Islamist parties face drubbing in Pakistan vote

Supporters of Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party rally in Peshawar, 28 Jan. 2008/stringerAn important question in the Pakistani general election and provincial elections coming up on Feb. 18 is how the Islamist parties there will fare. These parties, which usually scored below 10 percent in the past, shot up to a total 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly at the last election in 2002. They also won power in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and shared power in Baluchistan — the two provinces that border Afghanistan and have been most destabilised by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in the region.

Zeeshan Haider, senior correspondent in our Islamabad bureau, visited the NWFP capital Peshawar to gauge the voters’ mood. Here’s what he found :

Pakistani voters are expected to succeed where President Pervez Musharraf has failed, pushing back the Islamist tide and throwing out of power political clerics governing Pakistan’s violent northwest.

“God forbid, I will never vote for mullahs,” said Saif-ur-Rehman, a bearded stall owner in Qissa Khawani, a famous bazaar in Peshawar, before rushing for prayers at a mosque in the provincial capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Parliamentary and provincial assembly polls set for February 18 will take place against the backcloth of a Taliban and al Qaeda campaign to destabilize President Pervez Musharraf.

Fierce battle rages for top job in Church of Greece

Funeral of Archbishop Christodoulos in Athens, 31 Jan. 2008/John KolesidisThe gloves are off in the election campaign for a new primate of the Greek Orthodox Church following the death of Archbishop Christodoulos last week. At least four metropolitan bishops are openly vying for the powerful Greek Church’s top post, some of them making their intentions known literally minutes after Christodoulos was buried last Thursday. The election is set for Feb. 7 and mud-slinging and accusations of blackmail are on the daily agenda.

A total of 78 members of the Holy Synod, the majority of whom were appointed by the late Archbishop Serafim (died 1998), are entitled to vote. Metropolitan Bishop Chrisostomos from the Peloponnese said in an open letter at the weekend he was a victim of “blackmail and mud-throwing” from supporters of Efstathios, Metropolitan Bishop of Sparta. Efstathios, one of two front-runners in the race, said: “I cannot believe any one of my supporters could be involved in something like that.”

What is at stake is the powerful influence of the Church over about 95 percent of Orthodox Greeks among the 10 million population, the Church’s extensive financial interests including major real estate developments and a mending of ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Church of Greece’s relations with the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians were damaged to the brink of collapse during Christodoulos’s tenure. While Christodoulos deftly used the media to raise his own profile, this exposure turned some supporters away in the later years of his 10-year reign. Critics said he used the media to interfere in government policy-making, accuse homosexuals of having a “handicap,” call Turks “barbarians” and attack the patriarchate. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek from Turkey, runs a tiny Orthodox community in what was once the Byzantine capital of Constantinople and needs outside support for his delicate balancing act with the Turkish government.

Elvis Presley, S.J.?

New Jesuit Superior General Fr. Alfonso Nicolas, S.J., 25 Jan. 2008/Dario PignatelliFather Adolfo Nicolas, the new superior general of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests, possesses, besides decades of experience, a good sense of humour. At his first meeting with reporters since his election on Jan 19, the 71-year-old Spaniard spoke about his life, his formation in Asia and what he had been reading about himself in the media.

I’ve read that I am 50 percent Kolvenbach and 50 percent Arrupe,” he said, referring to his two immediate predecessors, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach and Pedro Arrupe. “However, no one has yet said I’m 10 percent Elvis Presley, although one could say this and it wouldn’t surprise me. But I think this is all false.”

After the laughter died down, the soft-spoken Spaniard became a bit serious: “I am not Kolvenbach and I am not Arrupe. I am made for the reality in which I find myself.”

Caste and politics mix in India’s Hindu “cow belt”

Hindu boy jumps into Ganges River at Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 18 Jan. 2007/Adnan AbidiA year can seem like an eternity in India, especially for a foreign correspondent discovering how complex the links between religion and politics can be here.

The last time I went from New Delhi to Uttar Pradesh was in January 2007 to cover the Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Around seven million Hindus and thousands of holy “Sadhus” descend on the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to pray and make offerings.

