FaithWorld

Will the Nobel Peace Prize go to a religious leader this year?

nobel-ceremony (Photo: Nobel Peace Prize 2008 award ceremony, 10 Dec 2008/Ints Kalnins)

The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo. What are the odds that a religious leader will win? I checked with our bureau in Oslo for the latest buzz.

“The Peace Nobel is basically a guessing game,” chief correspondent Wojciech Moskwa warned. A total of 205 individuals and organisations were nominated this year and a record number remained on the secret short list late last month, he learned in an interview with Geir Lundestad, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, French-Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do and various U.N. organisations have gained traction as possible nominees, but Lundestad firmly declined to comment on the speculation.

prio-logoBy contrast, the independent International Peace Research Institute (PRIO) in Oslo publishes its own picks and it named Colombian peace activist Piedad Cordoba, Jordanian interfaith dialogue pioneer Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal and Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar as its favourites. “PRIO does not appear to have any special inside track, but they have on occasion been right,” said Moskwa.

Readers of this blog will recognise the name of Prince Ghazi, author of the interfaith dialogue manifesto “A Common Word Between Us And You.” That document, initially signed by 138 Muslim scholars and addressed to the leaders of all main Christian churches around the world, marked a fresh approach in interfaith dialogue by stressing two common core principles in Islam and Christianity. As the group says on its website: “Simply put, it is about the Two Golden Commandments: Love of God and Love of Neighbor, and it is an invitation to join hands with Christians on such a basis, for the sake of God and for the sake of world peace and harmony.” In an unusual departure, the document based its argument on quotes from both the Bible and the Koran, opening a new path for the world’s two largest faiths to communicate with each other.

Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of the Common Word initiative, 29 July 2008/Tom HeneghanThe Common Word group, by now expanded to 305 signatories, has held several conferences with Christian leaders and theologians to explore this new path. One is taking place this week at Georgetown University in Washington. Perhaps the most notable example of its influence was the way Pope Benedict spoke about Islam during his visit to the Middle East last May. His 2006 Regensburg speech, which implied Islam was a violent and irrational faith, so upset and angered the Muslim world that 38 Muslim scholars addressed an initial letter to him in October 2006 correcting some misinterpretations and requesting a dialogue. When no response came from the Vatican, they issued the Common Word document in October 2007 with 138 signatories. They held a successful conference with the Vatican in November 2008 and, in May 2009, Pope Benedict essentially embraced their approach and used their arguments in appealing for more Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Vietnam’s not-so-simple eviction of Buddhist monks and nuns

thichA government-backed mob in Vietnam about a week ago booted nearly 400 Buddhist monks and nuns out of a monastery in the centre of the country, bringing an apparent end to an ugly standoff with complicated origins. The incident has raised questions about the ruling Communist Party’s commitment to progress on religious freedom, but the Bat Nha Monastery narrative is much more complex than simply an “authoritarian government cracks down on the faithful” story. (Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh at Non Nuoc pagoda north of Hanoi, 20 April 2007/Nguyen Huy Kham)

Some of the basic facts seem pretty straightforward. For nearly three years, the monks and nuns had lived at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, largely with the blessing of the local authorities via cooperation with local Buddhists, after their leader, the Vietnamese-born, French-based Buddhist zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, visited Vietnam in 2005 for the first time in 39 years. Last year, the local authorities started to put pressure on the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village school of Buddhism. In late June of this year, electricity, water and phone services to the monastery were cut and a mob attacked the group to try to evict them, but they refused to leave. In July, a smaller mob attempted another attack. The government set Sept. 2 as a deadline for them to leave, but that date came and went. monksThen, on Sunday, Sept 27, the group’s overseas adherents reported that “an unidentified mob” of about 150 people, believed to include plain clothes policemen, violently evicted the 379 resident monastic followers of Thich Nhat Hanh. (Photo: Monks pray at Dong Pagoda northeast of Hanoi, 26 Nov 2008/Nguyen Huy Kham)

The central government’s line has been that local Buddhists wanted Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers out of their monastery and the government had nothing to do with it. Asked about the incident, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said in a statement it was “an internal issue between two groups of people following Buddhism at Bat Nha monastery. The dispute was non-violent, nobody was injured or detained.”

Buddhist Bhutan warns felling trees a threat to happiness

prayer-flags

Bhutan has warned its citizens over cutting down thousands of young trees every year to make prayer flags, a threat to the tiny kingdom’s lush scenery and the government’s duty to bring “Gross National Happiness”.

Himalayan Buddhists put up prayer flags for good luck or to help the dead find the right path to their next life. The more flag poles put up for the departed the better, and Buddhist monks say fresh poles must be used each time.

