FaithWorld

Islamic bloc drops 12-year U.N. drive to ban defamation of religion

(U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the high level segment of the 16th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, February 28, 2011. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud)

(U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva and urges it "to move beyond a decade-long debate over whether insults to religion should be banned or criminalised," February 28, 2011/Valentin Flauraud)

Islamic countries set aside their 12-year campaign to have religions protected from “defamation”, allowing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Genea to approve a plan to promote religious tolerance on Thursday. Western countries and their Latin American allies, strong opponents of the defamation concept, joined Muslim and African states in backing without vote the new approach that switches focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.

Since 1998, the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) had won majority approval in the council and at the United Nations General Assembly for a series of resolutions on “combating defamation of religion”. Critics said the concept ran against international law and free speech, and left the way open for tough “blasphemy” laws like those in Pakistan which have been invoked this year by the killers of two moderate politicians in Pakistan. They argued that it also allowed states where one religion predominates to keep religious minorities under tight control or even leave them open to forced conversion or oppression. bhatti funeral

(Funeral of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad March 4, 2011. Pakistani Taliban assassinated Bhatti, a Catholic, for urging the repeal of the blasphemy law/Faisal Mahmood)

But Pakistan, which speaks for the OIC in the rights council, had argued that such protection against defamation was essential to defend Islam, and other religions, against criticism that caused offence to ordinary believers. Islamic countries pointed to the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in Denmark in 2005, which sparked anti-Western violence in the Middle East and Asia, as examples of defamatory treatment of their faith that they wanted stopped. However, support for the fiercely-contested resolutions — which the OIC had been seeking to have transformed into official U.N. human rights standards — has declined in recent years.

Ethiopia’s religious divides flare up in Muslim attacks on Christians

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(A destroyed Protestant church in Asendabo, 300 km (200 miles) west of the capital Addis Ababa, March 16, 2011/stringer)

The hollow chants of “Allahu Akbar!” reverberating from a distance seemed innocuous at first for Abera Gutema, who ventured home quietly from his shop just a short distance away. Moments later, a large, angry mob of machete-wielding Muslim youths descended on his family’s dwelling and chased him out, before burning and looting his property.

Abera, a Christian, escaped through a back door, clutching his infant son Eyoel in one hand. By the time the smoke cleared, all that remained of his hard-earned belongings had been reduced to rubble, not to mention the theft of 100,000 birr — his lifetime savings.

Many Egyptian Christians voted ‘no’ on constitution, fearing Islamists

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(Pope Shenouda (L), head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, casts his vote during a national referendum, at a school in Cairo March 19, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Many Egyptian Christians say they voted to reject proposed constitutional amendments in a referendum on Saturday because they fear hasty elections to follow may open the door for Islamist groups to rise to power. It turned out they were in the minority — 77% of those voting supported the proposed changes.

Parliamentary elections should take place in late September followed by presidential elections in December, giving scant time for new parties to organise, including ones representing the aspirations of Christians. Foremost among these aspirations is the creation of a civil state where religion is not a basis for legislation.

Nigeria’s Muslim north risks growing sense of alienation

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(A motor rickshaw transporting Muslim women drives past a signboard promoting Islamic faith in Nigeria's northern city of Kano March 15, 2011/Joe Penny)

Standing on the dancefloor among shards of glass and splintered wood, Tony Baisie rues the day he agreed to help set up a nightclub in one of West Africa’s oldest Islamic cities. For more than 15 years this converted office on an industrial back street in Kano, northern Nigeria, was a thriving business. Customers — Christian and Muslim — would dance among its mirrored walls or shoot pool in the courtyard outside.

But three weeks ago, members of Hisbah — a uniformed Islamic squad set up by Kano’s state governor in 2003 to enforce sharia (Islamic law) — raided the club, smashing tables and chairs, and seizing its drinks stocks and sound systems. “They took me away and detained me overnight,” Baisie said. “Before they released me they made me sign an undertaking I would not sell alcohol or play music ever again in Kano.”

Nigeria’s Jonathan takes election campaign to Muslim north

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(Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan speaks at the launch of his presidential campaign in the central city of Lafia, Nassarawa state February 7, 2011/Afolabi Sotunde)

From Islamic police enforcing a ban on beer and prostitution to its centuries-old market and mosques, Nigeria’s northern city of Kano feels like a different country to the pulsating southern sprawl of Lagos. Its low-rise buildings and dusty tree-lined streets have more in common with the sleepy Sahelian cities of Niger or Chad than with Nigeria’s commercial hub, a city built on hustle and home to some of Africa’s largest companies and richest tycoons.

