FaithWorld

A list of Top 10 lists – “it was the election, stupid”

“Top 10 Stories” lists are a perennial feature,  especially in the United States (which explains a lot of the picks below). Now that they’re all out there, I took a quick look at the “Top 10 Religion Stories 2008″ lists to see if any pattern emerged. Of course one did: “It was the election, stupid.” Even a website dedicated to pagan news found a “pagans and politics” angle to top its list.

The Religion Newswriters Association, which polls member religion reporters, has been drawing up such lists for about 30 years. Election-related stories swept the top three slots last year. They did the same in 2004 as well, but the election shared the top spot back then with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie. The election-dominated lists show some divergences, but the most interesting compilations were the more specialised ones down in the second list below.

Here’s a quick list of the Top 10 lists, first those dominated by the U.S. election and then others I actually found more interesting: Religion Newswriters Association Top 10 Religion Stories – Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright
Christianity Today’s Top 10 News Stories – Democrats woo evangelical voters
TIME Magazine’s Top 10 Religion Stories – Economy trumps religion in U.S. election
Baptist Press Top 10 list – Obama elected president
Top 10 Religion Stories Impacting Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in 2008 – Sarah Palin Crosswalk’s Top 10 Christian News Stories – Rick Warren’s Civic Forum
Church & State Magazine’s Top 10 list – the role of religion in the U.S. campaign
Michael Paulson 10 reflections on 2008 – U.S. election dominates the year Top 10 Pagan Stories of 2008 (1-5, 6-10) – rise in news about pagans and politics - John Allen’s Top 10 Neglected Catholic Stories – Crisis in India
Juan Cole’s Top 10 Good News stories in the Muslim world – Pakistani lawyers’ protests
Christianity Today’s Top 10 Theology Stories – Publishers make 2008 the “Year of the Study Bible” The top 10 good news stories of 2008 from altmuslim – Obama wins, Islamophobia loses Progressive Revival blog on 10 Worst Religion Stories – faiths fail to stop world hunger - Google hasn’t been very helpful finding Top 10 lists from outside the U.S. Do you have any from other countries with a different take on what the most important stories were?

Strains grow in Malaysia as Muslims reassert majority status

(Photo: A Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur, 7 Feb 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

Malaysia prides itself on its multicultural heritage, and rightly so. The Southeast Asian nation of around 27 million people is one of the few countries in the world where so many races and religions live together in peace and stability.

Having arrived in July from Hungary, an ex-communist country that has one of the least diverse ethnic makeups in the world, I can attest it is a truly amazing cultural experience and one of which the country should be proud.

After four years of seeing nothing but look-alike Hungarian baroque churches, I now find Hindu and Buddhist temples nestled side-by-side in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A whitewashed Protestant church sits on a square where the country’s independence from Britain was proclaimed. There is a mosque near where I live and the evening call to prayer is still a sound that thrills and intrigues. When you see and hear all that, it is easy to believe the public face of the country.

Collateral damage from French headscarf law continues

When French President Jacques Chirac ‘s government wanted to ban Muslim headscarves in state schools back in 2004, it had to find a way to (1) make the ban look fair and (2) avoid a backlash from the majority Catholic electorate.  A ban had to target all religions, but couldn’t be absolute because that could violate international rights norms. It also risked alienating some Catholic voters because because many Catholic girls wore necklaces with small gold crosses. So Paris came up with a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” that would bar  Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That only bishops actually wore large crosses did not seem to matter. (Photo: Sikhs in France protest against turban ban, 31 Jan 2004/Charles Platiau)

In the haste to pass and apply the law, the government overlooked a religious group that would also be hit by the new restrictions — the Sikhs. There are about 10,000 of them, mostly living in the Paris area, easily identifiable by the distinctive turbans the men wear. When local Sikh community leaders and Sikh activists from London protested that a turban is not a religious symbol, they were given a polite hearing and ignored. The Sikhs said the turban was simply a practical way of covering the real religious symbol, their uncut hair, so taking it off would expose the religious symbol the ban was meant to bar from state schools. It was a clever argument — one that, as the cynical French quip puts it, had the additional merit of being true — but the government was not going to allow any exceptions that could leave a back door open for Muslim girls to squeeze some kind of  headscarf through.

The uproar over the ban has long since calmed down, but the Sikhs continue to campaign to overturn it. A group called United Sikhs asked a U.N. human rights committee on Monday to declare that France had violated a student’s rights by expelling him for wearing a turban and to recommend repealing the law that led to it.

Christian missionaries stir unease in north Africa

“A new breed of undercover Christian missionary is turning to Muslim north Africa in the search for new converts, alarming Islamic leaders who say they prey on the weak and threaten public order,” writes our Rabat correspondent Tom Pfeiffer. (Photo: Foreign Christians worship at Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Rabat, 12 Nov 2008/Rafael Marchante)

His feature (read it here) says missionary groups estimate the number of Moroccan Christians has grown to 1,500 from 100 in a decade and that Algerian Christians number several thousand, although no official figures exist. It quotes Moroccan converts from Islam who fear persecution,  an American missionary who works undercover, Muslim officials who denounce this evangelising and local Roman Catholic bishop who will not baptise Moroccans because it’s against the law.

