BAGHDAD – When Iraqis last voted in 2005, some in Washington feared the mainly Muslim nation would veer in the direction of Iran, an Islamic theocracy, instead of becoming the moderate democracy they envisioned for post-Saddam Iraq.
The question when Iraqis elect new provincial leaders on January 31 will be whether the religious parties that have dominated politics since then can hang on to power despite a bitterness felt by voters starved of services and security.
“Religious parties didn’t keep their promises. They exploited our problems,” said Safaa Kadhim, a teacher in Basra, reflecting anger voiced across Iraq toward the major parties, mostly founded along sectarian lines and seen by many as corrupt and self-serving…
In an opinion poll by the government’s National Media Center in November, 68 percent of those questioned rejected the use of religious appeals in the campaign and 42 percent said they favored secular parties, while 31 percent supported religious parties.
One of the most intriguing questions about the voting for a new Russian Orthodox patriarch on Jan. 27-29 has been answered. Speculation about the succession began as soon as the late Patriarch Alexiy died in December, but it had an unusual extra layer of uncertainty. Orthodox church leaders sometimes elect the top three candidates and then pick the winner by drawing lots. This, they say, lets the Holy Spirit have the final say. So even a strong front-runner could be passed over.
During the Roman Catholic Church’s papal transition in 2005, we speculated about the papabili (papal contenders) for days and explained in detail the complex rules for the election of a new pope. The “apostolic method,” as the election by lots is called, would inject additional uncertainty into the Orthodox vote — if they used it. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill leads Orthodox Christmas service in Moscow’s Christ The Saviour Cathedral, 7 Jan. 2009/pool)
But Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, the acting patriarch who is also a front-runner, has indicated that this wild card has been taken out of the patriarchal election procedure. In an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, he said earlier heads of the Church had usually been chosen by the tsar or elected in open ballots. “His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy II was elected by secret ballot out of three candidates suggested by the Archbishop Council,” Kirill said. “Years of his ministry proved it was the right choice made by God’s will.”
“Top 10 Stories” lists are a perennial feature, especially in the United States (which explains a lot of the picks below). Now that they’re all out there, I took a quick look at the “Top 10 Religion Stories 2008″ lists to see if any pattern emerged. Of course one did: “It was the election, stupid.” Even a website dedicated to pagan news found a “pagans and politics” angle to top its list.
The Religion Newswriters Association, which polls member religion reporters, has been drawing up such lists for about 30 years. Election-related stories swept the top three slots last year. They did the same in 2004 as well, but the election shared the top spot back then with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie. The election-dominated lists show some divergences, but the most interesting compilations were the more specialised ones down in the second list below.
Here’s a quick list of the Top 10 lists, first those dominated by the U.S. election and then others I actually found more interesting:
The Russian Orthodox are wasting no time with the election of their new leader to replace the late Patriarch Alexiy. Although Church statutes give them six months to ponder the decision, a Holy Synod meeting today decided to hold a General Council in late January to elect a successor.
“On Jan. 27 the General Council will open. It will be held on Jan. 28-29,” acting Partriarch Kirill — one of the frontrunning candidates — said in Moscow.
“Jan. 30-31 will be dedicated to preparations for the enthronement of the newly elected Holy Patriarch. The enthronement will be held on Feb. 1,” he told journalists in Moscow.
The death of Russian Orthodox Patriach Alexiy II and talk about his possible successor got Aleksandras Budrys, a correspondent in our Moscow bureau, to reminiscing about how he covered Alexiy’s election in 1990 for the official news agency TASS. Here’s his account of reporting on religion near the end of communism in Russia: (Photo: Patriarch Alexiy II, 30 April 2000/Vladimir Suvorov)
As a TASS correspondent for religious issues, I was the first to report the election of Patriarch Alexiy II in early June 1990. The scoop was made possible because I was allowed to stay in monk’s cells at the monastery where the vote took place while all the other journalists were sent away.
The election process took a little less than three days. On the first day, all the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church gathered at the refectory church at the Holy Trinity and St Sergius monastery outside Moscow.
Has religion turned into a vote loser in U.S. elections? In covering the U.S. presidential campaign, most analysts took religion as an important vote-getting factor and asked which candidate was appealing most to which religious group. Much was made about how the Democrats were more comfortable with “Godtalk” on the trail.
Now Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker has asked whether religion has turned into a serious vote loser for the more faith-friendly party, the Republicans:
“The evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh. Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party … the GOP has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows. In the process, the party has alienated its non-base constituents, including other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle.”
Two months ago, a Vatican official branded the U.S. Democrats the “party of death” because of its pro-choice stand on abortion. His words failed to sway millions of Catholics who cast their vote for Barack Obama.
Now, the Vatican will have to deal with the first pro-choice U.S. administration since that of former President Bill Clinton, with which it had very scratchy relations.
Nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults — about 30 million — are Catholic and, according to exit polls cited on the non-denominational Beliefnet website, some 54 percent of them voted for Obama as opposed to 46 percent for McCain.
“These are uneasy times for America’s Muslims, caught in a backwash from a presidential election campaign where the false notion that Barack Obama is Muslim has been seized on by some who link Islam with terrorism,” writes Chicago religion writer Mike Conlon in “Sour note for American Muslims in election campaign.”
“Incidents during the U.S. presidential election campaign, now in its final sprint towards November 4, show that fear and suspicion of Muslims persist undiminished and are being used as a political weapon,” writes Washington columnist Bernd Debusmann in “In U.S. elections, fear of Muslims.”
One 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.”
With the charge about the “party of death” still ringing in its ears, a group called Catholic Democrats has issued a Q&A on abortion setting out its case that faithful Roman Catholics can vote for Barack Obama despite his consistent pro-choice record. Catholic Democrats makes the same argument as the Matthew 25 network, i.e. that Democratic policies would actually reduce the abortion rate, which spiked under Republicans in the 1980s, fell during the Clinton administration and have leveled off — and may have begun rising again — in the Bush administration.
Former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who is now prefect of the Vatican’s Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, told an Italian newspaper two weeks ago that the Democrats risked becoming the “party of death” for their support for abortion rights. Other U.S. bishops have criticised two prominent Catholic Democrats — vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and House speaker Nancy Pelosi — for suggesting the Catholic Church was anything but totally against abortion.
Catholic Democrats cites the bishops’ own guidebook, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” to stress that Catholics should not be one-issue voters and could vote for a candidate if his overall platform is morally good, despite a pro-choice plank that the Church regards as intrinsically evil. “If the only difference between two candidates is that one is pro-life and the other is pro-choice, then a pro-life voter should obviously vote for a pro-life candidate,” Catholic Democrats says. “However, elections are never so clear cut. Republican and Democratic candidates differ on many issues: healthcare, the war, the economy.”