Securing support in this ancient city — the second most populous after Lagos — and other parts of Nigeria’s Muslim north will be key if President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, is to clinch victory in the first round of elections next month.

Egypt’s Grand Mufti prays with generals, urges Muslim-Christian unity

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(A rally to demonstrate unity between Muslims and Christians at Tahrir Square in Cairo March 11, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt’s problems will melt under “the sunshine of freedom”, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa said in a sermon attended by the ruling military council on Friday when thousands gathered across the country to condemn sectarian violence. He prayed for God to bestow strength on the military which has been governing Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was forced from power on Feb. 11 by an uprising demanding political reform and an end to autocratic rule.

Addressing the sectarian violence that broke out in Cairo this week, killing 13 people, Gomaa said attacks on Christians were un-Islamic. Thousands of Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, gathered after Friday prayers to call for unity and to condemn the arson attack that ignited the sectarian tension. Thirteen people were killed in clashes between Muslims in Christians in Cairo on Tuesday night after the arson attack on a church. Activists have described the violence as a threat to the revolution.

Egyptian Copts hold funeral after Christian-Muslim strife kills 13

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(Egyptian Coptic Christians gather for funeral of seven victims of sectarian clashes, at Samaan el-Kharaz Church in Cairo March 10, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Thousands of Egyptian Christians attended an emotional funeral service on Thursday for people killed in the worst Christian-Muslim violence since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power. Six coffins lay by a church altar during the ceremony, victims of the violence on Tuesday in which 13 people were killed and 140 wounded. A seventh coffin arrived later. Some held aloft signs with slogans that included: “No to sectarianism, no to murder,” and “Farewell to the martyrs of Christ.”

“We will sacrifice our souls and our blood for the cross,” a crowd of mourners chanted at the end of the service as they poured out of the Samaan al-Kharaz Church, built in a cave above the Cairo slum of Manshiet Nasr.  It was not clear how many of the dead from Tuesday’s violence were Christian and how many Muslim.

Istanbul celebrates carnival after nearly 70 years

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(Istanbul celebrates carnival, 7 March 2011/all photos by Jonathan Lewis)

Istanbul’s tiny Greek community has revived an all-but-extinct tradition by celebrating Bakla Horani, an evening of carousing at the end of carnival ahead of Lent. About 300 masked, painted and costumed revelers paraded on Monday through the streets of Istanbul’s Kurtulus district, known as Tatavla when it was home to Greeks decades ago.

The procession ended at a local hall where musicians performed rembetiko and cranked a laterna, a Greek mechanical piano. Partiers were served raki, the aniseed-flavoured spirit, and meze that featured beans. (Bakla Horani roughly translates as “eating beans,” referring to the austere Lenten diet that looms.)

For 500 years, Bakla Horani was celebrated in Istanbul, now a mainly Muslim city, and pre-Lenten street parties would run for weeks ahead of the 40-day period of self-denial Christians observe ahead of Easter. Lent began today, Ash Wednesday.

Grief-stricken Pakistani Christians bury slain cabinet minister

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(People gather near the casket of Pakistan's Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti after a funeral ceremony inside a church in Islamabad March 4, 2011/Faisal Mahmood)

Shouting “death for killers”, thousands of Pakistanis on Friday buried Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s only Christian government minister who was killed by Pakistani Taliban for challenging a law that stipulates death for insulting Islam. His assassination on Wednesday was the latest sign violent religious conservatism is becoming more mainstream in Pakistan, a trend which could further destabilise the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.

Bhatti, a Catholic, was the second senior official to be assassinated this year for opposing the blasphemy law. Provincial governor Salman Taseer was shot dead in January by one of his bodyguards.

Pakistan media warn of growing chaos after Christian minister slain

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(Christians protest in Hyderabad against the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, March 3, 2011/Akram Shahid )

Pakistan is being swept towards violent chaos by a growing wave of Islamist extremism, the country’s newspapers said a day after Taliban militants killed the country’s only Christian government minister. The assassination of Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti in broad daylight in the capital Islamabad on Wednesday threatens to further destabilise the nuclear-armed U.S. ally where secular-minded politicians are imperiled by a rising strain of violent religious conservatism in the society.

“Mr. Bhatti’s brutal assassination has once again highlighted the fact that we are fast turning into a violent society,” the liberal Daily Times said in its editorial. “This is not the time to be frightened into silence. It is time to implement the law and not surrender in front of extremists.”