FaithWorld

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

The council’s rulings, and other religious controversies, might at first blush seem to indicate a growing strain of conservative Islam in mostly Muslim Malaysia. But it could also
reflect the growing unease of Islamic authorities in defending the faith in a rapidly modernising Malaysia where non-Muslims constitute 40 percent of the population and are increasingly
asserting their rights.

The yoga fatwa stirred up a hornet’s next, not only in the blogosphere where that could be expected, but in another deeply conservative Malaysian institution — the sultans.  Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who presides ceremonially over the central state of Selangor, said Abdul’s fatwa council should have consulted the nine hereditary Malay rulers who take turns being Malaysia’s king before announcing the ruling.  The highly unusual comment from one of the sultans on a
policy matter suggests some discord about who speaks for Malaysia’s Muslims on matters of faith. Islam is the official religion in multi-religious Malaysia and the constitution designates the nine sultans as guardians of the faith. The (rotating) king is the head of Islam in Malaysia.

Catholic-Muslim Forum ends on upbeat note

The Catholic-Muslim Forum ended on Thursday evening on an upbeat note. After two days of closed-door talks and an audience with Pope Benedict, the delegations held their only public session of the conference (right) to present a joint communique and answer some questions.The final declaration (full text here) had a series of interesting points that show progress in the dialogue among the experts involved. They will need some unpacking in the real world before we know how much real progress has been made. Here are some of the points with some quick observations in italics:

    2. Human life is a most precious gift of God to each person. It should therefore be preserved and honoured in all its stages. (interesting common pro-life slant here. Any joint initiatives coming up here?) 3. Human dignity is derived from the fact that every human person is created by a loving God out of love … he or she is entitled to full recognition of his or her identity and freedom by individuals, communities and governments, supported by civil legislation that assures equal rights and full citizenship. (this means support for minorities, whether they’re Christians in Muslim countries or Muslim minorities in the West, on the basis of both faiths and not just secular notions that can be contested as foreign to a certain culture) 4. We affirm that God’s creation of humanity has two great aspects: the male and the female human person, and we commit ourselves jointly to ensuring that human dignity and respect are extended on an equal basis to both men and women. (that’s pretty clear) 5. 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. (no mention here of conversion in Muslim countries) 6. Religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices. They are also entitled to their own places of worship, and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule. (this refers in the same sentence to the Catholic concern for churches in Muslim countries and the Muslim concern about caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. Any linkage there? ) 8. We affirm that no religion and its followers should be excluded from society. Each should be able to make its indispensable contribution to the good of society, especially in service to the most needy. (this one also cuts both ways, like item 3) 10. We are convinced that Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions. (that education aspect will be important) 11. We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principle of justice for all. (Western critics often say Muslims don’t denounce terrorism enough, even though many do that they don’t notice. Could this boost that visibility?) 14. We have agreed to explore the possibility of establishing a permanent Catholic-Muslim committee to coordinate responses to conflicts and other emergency situations and of organizing a second seminar in a Muslim-majority country yet to be determined. (this is the crisis management option I mentioned a few days ago)

The final session was actually quite strained, with testy questions and answers, which led some journalists to ask whether the positive signals we’d been getting did not really reflect the mood in the private talks. Several participants, including senior Muslim delegate Seyyed Hossein Nasr who was in the middle of it all, denied that was the case. As all present could see, the strains emerged when Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, the desk officer for Islam in the Vatican’s interfaith department who was moderating the session, tried to stop Nasr from answering questions put to him. Another curious decision was to let a relatively low-ranking delegate, a lay professor from Paris named Joseph Maila, answer questions for the Catholic delegation rather than delegation head Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran or another senior Vatican official.More on this later…

Hindu nationalist politics fuels anti-Christian campaign in India

Christians at New Delhi protest against Orissa violence, 2 Oct 2008/Vijay MathurOne of the weakest responses when someone reads about religious strife in a developing country is to mutter something about “ancient enmities” or “religion is the root of all evil” and turn to the next story. It takes only a little scratching beneath the surface to find there are often clear present- day political motives behind the violence and religion is being used as a pretext to help press one group’s claims.

Alistair Scrutton from our New Delhi bureau has just done a bit of that scratching in Orissa, where at least 35 people — mostly Christians — have died in religious strife since late August, and he got a very direct response. Look at how his analysis “Religious card being played in India election game” starts off:

“Asked when he thought attacks by Hindu mobs against Christians would end in this remote part of eastern India, local Christian leader Ranjit Nayak replied immediately, and with a resigned smile. “March,” Nayak said, referring to a general election due in early 2009. “This is all totally politically motivated.”

