FaithWorld

from Africa News blog:

Could Islamist rebels undermine change in Africa?

Creeping from the periphery in Africa’s east and west, Islamist militant groups now pose serious security challenges to key countries and potentially even a threat to the continent’s new success.

The biggest story in Africa south of the Sahara over the past few years hasn’t been plague, famine or war but the emergence of the world’s poorest continent as one of its fastest growing – thanks to factors that include fresh investment, economic reform, the spread of new technology, higher prices for commodity exports and generally greater political stability.

Nigeria and Kenya, the most important economies in West and East Africa respectively, are pillars of the change in Africa as well as having the largest and most easily accessible markets for foreigners.

Both now face growing battles with Islamist groups; Kenya throwing troops into neighbouring Somalia in pursuit of al Shabaab fighters, Nigeria struggling with bombings and shootings by its homegrown Boko Haram sect.

Kenyan forces have pushed into southern Somalia to drive back al Qaeda-linked militants blamed by Nairobi for a string of border incursions and kidnappings, including the abductions of foreign tourists from coastal resorts which have damaged one of Kenya’s most important industries.

Factbox on Anwar al-Awlaki, U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric killed in air strike

(Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location in this still image taken from video released by Intelwire.com on September 30, 2011/Intelwire.com)

Yemen’s Defence Ministry said on Friday that Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim preacher linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, had been killed, in what a security official said was an air strike. Awlaki had been implicated in a botched attempt by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in 2009 and had contacts with a U.S. Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at a U.S. military base the same year.

U.S. authorities have branded him a “global terrorist” but Sanaa had previously appeared reluctant to act against him. It was not immediately clear if Awlaki had been killed in a Yemeni air raid or a U.S. drone strike. A U.S. drone aircraft targeted but missed him in May. Yemeni officials had previously reported that Awlaki had been killed in late 2009.

Report shows rise in world restrictions on religion

Nearly a third of the world’s population lives in countries where it is becoming more difficult to freely practice religion, a private U.S. research group has reported. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life said government restrictions and public hostility involving religion grew in some of the most populous countries from mid-2006 to mid-2009.

“During the three-year period covered by the study, the extent of violence and abuse related to religion increased in more places than it decreased,” according to the report “Rising Restrictions on Religion.” Only about one percent of the world lives in countries that saw more religious tolerance during those years, it said.

The Pew Center review of 198 countries found those deemed restrictive or hostile in the previous report were growing even more so, while the opposite was found for those with more religious tolerance. A substantial rise in public hostility toward religious groups was seen in China, Nigeria, Thailand, Vietnam and Britain, while government restrictions rose substantially in Egypt and France.

Egyptians want more Islam in politics, according to Pew poll

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(Anti-Mubarak graffiti in Cairo's Tahrir Square February 1, 2011. The Arabic writing reads "Down with Mubarak."/Yannis Behrakis )

With so much speculation about what role the Muslim Brotherhood might play in any future political system in Egypt, it’s worth looking at some opinion polling data to see what they say they think about the role of Islam in politics.  One recent poll says they want a bigger role for Islam in politics, they want democracy and they reject Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden.  Respondents also showed quite high levels of support for traditional Islamic punishments such as stoning for adulterers, cutting off thieves’ hands and death for apostates from Islam.

Whether and how the views mirrored in these results get turned into policy naturally depends on many factors, so this poll the Pew Research Center published in December cannot be any kind of projection of what to expect. Still, it provides at least some data on what Egyptians may want to see from a future government.

Top Sunni Islam authority al-Azhar halts dialogue with Vatican

al-azharThe highest authority of Sunni Islam, the Islamic University of al-Azhar in Cairo, has frozen all dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church over what it called Pope Benedict’s repeated insults towards Islam. Benedict this month condemned attacks on churches that killed dozens of people in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, saying they showed the need to adopt effective measures to protect religious minorities. (Photo: Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, July 13, 2006/Suhaib Salem)

His remarks followed a New Year bombing outside a church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria that left 23 people dead and dozens injured and prompted demonstrations by both Christians and Muslims against sectarian violence. The pope urged Christian communities to persevere in a non-violent manner in the face of what he described as “a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target”.

Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council “reviewed in an emergency meeting on Thursday the repeatedly insulting remarks issued by the Vatican Pope towards Islam and his statement that Muslims are discriminating against others who live with them in the Middle East,” al-Azhar said in a statement. “The council decided to freeze dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican for an indefinite period,” it added.

Pope: Governments must protect minority Christians

Pope Benedict called on Monday for Pakistan to repeal its anti-blasphemy law and demanded that governments in predominantly Muslim countries do much more to protect minority Christians from violent attacks.

