FaithWorld

TIME magazine lists its 10 top religion stories of 2008

TIME magazine has come out with its list of the 10 top religion stories of 2008. The winner is a story about how religion did not tip the balance in the U.S. presidential election. U.S. media often publish this kind of list at the end of the year. Are there similar lists out there from other countries? Please let us know if you see them elsewhere.

Here are TIME’s top 10:

1. The Economy Trumps Religion 2. Never Count the Mormons Out

3. The Pope Wows the States 4. The Canterbury non-Tale

5. America’s Unfaithful Faith

6. Tibet’s Monks Rebel

7. The Birth of the New Evangelicalism

8. The Challenge of Recession

9. When Kosher Wasn’t Kosher

10. Extraterrestrials May Already be Saved

GUESTVIEW: Mumbai violence brings New York faith groups together

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Matthew Weiner, the author, is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

When terror attacks like those in Mumbai occur, many people of faith want to stand together despite their differences to condemn them with one voice. Faith leaders in New York, having seen their own city targetted in 2001, quickly responded with a show of support for their sister city in India. Their news conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall on Monday was an example of how faith communities in the world’s most religiously diverse metropolis can join hands to speak out against such violence. (Photo: New York interfaith meeting, 1 Dec 2008/Edwin E. Bobrow)

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, senior vice-president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Mo Razvi, a Pakistani-American Muslim and community organizer, and the Interfaith Center of New York organized the meeting while Councilman John Liu got the green light to use City Hall as the venue. Potasnick worked through Thanksgiving weekend to make it happen and insisted on having representatives from every faith. “It is very important to condemn the attacks…but it is imperative we stand together with one voice,” he said.

Bishop sees slow progress on churches in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches on its territory is a thorny issue that loomed over the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting this week in Rome. Some Catholics say the question of religious freedom for minority faiths in Muslim countries is so important that the Vatican should insist on strict reciprocity in such interfaith talks.  (In photo: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opens in Doha on 15 March 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

However, more believe it is not a good idea to make the dialogue hostage to a single issue, so it did not become a dealbreaker here. It did get discussed in the closed-door talks, which delegates said were quite lively at times, and it was referred to in the final declaration. Cynics may say nothing was resolved, but there are interesting nuances that could lead to change.

The final declaration had this to say: “Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.” Having Muslim delegates sign up to a statement that non-Muslims should be able to worship publicly in Muslim majority countries, i.e. have their own churches, is an important step. This is clearly aimed at Saudi Arabia, where the rights of other faiths are most clearly limited. A Catholic delegate told me some Muslims did not like the final part about practising religion in private and public but their delegation head, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, reminded them that this passage could also help minority Muslims who want to build mosques in Western countries. This is an interesting example of how the globalisation of Islam is starting to influence the traditional Muslim world.

Dalai Lama gets almost top treatment in France

Dalai Lama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy at Lerab Ling temple in Roqueredonde, southern France, 22 August 2008/Philippe LaurensonSensitive about possibly upsetting Beijing, President Nicolas Sarkozy decided not to meet the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan spiritual leader’s current visit to France. But he sent an envoy who got just as much media coverage (if not more) than he would have — his wife. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (left), the pop singer and former supermodel Sarkozy married in February, attended the consecration of a Tibetan Buddhist temple in southern France on Friday. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Human Rights Minister Rama Yade and former prime minister Alain Juppé were also at the Lerab Ling temple, but French media made only fleeting references to their presence.

Read our report by correspondent Estelle Shirbon here.

Segolene Royal and Dalai Lama, 16 August 2008/poolEven before any comment came from China, France’s opposition Socialist Party criticised the meeting as “a serious slide into celebrity- mania (“peopolisation”) in political life” and rapped the two ministers for taking a secondary role at the ceremony. “They should have received the Dalai Lama in a secular and official setting,” a party spokesman said.

Not that the Socialists are opposed to meeting the Dalai Lama. In fact, former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal (above) held talks with him last week and said afterwards that she wanted to visit Tibet soon.

In Nepal, human rights apply to living goddesses too

A kumari at a Kathmandu festival, 26 July 2008/Shruti ShresthaWhenever God is mentioned in connection with human rights, the idea is usually that there are “God-given rights” bestowed on humans.

Nepal’s Supreme Court has turned this around by bestowing basic human rights such as education and healthcare on gods. Goddesses, to be more precise. It seems that kumaris , virgin girls venerated as “living goddesses” and confined to Buddhist temples until puberty, return to their families as teenagers unprepared for real life. Critics of the tradition filed a suit that led to the Supreme Court decision.

“A directive order has been issued to the government to provide basic human rights, including education and health (care) to the child,” Supreme Court spokesman Hemanta Rawal said. “This means the child’s rights can’t be violated in the name of culture.”