Christians flee, leaders deplore religious violence in India

Car burns in church compound in Kandhamal district of Orissa, 26 August 2008/Stringer IndiaRaphael Cheenath, the Roman Catholic archbishop in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, calls the religious violence there “ethnic cleansing of Christians.” Pope Benedict, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Italian government have all called for an end to the killings in the eastern state. The death toll is now 13 and possibly up to 10,000 people — mostly Christians — have sought shelter in makeshift refugee camps. More than a dozen churches have been burned. Catholic schools across India closed in protest on Friday. Local officials say the week-long violence may be waning, but this remains to be seen.

The criticism from outside the state hinted the critics believed authorities in the state had not done enough to halt the violence. No names are named, but anyone who knows Indian politics can connect the dots. The violence by Hindu mobs broke out after a Hindu leader in Orissa, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, was killed. The state is run by a coalition which includes the main Hindu nationalist opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), so suspicions immediately fall on a party that has also been already accused of turning a blind eye to the deaths of about 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The BJP’s Lal Krishna Advani, head of the opposition in the Indian parliament, has said Maoists were suspected of the killings.

Fire at Christian orphanage in Bargah, Orissa state, 26 August 2008/Reuters TVAs our correspondent Jatindra Dash in the Orissa state capital Bhubaneswar wrote: Most of India’s billion-plus citizens are Hindu and about 2.5 percent are Christians. In the Kandhamal area, more than 20 percent of the 650,000 people are mainly tribal inhabitants who converted to Christianity. Religious violence has troubled the tribal regions of Orissa for years, with Hindus and Christians fighting over conversions. While Hindu groups accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith, the Christians say lower-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape a complex Hindu caste system.

Bush soon a Catholic? Fantasy, speculation, wishful praying?

U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair often saw eye to eye politically. Are they about to see eye to eye religiously?

Pope Benedict XVI chats with U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush in the Oval Office at the White House in WashingtonBlair, a life-long Anglican, converted to Catholicism in December after he left office in June. The Italian weekly magazine Panorama is reporting in its latest edition that Bush, a Methodist, may follow his political soul-mate and also convert to Catholicism after he leaves office next year.

To be honest, the odds of this happening appear as good as those of the proverbial snowball in hell. In fact, the Panorama article starts with two sentences saying this “might” happen and the rest of the article is background.

Allam baptism makes more waves, prompts more questions

The Magdi Allam baptism and debate about Catholic-Muslim relations in its aftermath continue to make waves. Here are a few interesting points that have come up in recent days:

    Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliAt www.chiesa, a well-informed multi-lingual blog on the Roman Catholic Church, vaticanista Sandro Magister says the Vatican is more interested in an inter-faith dialogue proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah than the one it has just begun with the Common Word group of 138 (plus) Muslim scholars. Magister notes that L’Osservatore Romano published stories on “two instances of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, demonstrating how this dialogue is showing promising developments precisely during the days of the controversy over the baptism of Allam, administered by the pope.” He adds: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In the judgment of the Church of Rome, the dialogue with Islam is not limited to the follow-up to the letter of the 138 – one of whose leading exponents, Aref Ali Nayed, has directed extremely harsh criticism against the pope for having baptized Allam – but is developed in multiple areas, some of which it believes are more promising than others.”
    Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewOur Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond, looking at Abdullah’s call, wrote in an analysis,“the king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a well-intended reformer whose plans for change have largely been foiled by hardline clerics and their allies within the Saudi royal family.” One glaring example of this disconnect came recently in the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that has refused to support efforts by many Islamic countries to have the United Nations draw up a global pact on respecting religions and their symbols. This pact is one of the top diplomatic goals for many Muslim countries these days, including Saudi Arabia. One of the main supporters of this pact is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which is based in and heavily financed by … Saudi Arabia!
    That same www.chiesa post cited above included a long analysis by Pietro De Marco, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. In it, he rejects in detail the criticism Sandro Magisterexpressed by the leading Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed and offers an interpretation of the baptism as Pope Benedict offering to help Islam to “seize the opportunity to exit critically from itself, to open itself to the dimension of the universal and to come back to itself as a reflectively renewed Islam.” This sounds like the invitation to dialogue that Pope Benedict offered in the Regensburg speech better known for his controversial use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote criticising Islam.
    Magister’s point about Catholic-Muslim dialogue proceeding on several fronts is interesting, even if we’re not so sure Abdullah’s proposals will get anywhere. The fact the Vatican is still pursuing the Common Word option was made clear in the reply that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi gave to Nayed’s criticism. Check out the full text to see an excellent example of how to reject criticism yet keep all doors open to further dialogue.
    Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, the Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam, has a long analysis on Asianews.it of Allam’s conversion. In it, he notes that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions and adds: “The pope’s baptism of Magdi Allam is not an act of aggression, but an exigency of reciprocity. It is a calm provocation that serves to make us sit up and think. Each one of us must live as a missionary, attempting to offer to the other the best of what one has encountered and understood.”
    The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen interpreted Pope Benedict’s John Allenmessage as follows: (1) For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, receiving a high-profile convert during the Easter Vigil is a symbolic way of making the point, (2) Allam’s baptism can also be read as a statement of solidarity with Muslim converts to Christianity around the world and (3) the episode illustrates an important wrinkle to Benedict’s personality — stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness. Read more here.
    Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliThere have been comments on various Catholic blogs criticising the media coverage (by us and others) of the Allam baptism. The Catholic Church can baptise anyone it wants, they say, so stop making such a fuss about it. We haven’t had much of that in our comments sections but here’s an example of that argument from another blog. Anyone writing this is either wilfully playing naive or is actually naive. We never said Allam should not be baptised — we have no dispute with the Church’s right to do so. What we did was quote others, Catholics as well as Muslims, who questioned whether it had to be done with such publicity. Saying this event didn’t deserve the headlines it got shows a basic misunderstanding of both how the news media work and how the Vatican works.

