from The Great Debate:

Pope Francis: Beyond the compelling gestures

The most talked about person in the world -- no surprise there! -- is Pope Francis. Polls and Internet traffic confirm: No celebrity even comes close to him in fame or favor.

When it comes to “followers,” the pope does have an enormous head start, as leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church. He also inspires unmatched curiosity and attention globally among many millions from other faiths and no faiths.

Francis comments most effectively through compelling gestures. The public sees him kissing the bare foot of an imprisoned Muslim woman, or the illness-ravaged face of a man he is blessing. When a child jumps to his side or grabs his papal skull cap, the pope is attentive, undistracted. Less instantaneous, but still revealing, gestures find him riding public buses, driving his own old car, living in humble quarters or sneaking off in the night to minister to the homeless.

Minority factions, Catholic and “other,” sputter criticisms. Months ago they were surprised at the election of this Argentinean Jesuit to lead the Catholic Church. Now they charge that he restricts himself to what they dismiss as mere gestures, mere symbols, mere ceremonies.

Rigid Catholic conservatives ask impatiently why he does not nail down church dogma and permit only safe, well-worn practices. They charge he is elusive when it comes to supporting those dogmas and enforcing the canon laws. Both, they insist, should be publicly defined, isolated and defended. Those much-noted gestures, they argue, are too ambiguous and nuanced.

Turkish PM Erdogan and Muslim cleric Gulen tangle over corruption scandal

(A demonstrator holds a shoe box, as a reference to reported shoe boxes of cash found in the house of Halkbank CEO Suleyman Aslan, during a demonstration against Turkey’s ruling Ak Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara December 21, 2013. The sign at left reads: “Government has to resign.” REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

A war of words escalated on Monday between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and a cleric with powerful influence in the police and judiciary, worsening political turmoil unleashed by a corruption scandal.

Turkey has been increasingly polarised since the arrest on graft charges last week of the head of state-run lender Halkbank and the sons of two government ministers. Erdogan answered the arrests by sacking or reassigning the Istanbul police chief and some 70 other police officers.

Edgar Bronfman, longtime head of World Jewish Congress, dies at 84

(World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman speaks in New York, October 23, 1996. REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, the chairman of the Seagram Company and long-serving president of the World Jewish Congress, died at his New York home on Saturday aged 84.

Montreal-born Bronfman took control of the Seagram empire from his father, Samuel Bronfman who had founded the liquor company in 1924. He then expanded its operations, acquiring Tropicana and moving Seagram into the chemicals business by making it DuPont’s largest minority shareholder.

Philippine typhoon survivors struggle to salvage Christmas

(A typhoon survivor decorates a Christmas tree amidst the rubble of destroyed houses in Tacloban city in central Philippines December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Filipino mother Rhodora Tonningsen has no tinsel or baubles for her Christmas tree this year so she’s decorated it with packets of instant noodles and empty sardine cans from relief supplies handed out to survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.

Across the centre of the mostly Catholic Philippines, people are scraping together whatever they can to celebrate Christmas, nearly seven weeks after the storm. Some are struggling to cope with their grief.

France to keep a headscarf ban despite negative legal advice

(French Education Minister Vincent Peillon speaks during a news conference in Paris December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platiau )

France decided on Monday to maintain a ban on Muslim headscarves for volunteer school monitors despite a warning that it overstepped the law requiring religious neutrality in the public service.

The Council of State, which advises the government on disputed administrative issues, said in a 32-page analysis that this neutrality did not apply to mothers who help escort schoolchildren on outings such as museum visits.

UK’s Marks and Spencer apologises after Muslim worker refused to sell alcohol

(A pedestrian carrying an M&S plastic bag walks past a Marks & Spencer shop in Brussels April 11, 2001. REUTERS/Thierry Roge)

Retailer Marks and Spencer apologised on Monday to customers angered after a Muslim checkout worker refused to sell champagne for religious reasons.

Thousands of customers threatened to boycott M&S, Britain’s biggest clothing retailer that also sells food, after a till worker in a London store asked a customer to wait as she would not handle champagne and called for another staff member.

Tunisia’s Islamists and opposition parties set date for handover of power

(Rached Ghannouchi (C), leader of the Ennahda Party, arrives at a meeting in Tunis December 23, 2013. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi )

Tunisia’s ruling Islamists and opposition parties agreed on Monday to finish their handover to a caretaker government by January 14, the third anniversary of the fall of autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

After months of crisis, Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda and opponents last week named a new prime minister to lead a temporary non-political cabinet, which will govern until elections next year to finish its transition to democracy.

Al-Azhar takes centre stage in political struggle for Egypt

(A preacher and his followers at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, 12 December 2011/Tom Heneghan)

A venerable centre of Islamic learning in Cairo has become a new battlefield in the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle to keep its battered cause alive against Egypt’s army-backed rulers.

When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared on television in July to tell Egyptians he had deposed their first freely elected leader, the grand imam of al-Azhar was among those at his side.

Guestview: Among U.S. ecumenists, Pope Francis kindles cautious hope

(Pope Francis jokes with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at the Vatican June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer and columnist in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania

By Elizabeth E. Evans

It’s not the just the media and his follow Catholics who love talking about Pope Francis.

from Edward Hadas:

A Christmas message for lenders

For many shoppers, Christmas is a time to rack up debts in the expression of seasonal goodwill. For policymakers, it should be the holiday of debt forgiveness.

The inspiration for that religious-sounding thought comes from the atheist philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argued that forgiveness has a central role in human affairs, and the secular world should be grateful to Christianity for the discovery. Arendt was of course talking about forgiveness in the common understanding of the term – a pardon for a wrong, the cancellation of “you owe me one”. But her understanding of this as enabling people to “begin something new” works just as well when thinking about the financial equivalent: a willing erasure of material obligations.

Consider a loan from parents to a son or daughter who wants to start a business. If the new venture fails, a tough demand for repayment is likely to spawn resentment. Debt forgiveness will breed gratitude and closer ties.