The growth of evangelical missionary work in Muslim countries in recent years presents a dilemma for Christians.  Jesus told his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” and these missionaries are doing that. But in the process, at least some are endangering the lives of their converts, breaking local laws and creating tensions that can lead to a backlash against all Christians, including long-established local churches who have come to a modus operandi with Muslim authorities.

Graves desecrated often in France, mostly Christian

If you go by what’s reported in the media (including by us), you’d think cemetery desecrations in France like the big one last weekend happen occasionally and target mostly Jewish and Muslim graves. Those are the cases the police report and we write about. A report by two parliamentary deputies, however, has taken an overall look at the problem nationwide and come up with some unexpected conclusions.

First, there are far more cemetery desecrations than we knew about. They happen on an average of every two to three days!  There were 144 last year and 110 up until Sept. 1 this year. And most of them target Christian — which in France would mean overwhelmingly Catholic — graves. Most desecrations are vandalism by teenagers, with only a small minority prompted by the racism, anti-Semitism or satanic cult practices normally highlighted in the media, the report said. The news story on this by our parliamentary correspondent Emile Picy is here. (Photo: Police inspect desecrated graves in France, 8 Dec 2008/Pascal Rossignol)

The report is not aimed at playing down the gravity of attacks on Muslim and Jewish graves, but rather to get an overall idea of the problem in order to suggest possible remedies. It lists some obvious ideas like better surveillance of cemeteries and better use of existing punishment. What I found the most interesting was their discussion of the waning respect for the dead. The title of the report highlights this — “Du respect des morts à la mort du respect?” (“From respect for the dead to the death of respect?”)

The irrelevant and the interesting in Obama’s religious views

There’s been a lot of discussion over the past few months on this and other blogs about Barack Obama and religion. Looking back at it now that the campaign is over and he is starting to shape his administration, it’s interesting to see how many of those discussions shed little light on what he would actually do. There were comments about him being a hidden Muslim, for example, or not a real Christian. That speculation seemed based on thin evidence and the assumption he was running for preacher and cleric-in-chief rather than president and commander-in-chief. As a journalist covering religion in public life, after learning whether a candidate professes a certain faith, I want to know how that faith will really influence his or her decisions in office. This is not necessarily the same as listing the soundbite positions used on the campaign trail. (Photo: Barack Obama at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, 15 June 2008/John Gress)

Seen from this point of view, probably the most interesting fact about Barack Obama’s religious views is one that rarely gets mentioned. It’s that he’s an admirer of the late American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). The President-elect has clearly named “America’s leading public theologian” as a major influence on his thinking. It comes out less in specific positions than in the way he looks at problems and discusses policies in terms with a ”Niebuhrian” ring about them.

In April 2007, Obama told David Brooks of the New York Times that Niebuhr was one of his favourite thinkers.  So I asked, What do you take away from him? Brooks asked:

Tough times empty the collection plate

For many churches, synagogues and mosques in the United States, this holiday season will be a lean one.

The outpouring of contributions usually prompted by festive goodwill and end-of-the-year giving geared to next year’s income tax calculations is feeling the pinch from the global financial meltdown. The shortfalls are startling. (Photo: Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Chicago, 10 April, 2008/John Gress)

“The giving patterns we’re witnessing suggest that churches, alone, will receive some $3 billion to $5 billion less than expected during this fourth quarter. The average church can expect to see its revenues dip about 4 percent to 6 percent lower than would have been expected without the economic turmoil. We anticipate that other non-profit organizations will be hit even harder.”

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.

Did climate change stoke past religious persecution?

A thought-provoking new book on Christianity’s “lost history” holds that one of the central causes of 14th century religious persecution may well have been climate change. You can read my interview with author Philip Jenkins about “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — and How It Died” on the Reuters website here.

“The Chronology of Christian sufferings under Islam closely mirrors that of Jews in Christian states,” he writes, noting that “Around 1300, the world was changing, and definitely for the worse.”

If we seek a common factor that might explain this simultaneous scapegoating of vulnerable minorities, by far the best candidate is climate change, which was responsible for many economic changes in these years, and increased poverty and desperation across the globe.”

Saudi offer for Moscow mosque, Orthodox call for church in Arabia

A Saudi offer to build a large mosque in Moscow has prompted Russian Orthodox organisations to ask for permission to build an Orthodox church in Saudi Arabia. Several western Christian churches have asked for or suggested such reciprocity with Saudi Arabia, which funds mosques abroad but bans any religion but Islam at home. It’s an issue that can only become more pressing if King Abdullah continues to preach interfaith dialogue and tolerance around the globe while not practicing it at home.

The Russian Muftis Council announced the Saudi offer to fund a mosque last week, promting an open letter to King Abdullah a few days later by what Interfax news agency called Orthodox public organisations. It didn’t come from the Russian Orthodox Church itself, but watch this space. The Russians have become increasingly active on the world religious scene as they emerge from the communist era and it would not be surprising to see them take a position on this question as well. There is probably also a domestic angle to this. Islam is the second largest religion in Russia and growing, so the Orthodox Church might feel a bit of competition. (Photo: St. Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square, 27 Jan 2007/Denis Sinyakov)

“You often say that Islam is a religion of justice. However, if Saudi Arabia builds mosques in dozens of Christian countries, isn’t it just to build a church for Christians living in Your Kingdom!” says the letter quoted by Interfax. “It would be just to create the same conditions for Saudi Christians as Muslims have in Russia … It is the only way to make interreligious dialogue honest and just.”