FaithWorld

Blair – religion to be as important as 20th century ideologies

Tony Blair with a model of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, 11 Dec 2007/pool“Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century,” Tony Blair said on Thursday in a statement before Friday’s launch in New York of his new Faith Foundation to improve understanding between different religions and fight global poverty by mobilizing people through faith.

Blair is not the first person to talk about how important religion is and will be in the 21st century. Decades ago, the late French writer André Malraux reportedly went so far as to issue a wonderfully Gallic sweeping statement: “The 21st century will be religious or it will not be.”

Even if British understatement isn’t what it used to be, Blair’s comment is really quite bold. The main political ideologies of the 20th century were communism, Nazism and fascism. They rallied huge masses of people, justified totalitarian regimes and imposed skewed views of the world on whole populations. When communism collapsed across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall, millions of people felt that they had been liberated.

I’m sure Blair doesn’t mean to evoke this negative aspect of the political ideologies that gripped the 20th century. He’s clearly thinking of the positive power of faith, as he explains in this interview in Time. Isn’t it clumsy, then, to compare religion to the ideologies of the 20th century?

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.

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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.

Can China and the Vatican make beautiful music together?

World Team Table Tennis Championships in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, 2 March 2008/Bobby YipRemember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.

But the Vatican does not have a ping-pong team, as far as we know. So, the next best thing appears to be music. This week, Vatican Radio made a surprise announcement on its daily 2 p.m. bulletin. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem for Pope Benedict on May 7 in the Vatican’s audience hall, adding a stop to its already scheduled European tour.

Pope Benedict at a recent concert in his honor in the Vatian audience hallAs one diplomat said, “this could not have happened without the Beijing government approving it.” Given the fact that relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been scratchy to say the least, one can only wonder if this is the start of a mating game. It could lead to diplomatic relations and China’s recognition of the pope as leader of all Catholics in the world, including Chinese Catholics, many of whom have been forced to join the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

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.

Lutheran pastor who helped topple East German communism to retire

Leipzig protest march on October 9, 1989The peaceful revolution that toppled East German communism had roots going back to a prayer. The weekly peace prayer meetings started in 1982 in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche (Church of St. Nicholas) became a rallying point for dissidents later in the decade. By September 1989, participants leaving the church defied the Stasi and arrest threats to march publicly against the government. On October 9, the protesters feared a “Chinese solution” — i.e. a bloodbath like the one in Beijing the previous summer — but marched anyway out of the Lutheran church and around the city. When the massed security forces did not fire on the marchers, who by then numbered 70,000, the protest movement began to lose its fear. The opening of the Berlin Wall followed only a few weeks later.

Christian Führer has just told the New York Times he will step down in March as pastor of the Nikolaikirche when he reaches 65. Führer was a co-organiser of the peace prayers during the 1980s and the protest marches in 1989. He was also a courageous source for us journalists trying to cover the protests there in September and October of that year. The Stasi had closed Leipzig off to foreign reporters and would turn us away on the autobahn before we could even reach the city. Führer took calls from our East Berlin office on his crackling (and bugged) phone line and kept us informed of the growing numbers of participants at his prayer services, the arrests outside his church and the marchers who succeeded in protesting publicly.

Christian Führer, 2 May 2006/Fabrizio BenschLeipzig opened up after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, but plainclothes Stasi agents still haunted the meetings and marches. Courage outweighed fear at a prayer service I attended early that December, but Führer still ended it with an appeal to the participants not to let themselves be provoked into violence. They streamed out and marched around the city, calling for reunification with West Germany.

Fact and fiction mix in Paris Pope John Paul II spectacular

If a novelist twists historical facts to fit a plot, we can accept it as poetic license. When Dan Brown has the dashing “symbologist” Robert Langdon race to the American Embassy in the wrong part of Paris, we might shrug and say it’s a mistake but The Da Vinci Code is a thriller anyway. But what should we say when a major theatre production mixes fact and fiction in the life of the late Pope John Paul II so much that it misrepresents history? Is that just a little white lie? Or maybe something more?

This has been on my mind since seeing “N’Ayez Pas Peur” (Be Not Afraid) a few days ago. This latest spectacular by the French impresario Robert Hossein is a theater version of the life of the Polish pope. It opened in late September in Paris and will run until early November. Spread out across the wide stage of the Palais des Sports, the play sweeps through the eventful life of Karol Wojtyla at a quick and entertaining pace. We see him as a forced labourer in Nazi-occupied Poland, a young priest out hiking with students, at his election as pope and then on his many journeys around the world.

Hossein is a veteran showman, with two shows on the life of Jesus and one each on Ben Hur and Charles de Gaulle to his credit. Some of the scenes are wonderful. There’s a re-enactment of the 1978 conclave where Hossein takes some liberties with the rituals. On the stage, some cardinals stand up and give speeches for Wojtyla, something that is strictly banned under Vatican rules. But Hossein makes up for it by using a huge reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel as the stage backdrop.