Having failed to convince its citizens to switch from wood to steel for prayer flags, the government of the Himalayas’ last Buddhist kingdom is growing bamboo, which it hopes will be an attractive alternative.

GUESTVIEW: Buddhist peace lanterns on Hudson to mark 9/11

lanterns-hudson (Photo: Lanterns floating on the Hudson, 11 Sept 2007)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Matthew Weiner

Everyone has a September 11th story, especially those living in New York, and just about every religious community has a way of commemorating it. Most religious leaders include the topic in their weekly sermons. Others hold prayer services on the day itself. Do different religions do so differently?

Some Buddhists do. On Friday, September 11th, Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a Japanese Buddhist priest, hosts his annual Lantern Lighting Ceremony at Pier 40 on the Hudson River. He has done so every year on the day of anniversary. Hundreds of people attend- many of them Buddhists, but mostly they are just New Yorkers who have made this the way that they pass the evening of 9/11 as the sun sets.

How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

how-god-changes-your-brainSome book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg‘s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

bootcampheaderNeurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

martha-head-shot1After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.

Turkish TV gameshow looks to convert atheists

game-showGiven the popularity of glitzy television gameshows of all sorts, it was probably inevitable that some secular channel somewhere one would come up with one about religion. Turkey’s Kanal T television station now has.

Its show, entitled “Penitents Compete,” will bring together spiritual guides from Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism who try to convert a group of non-believers. Those who get religion win a pilgrimage to a holy site of the faith they’ve chosen — Mecca for Muslims, the Vatican for Christians, Jerusalem for Jews and Tibet for Buddhists.

But the show, due to debut in September, has run into some unexpected trouble. The religious authorities in Muslim but secular Turkey have refused to provide an imam for the show, which they say will cheapen religion. Read the whole story here.

How to win hearts and minds in Thailand’s Muslim south?

THAILAND-SOUTH/More than five years after a Muslim insurgency erupted in southern Thailand, the conflict remains shrouded in mystery, with no credible claims of responsibility for the bloodshed in a once independent Malay Muslim land with a history of rebellion to Buddhist Thai rule.

On June 8, gunmen burst into a mosque and killed 10 people as they prayed. Thailand blamed separatist insurgents for the bloodiest attack this year in the mainly Muslim region bordering Malaysia where nearly 3,500 people have died in violence since 2004. But the head of the world’s biggest Islamic body urged Thailand to protest its Muslim minority after local residents put the blame on military-backed elements. (Photo: Thai Muslims pray at a funeral after the mosque attack, 9 June 9 2009/Surapan Boonthanom)

Reuters correspondent Martin Petty toured the area last week in the wake of the attacks. He talked to a woman who narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullet in Yala.  She said she doesn’t know who wanted her dead or why. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra blamed mafia-style smuggling gangs for the violence, but security analysts believe homegrown separatist groups — with little or no ties to al Qaeda or other regional militant networks — are behind the violence.

World religious leaders hold their own G8 summit

laquila-church (Photo: L’Aquila’s Santa Maria of Collemaggio Basilica, 13 April 2009/Daniele La Monaca)

They came, they prayed, they appealed.

Religious leaders from around the world held their own not-so-mini “G8 summit” in Italy on June 16-17. The “Fourth Summit of Religious Leaders on the occasion of the G8,” as the meeting was officially called,   started with a visit to L’Aquila, the central Italian city severely damaged by an earthquake on April 6. That will be the venue in July of the actual summit of the G8 club of industrial nations.

Nearly 130 religious leaders and diplomats then moved to Rome where they held two days of talks under the auspices of the Italian foreign ministry. This was the religious leaders’ fourth annual meeting, following those held in conjunction with earlier G8 summits in Moscow, Cologne and Sapporo.

Malaysia trying to find its religious equilibrium

MALAYSIA/ Multicultural Malaysia, whose official religion is Islam but which has sizeable numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, has been struggling of late to ensure religious freedoms for its minorities, without offending the sensibilities of majority Muslims.

In the latest case, a Malaysian court granted permission to a Christian to challenge the authorities for seizing religious materials that used the word “Allah”. The government has banned the use of the Arabic word to describe God by all except for Muslims, saying it might confuse Muslims or offend their sensisibilities. (Photo: A Hindu pilgrim outside Kuala Lumpur, 8 Feb 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)

The Catholic Herald, Malaysia’s main Catholic newspaper, has been fighting the government for months over the right to use the word “Allah”. Herald Editor Rev. Lawrence Andrew argues that Malaysian Christians have used “Allah” as their term for God for centuries. In a recent edition, the Herald slammed a new locally produced Bible, which further muddied these troubled waters by using the Hebrew word “Elohim” instead of “Allah” (or God for that matter) for the Almighty.