I stood where the two rivers meet along with thousands of poor Hindus performing their ritual baths. At night, whole families huddled together to keep warm on the river bank. Small paper boats with candles floated precariously down the river.

When being called “Bagdad” is a handicap

There’s a story unfolding in France that isn’t about religion, but says a lot about the hurdles that residents with a Muslim background here can face. When youths in the poor suburbs complain about discrimination (discussed here in a post about the riots last month), they mention stories like this one to highlight their point.

Counting votes at a French polling stationBagdad Ghezal, 53, is a community activist who has been the local Socialist Party (PS) section leader for the past six years in the Channel fishing port of Etaples. He recently learned the regional PS leadership wanted to “parachute” in a candidate for the mayor’s race in March. The outsider was a 35-year-old énarque (graduate of the elite ENA school of public administration) with the very aristocratic name of Antoine de Rocquigny du Fayel. He lives in Lille, about 150 km away, but has a summer house in Etaples. Ghezal protested that he was first in line and wanted to run, but the regional leadership refused to consider him.

The Etaples PS section held a primary vote and Ghezal trounced de Rocquigny du Fayel 3-to-1. But the regional leadership annulled the result, saying the loser was “more credible” as a candidate. “Why would de Rocquigny du Fayel, who does not live in Etaples, be better than Bagdad who has been an activist here for the past 10 years?” Ghezal asked (Europe 1 audio in French here). “This is clearly discrimination.”

Rapid change as Turkey strives to match Islam and democracy

President Abdullah Gul accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, August 31, 2007It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful”, is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed.

Anyone who’s been following the news out of Turkey this year has to nod in agreement when reading the lead to Christopher de Bellaigue’s interesting article in the New York Review of Books. It was only last April that the army issued a veiled threat to intervene if the governing AK party — usually called a “party with Islamist roots” — tried to overturn Turkey’s secular system.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called their bluff and won a snap general election, allowing his AK partner Abdullah Gül to be elected president. The AK-led government now plans to replace the military-era constitution with a new document that will confirm “our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms”, as Gül told parliament early this month.

Episcopal Church likely to pass over lesbian candidate for bishop

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts SchoriIs there a straw that will break the Anglican Communion’s back? One move that, like the gay bishop consecration that started the current crisis, can trigger a landslide that finally pushes the Communion into schism? Religion reporters are now watching each and every conference and bishop’s election to see if it will hit the tripwire.

The next flashpoint in the Anglican Communion’s struggle with gay issues looked like it could come from Chicago, where the Episcopal (U.S. Anglican) diocese on November 10 will pick a new bishop from among eight candidates, one of them an openly gay woman. The Episcopal Church promised last month to “exercise restraint” in naming further homosexual prelates. In an interview this month, its Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (in picture at right) stressed there would be “no outcasts in this Church.

Judging from how things look now, the lesbian Rev. Tracey Lind, who is now the dean of Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral, may not be among the favorites vying for the post, Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear reported on Monday.

Faith factors at play in two European elections at the weekend

Two general elections on Sunday made it an interesting weekend on the religion&politics beat in Europe. Put simply, a pro-Catholic party lost in Poland and an anti-minaret party won in Switzerland. There was no link between the two votes and religion was not the main issue in either. But the faith factor was in the air and it highlighted two trends at the crossroads of church and state in Europe.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski (L) in church with brother Lech (R) and Lech’s wifePoland’s Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost his election despite strong support from the powerful media empire of right-wing Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, whose outlets include the controversial Radio Maryja that critics call xenophobic and anti-Semitic. Kaczynski and his twin brother Lech , Poland’s president, have enjoyed support from older Poles and many clerics because of their fervent Catholicism. But Jaroslaw’s government got mired down in infighting and picked fights with the European Union, Germany and Russia. The Polish bishops, sensing the Church was being used for political purposes, told priests not to use the pulpit to endorse any candidates.

The Polish Catholic Church played a major political role before 1989, standing as an alternative to the Soviet-backed communist government in Warsaw. Since then, however, democracy, economic growth and European Union membership have changed the country profoundly. The close ties between some conservative political parties and the Catholic Church faded in most of Europe years ago and are fading now in Poland, even while a majority of Poles still attends church regularly.