Speaking in his annual address to diplomats days after a senior Pakistani politician who opposed the legislation was assassinated by his own bodyguard, the pope said the Pakistani law was a pretext for violence against religious minorities.

POPE-BLASPHEMY/

(Photo: Pope Benedict XVI attends an audience with Vatican-accredited diplomats at the Vatican, January 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Haj pilgrims flock to Mount Arafat to beg forgiveness

arafat 1 (Photo: Haj pilgrims at the Plains of Arafat, 15 Nov 2010/Mohammed Salem)

Millions of Muslims gathered around Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon, to beg for God’s forgiveness on Monday, the spiritual climax of the annual haj pilgrimage. Pilgrims flocked mostly on foot to Arafat, a rocky outcrop in a dusty plain a few kilometers away from Mecca, to pray until sunset. They set up tents where they could, squatted on the side of the road in shelters or stayed at the nearby Namira mosque.

A record of at least 2.5 million pilgrims have come to Saudi Arabia to perform this year’s haj, one of the world’s biggest displays of mass religious devotion. So far, the authorities have reported none of the major problems or disasters that marred the event in previous years, such as building collapses and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.

But the sheer number of pilgrims was still a worry for the Saudi government. Around 100,000 security forces have been deployed to the oversee the pilgrimage, security officials said.

A review of Christian-Muslim conflict and a modest proposal to counter it

conflict 1At a Christian-Muslim conference in Geneva this week, participants agreed to build a network for “peace teams” to intervene in crises where religious differences are invoked as the cause of the dispute. The idea is that religious differences may not be the real problem in a so-called religious conflict, but rather a means to mobilise the masses in a dispute that actually stems from political or economic rivalries. (Photo: Coffins of two of 52 killed in al-Qaeda-linked attack last Sunday on a Baghdad church, 2 Nov 2010/Thaier al-Sudani)

If outside experts could help disentangle religion from the other issues, the argument goes, that could help neutralise religion’s capacity to mobilise and inflame, in the hope of leading to a de-escalation of the crisis.

Is this idealistic? Maybe. However, given the number of crises throughout the world that have religion factored into the equation, it certainly seems worth the effort. Many of these conflicts are not simply battles between religious fanatics, as they may be presented, but calculated agitation by one group against another, usually for political or economic advantage. Some smokescreens are easy to see through, others almost impenetrable.

Christian-Muslim crisis response group to defuse religious tensions

wcc 1 (Photo: Christian and Muslim leaders at Nov 1-4, 2010 Geneva conference/WCC – Mark Beach)

Christian and Muslim leaders agreed on Thursday to set up “rapid deployment teams” to try to defuse tensions when their faiths are invoked by conflicting parties in flashpoints such as Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt or the Philippines. Meeting this week in Geneva, they agreed the world’s two biggest religions must take concrete steps to foster interfaith peace rather than let themselves be dragged into conflicts caused by political rivalries, oppression or injustice.

Among the organisations backing the plan were the World Council of Churches (WCC), which groups 349 different Christian churches around the world, and the Libyan-based World Islamic Call Society (WICS), a network with about 600 affiliated Muslim bodies. They would send Christian and Muslim experts to intervene on both sides in a religious conflict to calm tensions and clear up misunderstandings about the role of faith in the dispute.

“We call for the formation of a joint working group which can be mobilised whenever a crisis threatens to arise in which Christians and Muslims find themselves in conflict,” the leaders said in a statement after their four-day meeting.  “Religion is often invoked in conflict creation, even when other factors, such as unfair resource allocation, oppression, occupation and injustice, are the real roots of conflict. We must find ways to disengage religion from such roles and reengage it towards conflict resolution and compassionate justice,” said the statement issued in Geneva.

GUESTVIEW: Why stoning Sakineh is a mistake

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. This interview with Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim and Massimo Papa about Iran’s stoning sentence against Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani on charges of adultery was originally published in Oasis, a Venice-based magazine on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Martino Diez is director of research at the Oasis International Foundation. sakinehBy Martino Diez .

Professor Naim, what is your assessment of Sakineh’s case?
Officially, the authorities maintain this is a straightforward murder case. Although I have not followed the matter in detail, I think that the ambiguity of the versions produced throughout the years is suspicious and betrays the presence of political manipulation. This poor woman has ended up at the centre of a struggle between different underground factions. There are many cases similar to this. (Photo: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in an undated photo handout from Amnesty International)

About this charge, and especially the (momentarily suspended) sentence, the authorities have invoked Islamic legitimation. Sakineh’s case would be included in the hudùd category, which comprises crimes explicitly defined as such in the Koran itself: murder, adultery, theft, slander and alcohol consumption.