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

How many Catholics will hear disputed Good Friday prayer?

A Good Friday procession at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 21 March 2008/Yannis BehrakisGiven the discussion about the new Latin prayer to be read at Catholic Good Friday services in the Tridentine rite today, I’ve tried to find estimates for how many people will actually hear it. Jewish groups have expressed dismay that the new version of the prayer, which drops references to the “blindness” of the Jews but still calls for their conversion. The leader of Germany’s Jewish community said she could not fathom how the German-born Pope Benedict could “impose such phrases on his church.” The Vatican rejects this criticism and sources there say it could soon issue a conciliatory note. So there’s a lot of talk about this issue, but how much is actually happening on the ground?

Actually, the vast majority of Catholics attending Good Friday services around the world will not hear this prayer in Latin but a different one in their own native language. That prayer is based on a 1970 text without any explicit reference to the conversion of the Jews. There is no official number for how many will attend the Latin services in the older Tridentine rite that Pope Benedict promoted with a ruling last year authorising wider use of the old Latin Mass. But even ardent supporters of the traditional rite agree that the number is very, very small. Some have objected to our use of the term “tiny minority” for it, saying this was dismissive and implied the number was insignificant. It wasn’t, but it’s very hard to write about such a small amount without seeming to write it off.

Fr. John ZuhlsdorfLooking for anecdotal evidence, I first turned to the excellent conservative Catholic blog What Does The Prayer Really Say? (which just swept the 2008 Catholic Blog Awards). This was a logical step since its lively moderator, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (“Fr. Z”), had just taken us to task for writing “tiny minority.” I posted a question about how to describe the size of this group and several readers chimed in, suggesting words like “rare” (sounds like an endangered species), “relatively few in number” (too vague), “some” or “a few” (even more vague) or “small but growing minority” (that adds movement, but it’s still vague). Even the most neutral synonyms for “tiny” — diminutive, microscopic, miniature, minuscule, slight or wee (for my Scottish colleagues) — can be read as dismissive. How would Fr. Z put it — paupera lingua angliae?

What we still don’t know about Blair’s conversion

Tony BlairDoes the public have the right to know the reasons why Tony Blair converted to Roman Catholicism just before Christmas? I mean the real reasons — what does the Catholic Church give him in terms of spirituality, theology or tradition that the Church of England did not? The initial news stories and follow-up articles over the holidays repeated the known circumstantial evidence, such as the fact his wife and children are Catholic and he has attended Catholic mass for years. Many took a political angle, noting that he waited until he had left office. Some accused him of hypocrisy for doing so despite supporting policies the Vatican opposes. But they didn’t give the real reasons.

The articles didn’t report Blair’s innermost convictions because he hasn’t revealed them. And he may never do so. There is so much public use and misuse of faith in politics that he may have decided he did not want his beliefs torn apart by his critics or the media, so he waited until they could no longer argue the prime minister’s faith was a matter of public interest. Journalists regret this, because we always want to know more, but fair-minded people can respect it.

I mention this because the latest edition of the U.S. Jesuit magazine America has the most informative article on Blair’s conversion that I’ve seen. In “From Thames to Tiber,” Austen Ivereigh, a former adviser to London Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor, tells us that “Blair’s background is in liberal Anglo-Catholicism; his favorite theologians are Leonardo Boff and Hans Küng, not Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He America magazinebelongs to an ecclesial tradition in which the gate is wide, and bridges more important than borders.” He says Blair was attracted by “the Church’s vast international reach, its commitment to the poor, its capacity for mobilisation against injustice and its courage to stand firm on unpopular issues.” That goes a lot further in locating his faith.