Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.

Saying this is not meant to tarnish the reputation of this courageous woman. The Pakistanis who were ready to vote for her know all this already. Her father and political mentor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-wing populist who sported Mao caps and campaigned on the faith-free slogan roti, kapra, makan (bread, clothes, Candles set before poster of Benazir Bhuttohousing), played the Islamic card with concessions to religious pressure groups when necessary. It’s more a comment on how complex Pakistani politics are and how hard it is to fit its main actors into categories that readers readily understand.

BTW it’s disappointing to see Dalrymple, a fine historian of the Subcontinent, fall into the same trap as readers who want us to write about “Muslim riots ” in France. In his New York Times op-ed piece cited above, he said that former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by “Sri Lankan Hindu extremists.” The Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan and presumably mostly Hindu, as most Tamils are, but their separatist struggle is nationalist and not religious at all. They were some of the first modern suicide bombers, but that’s as close to religiously inspired militants as they get.

Vatican conversion document may become news, but not yet

Catholic nuns of the Missionaries of Charity sing hymns during mass in Calcutta, 24 Dec 2000The Roman Catholic Church statement about evangelisation last Friday was one of those classic Vatican documents that are short on news but long on content. We covered it in a news story from Vatican City, but it was not top news that day (“Christians should spread the faith” is not exactly a new message). The document also avoided the blunt tone that sometimes comes out of the Vatican — an angle journalists were watching out for — and dealt with a sensitive issue “softly, softly,” as one theologian put it.

The impact of this document should unfold slowly in the context of the Vatican’s relations with Orthodox churches and with Muslims. It proclaims a duty to spread the Gospel without respect to geographical boundaries. That sounds like a rebuff to the Russian Orthodox argument that Rome should not seek or accept converts in traditionally Orthodox countries. It’s also a challenge to Muslim countries that forbid conversion, to the point of declaring apostasy — i.e. leaving Islam — a crime worthy of the death penalty. Since the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) says it issued the text because of “a certain confusion about whether Catholics should give testimony Pope Benedict and Metropolitan Kirill at the Vatican, 7 Dec 2007about their faith in Christ,” this document amounts to a practical guide for dealing with these situations. That’s not news now, but it can well become news at some point ahead if this leads to tensions.

Relations with the Russian Orthodox are sensitive and difficult to read. Metropolitan Kirill, the “foreign minister” of the Russian Church, met Pope Benedict on December 7 and said the session was proof of improving ties. A quick look at the Interfax Religion service seems to hint at a more critical view in Moscow. Kirill seems to take a tougher line back home. The Moscow Patriarchate is also concerned that Opus Dei, which just opened an office in the Russian capital, might proselytise in Russia.

Attenzione! Important Vatican doctrinal document due…

Pope Benedict, 10 Dec. 2007 Attenzione! The Vatican will issue an important doctrinal document on Friday “on some aspects of evangelisation.” Pope Benedict has a long track record of making sharp distinctions between Catholicism and other religions in his doctrinal declarations. Some of these have upset other Christians, others have angered Muslims and been challenged by Islamic scholars. This new text has been written by papal aides, not the pope himself, but it is expected to be a close reflection of his views. What Vatican observers are waiting to see is how clearly it states the Catholic view on converting others and how other religions react.

The document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed for over two decades before becoming pope in 2005, comes at a time of growing Catholic difficulties with Anglicans, Protestants and evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. Its hesitant reaction to an invitation leading Muslim scholars for a theological dialogue has raised questions about its interest in inter-faith relations. And evangelisation is now a sensitive topic for Christian churches. The Vatican is working with the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal leaders on a code of conduct for missionary work .