Telegram diplomacy, Vatican style

What do Albania, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,  Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have in common?
Their heads of state all received identical or nearly identical telegrams from Pope Benedict as his plane was flying over their countries on the way from Rome to Australia to preside at the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth.
sydney.jpgThe telegrams said “FLYING OVER (NAME OF COUNTRY) EN ROUTE TO AUSTRALIA FOR THE CELEBRATION OF WORLD YOUTH DAY, I SEND CORDIAL GREETINGS TO YOU AND TO ALL YOUR FELLOW-CITIZENS, ALONG WITH THE ASSURANCE OF MY PRAYERS THAT ALMIGHTY GOD WILL BLESS THE NATION WITH PEACE AND PROSPERITY. BENEDICTUS PP. XVI.
That was the version received by heads of state of countries whose majority of citizens practice one of the three monotheistic religions. The others, where other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced, received a slightly different version  in which the phrase “invoking divine blessings” replaced the phrase “that almighty God will bless the nation”. 
But one could not help but wonder why the telegrams were virtually identical (apart from the God/divine difference) even though the situation in the various countries hardly is.  Current events in Greece, for example, are hardly similar to those in Myanmar or Afghanistan.
When he flew over countries, the late Pope John Paul would sometimes tailor his telegrams to reflect the situation on the ground, even if only obliquely. So, when reporters aboard Benedict’s  plane were handed out 18 telegrams, some read them expecting, or hoping, that a  straightforward or diplomatically creative tea-leaves message might be found in those being beamed to hot spots such as Afghanistan, which is engulfed in war, Myanmar, which is still trying to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and whose human rights record has prompted concern by the international community, or Vietnam, with which the Vatican hopes to soon establish full diplomatic relations after decades of tensions.
Granted, telegrams are not the building blocks of any state’s diplomacy. But of all the countries that were flown over, the pope has only visited one (Turkey) and perhaps this is the closest he will come to most of the rest of them. 
And, a little old-style tea leaves reading would have helped reporters who clocked more than 20 hours of flying with the pope between Rome and Sydney kill a little time.
And maybe even have produced a story or two more.  

British Muslim TV channel to air inter-faith game show

Islam Channel logoThis could be very interesting … or maybe a flop. Islam Channel, a British Muslim TV channel broadcast on satellite and webcasts, plans to host a weekly religion quiz show called “Faith Off” from mid-June. It’s meant to promote better understanding among religions by pitting teams from different faiths against each other. As the Guardian‘s religion correspondent Riazat Butt put it, the show will pit “Jews against Muslims, Sikhs against Christians and Hindus against Buddhists, with contestants competing for cash prizes.” Sounds like an interesting idea, but I don’t know if it will make great TV.

Like all quiz shows, its success will depend on how well it’s presented, how interesting the questions are and how knowledgable the contestants are. But one of the recurring religion stories you see is the survey about how little many people know about their own religion. In fact, they’re hardly news anymore.

So I wonder how well contestants will do even with questions about their own faith, let alone anything dealing with another religion. And what about issues where there are differences of opinion within one religion? If the producers weed out all the difficult and contentious questions, is there enough left to make a lively and challenging show?

China’s Religious Character May Be Deeper Than Thought

china-2.jpgThe light being cast on China by the coming Summer Games is far brighter than the flickering Olympic flame now wending its way across that vast country. Politics, society, human rights, the status of Tibet and even the environment have been widely discussed.

china1.jpg 

Now a window has been opened on faith and religion in a country where six decades of Communist philosophy and rule might seem to have pushed those subjects into obscurity.

In a recent report the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has analyzed available surveys, some a few years old, and concluded that 31 percent of the Chinese population considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, with only 11 percent rating it as meaningless. Even the exact starting time of the Summer Olympics is rooted in Confucianism and Chinese folk religions,  the report adds, where the numeral 8 is revered for its luck and power. The games will start on the 8th day of the 8th month of ’08 at precisely 8 minutes and 8 seonds past 8 o’clock.

Pope breaks “silence” on Tibet with carefully worded appeal

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessings at the end of his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the VaticanAs readers of this blog will have noticed, I posted a note yesterday about calls by Italian intellectuals for Pope Benedict to break his supposed silence over Tibet. On Wednesday he did so at his weekly general audience, making a carefully worded appeal (here in Italian) for an end to the suffering of the people there.

Given the delicate nature of relations between the Vatican and China, the appeal seemed to strike a balance between his concern for the people and Vatican diplomacy. He mentioned the violence without mentioning China.

In fairness to the Pope, the accusations of “silence” made by some in Italy were perhaps, as was noted by his defenders in yesterday’s blog, a bit premature. Unless he is saying a Mass on a Church holy day or a similar occasion, the Pope only has set days in which he can make a public appeal that the Vatican believes is most effective — Sunday at the Angelus prayer from his window and Wednesday at the general audience.

Italians ask how long Pope can remain silent on Tibet

A demonstrator holds a placard against the Olympic Games in Beijing in front of the IOC headquarters in LausannePope Benedict is just about the only world leader not to have said anything about the events in Tibet. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in Italy, where some commentators have been urging him to speak out — and others have been defending him for not doing so.

A story in the March 18 edition of Corriere della Sera quoted Antonio Socci, a Catholic writer and intellectual, as calling the Pope’s silence “the latest error by the Secretariat of State headed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone“. In the same article, Giorgio Tonini, a member of the centre-left Democratic Party, said he was at first surprised that the Pope had not spoken out against the violence in Tibet during his Palm Sunday Mass. He said he later remembered reading a book by the the late Cardianl Agostino Casaroli, who was secretary of state for much of the reign of the late Pope John Paul. In the book, Casaroli spoke of the “martyrdom of patience” he had to go through when dealing with the communist countries of the former Soviet Bloc.

Not all commentators were critical. Andrea Riccardi, one of the founders of the Sant’ Egidio Community, said no one should expect the Vatican to “behave like a news agency” and react to every international crisis.Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during a Palm Sunday mass in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican Gian Maria Vian, editor-in-chief of the Vatican newspaper l’Osservatore Romano, defended the Vatican’s prudence and said it was “premature” to start a polemic. The Pope could speak out about Tibet in the coming days, perhaps at Wednesday’s general audience or one of the events during Holy Week, Vian said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Liberal.