew he was a Mormon, and that Mormons believe in polygamy?"
Which brings us to the second act in this play. Let's say Romney makes it through the primaries. The general election could be even more vicious, especially if Romney is running against Hillary. For those who haven't been paying attention, Romney's great-grandfather was a polygamsit who had five wives. Talk about push polls for female voters writing themselves. Combine that with the fact that Romney is probably the only candidate who could get Southern evangelical preachers to sign up for Team Clinton and, well, you get the picture.
Ye Xiaowen, China's director of the State Bureau of Religious Affair has published a clear rebuke in the People's Daily of President George W. Bush's "unilateral" war on terrorism, which he argues has worsened global tensions. Ye also urged the U.S. President to "reflect deeply" upon his ill-judged decision to turn the fight against terrorism into a religious war through employing terms such as "crusade" and "Islamic fascism," the New York Times reports.
Religious intolerance has been a key sticking point in U.S.-China relations in the past, but the criticism usually flows in the opposite direction. President Bush has repeatedly called upon the Chinese government to protect religious freedom in light of China's well-publicized crackdowns on Falun Gong followers (see also today's blog post) and members of the Muslim Uighur minority.
This type of personal public criticism of a U.S. president by a senior Chinese official is rare, but it's certainly not the first time China has felt compelled to draw attention to what it perceives to be American "double standards." Since 1999, China has responded to the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices with its own list of abuses committed by the United States. The list has included criticisms over Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the high number of civilian deaths in Iraq. Here's a particularly shrill excerpt from 2005:
[The United States] frequently commits wanton slaughters during external invasions and military attacks.
Perhaps this most recent riposte over religious intolerance should be welcomed, though—if it prompts China to practice what it preaches.
Thousands of Hindu holy men are threatening to boycott the Hindu festival of Purna Kumbh Mela on the grounds that the Ganges, India's holiest river, is too polluted to wash away the sins of the millions of pilgrims who visit during the celebration. The seven-week festival is expected to draw 70 million people to the banks of the Ganges. Indian government officials, under pressure from the holy men, are offering to pump in fresh water.
Videos from this year's hajj are hard to come by, so here's a quick peek at last year's scene in Mecca's Grand Mosque. Every year, several pilgrims die due to overcrowding and poor planning--four Chinese Muslims have died during this Hajj already. Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj produced this safety video to help combat the danger.
Completely unrelated: via a YouTube video entitled "Tomorrow Begins Today," former Senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards announces that tomorrow he will announce that he will run again in 2008.
About a month ago, I wrote about how CNN can't decide whether Rep.-Elect Keith Ellison is an icon or an enemy. Turns out, some of his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives can't decide either.
In case you've missed the news, Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, also happens to be a Muslim. But it seems that people are having a hard time figuring out that one can be Muslim and American at the same time. Ellison, for example, was born in Detroit, one of the most American cities I know.
But in a letter being mailed out to constituents, U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode, a Republican from Virginia, is taking exception with Ellison's decision to have one hand on the Koran as he swears in his oath of office to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. In his letter, he says he can "not subscribe to using the Koran in any way." Then he goes on:
The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by voters of that district and if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."
Grasp the irony? Ellison will be taking an oath to defend the Constitution, the very document that guarantees his freedom to practice any religion he chooses, or none at all. The really sad irony here is that Virgil Goode represents a state that helped enshrine religious freedom into our national fabric. Here's another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, writing in reference to the creation of the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom:
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting 'Jesus Christ,' so that it would read 'A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;' the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
My how times have changed.
From BBC News:
A group of Polish members of parliament have submitted a bill seeking to proclaim Jesus Christ king of their overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Forty-six deputies - 10% of the lower house - signed the bill, which was tabled earlier this week, reports say.
Some Polish clerics however have criticised the move as unnecessary.
If the bill becomes law, Jesus will follow the path of the Virgin Mary, who was declared honorary queen of Poland by King John Casimir 350 years ago.
The bill probably won't pass, but if it did, wouldn't that make Jesus's mother his wife? Somehow, I don't think that'll fly.
Muslim residents of Katy, Texas are planning on building a mosque in the Houston suburb so they have a place to worship. The neighbors are not happy:
"[O]ne resident has set up an anti-Islamic Web site with an odometer-like counter that keeps track of terrorist attacks since Sept. 11. A committee has formed to buy another property and offer to trade it for the Muslims' land. And next-door neighbor Craig Baker has threatened to race pigs on the edge of the property on the Muslim holy day."
Nice guy, that Craig Baker. Actually, there's no rule explicitly forbidding the racing of pigs in Islam, but it's still gratuitously offensive.
One of Iran's most popular television personalities is caught up in a steamy sex scandal. Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, whose popular TV dramas are often watched by two thirds of the Islamic Republic, has found herself the unwitting star of a different kind of show: a porn video. The DVD of the film, in which 25-year-old Ebrahim is apparently shown having sex at home with her then-fiancee, has sold an incredible 100,000 copies on Iran's black market in the past few months, even at the fairly expensive price of $13.
Obviously, Iran's leaders aren't letting such flagrant flouting of the country's strict morality laws go unpunished. Ebrahimi faces potential lashing for having sex outside of marriage, and her partner, who has been extradicted from Armenia to face charges, could be thrown in jail for three years. Ebrahimi is fighting back by denying that she's even the woman in the video.
I watched the film after I heard about the fuss from colleagues and the girl in it is not me," Ebrahimi said...."It is possible to use studio make-up to have a person look like me. I have some knowledge of montage techniques and I know you can create a new face by distorting the features of another person."
Still, Ehrahimi is under self-imposed house arrest for now.
On the day that UNAIDS comes out with new - and depressing - figures on the number of people living with HIV around the world, it's either good news or, again, depressing, to hear that the Vatican has just concluded an internal study on the use of condoms to fight AIDS. The results of the study aren't available yet - they still have to go through the pope - but those involved say the report looks at both the "scientific and moral points" of using condoms. Last year, Benedict XVI, speaking to African bishops, went on the record saying he rejects the use of condoms to fight AIDS, asserting that they lead to a moral breakdown in society. So, I'm not holding my breath imagining that anything imaginative might emerge from Vatican City when it comes to fighting HIV. But I do hope that the authors of the Vatican report take a moment today to consider the update from UNAIDS about how AIDS continues to devastate every region of the world. Infections are up everywhere this year.
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