The declaration is expected to say that conversion remains a goal of Catholic missionary efforts and that Catholic theologians must not water this down by arguing that other faiths can be paths to salvation. This recalls Dominus Iesus, a document issued in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that said the Catholic Church was the only true church of Jesus Christ and others were “gravely deficient.” In fact, the document should be a guide on how to put Dominus Iesus into practice. The CDF began this process with a clarification of the 2000 document last June — a clarification that caused dismay among leading Protestant theologians.Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie (L), the Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain Methodios (2L), Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama (R) pray for world peace in a service in Assisi October 27, 1986

Rare spotlight on U.S. Baptist drive to convert Hindus

Indian Christians carry cross on Good Friday near Cochin, 25 March 2005On the world religion scene, one interesting trend concerns the growing number of Christian missionaries seeking to convert people in developing countries. Many are evangelicals from the United States or South Korea, often trying to convert Muslims. We usually hear about them when their work creates tension or leads to a diplomatic incident. It’s rare to see a lengthy report on what a mission is actually doing and how it is received.

The Commercial Appeal daily in Memphis, Tennessee has just published a fascinating report on a mission to convert Hindus in India that is sponsored by a hometown Baptist church. Bellevue Baptist in Memphis spends $5.5 million each year for missionary work around the world. The Commercial Appeal’s Trevor Aaronson visited the National Training Institute for Village Evangelism in Hyderabad, which Bellevue supports, to see what it does on the ground. These missions can be controversial. In several Indian states, Hindu nationalists have protested against missionary work and passed laws banning conversion from one religion to another. World churches are working on a code of conduct to help spread their faith without antagonising other religions.

Aaronson’s article is a zoom-lens look at one mission, its problems, its links to its American donors and the reactions of the Hindu nationalists. He presents the mission warts and all, which has sparked off a lively debate on the paper’s Web site. As Daniel Pulliam over at GetReligion notes, this is “an impressive journalistic endeavor for a local newspaper … the activities of churches often go uncovered, particularly missionary work.”

Ex-atheist takes on religion bashers with new book on God

book coverThe “neo-atheists” in the best-seller lists over the past year or so are getting serious competition from the other side. The new book There Is A God is all the more challenging because it comes from a former atheist who is far better versed in the complex arguments at the core of this debate. And he has a major U.S. publisher to promote this story of how a leading atheist philosopher eventually changed his mind. Anthony Flew doesn’t like to call his story a conversion, but a lot of people will probably see in it a modern Saul-to-Paul experience.

Anthony Flew is a British philosopher, now 84, who provided modern atheists with some powerful arguments during his career. His approach was to take atheism as the default position until sufficient evidence for God appeared — he called it “the presumption of atheism” and compared it to the presumption of innocence in the law. In numerous books with titles such as God and Philosophy or Does God Exist?: A Believer and an Atheist Debate, he rejected the usual arguments for God’s existence with logic and style. His approach was a far cry from the “neo-atheists” who rail against caricatures and excesses of religion (and there are certainly enough around to take aim at!) but avoid asking the tough questions that science cannot answer.

When the news came in 2004 that he had come to doubt full-blown atheism and had shifted towards deism, many atheists wrote this off as nothing more than the sign that his mental faculties were fading. Flew insisted in a long interview that he had not started believing in the God presented in the main monotheisms and did not accept the idea of an afterlife. He believed, instead, in what he called Aristotle’s God, the First Cause that created the universe but played no further role in it. He said he had come to the conviction that some form of superior intelligence must have ignited the Big Bang and set up the laws of nature.

Malaysia reviews its religious conversion laws

Malaysia’s Federal Court, which rejected Lina Joy’s conversion caseMalaysia has been getting some negative publicity for a while now because of the problems some citizens face when they want to convert from Islam. Malaysia is majority Muslim, with sizable religious minorities, and it leaves Muslim personal law issues to the sharia courts. They do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, meaning apostates end up in a legal limbo because they cannot register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Christian convert Lina Joy learned that to her chagrin in May when the the Federal Court — the country’s highest court — refused to remove the word “Islam” from her identity card.

The government now wants to resolve this problem. “The attorney-general’s chambers is studying the matter,” Malaysia’s de-facto justice minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz, was quoted as telling parliament this week. “It is an ongoing process. It is also a sensitive issue and, God willing, a method can be achieved on how to decide on the religion of a person.”

It’s not clear how this is going to work. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in July that Islamic religious authorities should be ready to handle apostasy cases. “We have to be ready to listen and to solve the problems,” he told reporters. “This is not about something that cannot be done. For those who don’t want to be Muslims anymore, what can you do?”