FaithWorld

Could Williamson end up as a bishop in cyberspace?

What should be done with Bishop Richard Williamson? In the wave of protests following his denial of the Holocaust, many critics argued he should have no place in the Roman Catholic Church. He gave them more ammunition over the weekend by telling Der Spiegel that he would have to study the historical evidence before deciding whether to publicly recant, as the Vatican has demanded. But he and his three fellow rebel bishops from the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) have already been let back into the Church thanks to Pope Benedict’s decision to lift their excommunications. They now have to find an official niche in the Church to occupy. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

It’s not clear when the SSPX bishops will begin negotiating their rehabilitation with the Vatican, partly because we don’t know how long Williamson will take for his new history assignment. But whenever those talks get under way, one of their goals will be to find a role for the four men who, although illicitly ordained, are valid bishops. And if they are rehabilitated, they will have to be bishops of somewhere or something. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, bishops “are appointed for the government of one portion of the faithful of the Church, under the direction and authority of the sovereign pontiff, who can determine and restrain their powers, but not annihilate them”.

The operative word here is “restrain”. SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay could be made bishop of a personal prelature, on the model of Opus Dei, but that still leaves the other three without official positions. The two others — Alfonso de Galarreta and Bernard Tissier de Mallerais — haven’t received too much media attention yet and it’s not clear what they might end up doing. But Williamson looks set for the sidelines even if he pops up on YouTube doing penitential readings from Saul Friedländer‘s books. (Photo: Bishop Jacques Gaillot/partenia.org)

The Vatican has a way of restraining insubordinate bishops. They can be appointed to a “titular see,” i.e. a see (diocese) in name only. These sees are normally given to bishops who don’t run a diocese, for example a bishop working in the Curia. But the case of French Bishop Jacques Gaillot shows they can also be used to sidetrack someone. Gaillot was bishop of Evreux in France from 1982 to 1995 and stood out for his left-wing political and theological views (including blessing a same-sex union in 1988).

In 1995, the Vatican told Gaillot to resign or be removed from his see. He refused to resign and was reassigned to the titular see of Partenia, a diocese now lost under the sands of the Algerian Sahara. It ceased to exist in the fifth (yes, 5th) century after Huneric, the King of the Vandals, drove its bishop Rogatus into exile.

Rabbi wants to bring U.S. Muslim-Jewish teamwork to Europe

Rabbi Marc Schneier, a New York Jewish leader who has helped to build bridges with American Muslims, is planning to bring his campaign to Europe to help ease the anger fed by bloodshed in Gaza. “In the light of the recent conflict in Gaza, Jewish-Muslim tensions have been exacerbated,” Schneier, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, told Reuters during a recent visit to London. “We have seen a rise, I would say an exponential growth in anti-Semitic attacks, rhetoric coming from the Muslim world. We cannot allow for Islamic fundamentalism to grow.” (Photo: Rabbi Marc Schneier/FFEU)

Schneier helped to bring together thousands of Jews and Muslims across America last November in an initiative in which 50 mosques were twinned with 50 synagogues over a weekend. Jews and Muslims worked together in community projects, formed study groups and got a better understanding of each other’s faith. They publicised this in the short video below and a full-page ad in the New York Times available here in PDF.

An eloquent and persuasive speaker, Schneier has advocated closer links between Jewish and Afro-American communities through the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, where he has worked with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

Vatican/SSPX — the fallout continues

The fallout from the SSPX issue continues to rain down on the Vatican. Several items over the weekend showed how messy it can get when the Vatican botches its presentation of a potentially controversial decision.

    A demonstration against Williamson at the Vatican nunciature in Paris by several dozen Jewish protesters on Sunday. The Reuters photo below by Mal Langsdon shows a man holding a cartoon from the Paris daily Le Monde in which two SSPX bishops say in mock Latin “The gas chamber doesn’t exist.” Pope Benedict holds up a cloak which says “Down with Vatican II” and comments: “As long as they don’t say it in Hebrew, I’m not saying anything.” Will there be more of these elsewhere?

    Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of the four SSPX bishops whose excommunications Pope Benedict lifted last week, told the Italian daily La Stampa (here in English) that the rebel prelates have no intention of changing their traditionalist views when they negotiate their reinstatement in the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican officials.” No, absolutely not,” he said. “We do not change our positions, but we have the intention of converting Rome, that is, to lead Rome towards our positions.” This is the man who in 2005 told the traditionalist U.S. weekly The Remnant “I will say, one day the Church should erase this Council.  She will not speak of it anymore.  She must forget it.  The Church will be wise if she forgets this council.” Until now, most attention has focused on SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay and the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. Fellay is considered the most moderate of the group and statements from the others are likely to take a tougher stand against any concessions to the Vatican. (Photo: Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, May 2008/SSPX) Several news outlets such as The Times and the BBC have picked up a story from Austria that the pope had approved the appointment of a new auxiliary bishop of Linz, Gerhard Wagner, who once described Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for sin and sexual excess in New Orleans and denounced the Harry Potter books for “spreading Satanism.” In a new interview with the Austrian Catholic agency Kath.net, he says “Islam is really a danger.” How much would you bet this would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been other negative news about the Vatican?

New statements and comments are popping up all over. A few trends emerge:

German-speaking bishops insist SSPX accepts opening to Jews

Catholic bishops in the German-speaking countries have been especially outspoken in demanding the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), whose four excommunicated bishops were welcomed back into the Church on Saturday, must explicitly accept Second Vatican Council documents assuring respect for the Jews. The Vatican had been demanding full acceptance of Council documents for years, including in a compromise it offered last June but the SSPX rejected it. As far as is known, it was not part of the deal that has now led to the bans being lifted. The issue has hit the headlines because one of the four, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, openly denied the Holocaust in an interview on Swedish television broadcast last week. (Photo: St. Peter’s Basilica, 5 Feb 2005/Tom Heneghan)

The German Bishops Conference noted the four bishops, whose dissent against Rome mostly concerned its rejection of the Council reforms including a modern liturgy and recognition for Judaism and other religions, must now discuss their future status in the Church with Vatican officials. “We have the clear expectation and make the urgent request that the four bishops and the Society announce unmistakably and credibly their loyalty to the Second Vatican Council and especially the declaration ‘ostra Aetate,’ said a statement by Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff, its main official for relations with Jews. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, is the cornerstone of the post-Council opening to Jews, Muslims and other religions.

Munich’s Archbishop Reinhard Marx said Williamson’s comments were “unspeakable, unacceptable…” and added “Every denial of the Holocaust must be punished harshly.” In a statement, he noted the Vatican would now negotiate the conditions of the four bishops’ return into the Church. “There is no doubt that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council are binding for that.”

Paris cardinal and others comment on SSPX ban lifting

Paris Cardinal André Vingt-Trois,  chairman of the French Bishops Conference, held a press briefing on Saturday evening on the lifting of excommunications of four bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). France is home to the largest of the provinces of the dissident group, with around 100,000 faithful  of a worldwide total of 600,000. Sitting in a medieval meeting room in Notre Dame cathedral, he defended Pope Benedict’s decision to take the four bishops back into the Roman Catholic Church and indicated the SSPX would have to bend to Church discipline. (Photo: Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, 8 Sept 2008/Benoit Tessier)

He called the decision “a measure of clemency and mercy” that would allow the Church to repair a damaging split. He declined to question the bishops’ motives, saying that “when people express their desire to respect the teachings of the church and the primacy of the pope, my ministry of mercy does not allow me suspect them a priori and to suspect them to be the worst people on earth … what they have in their hearts, only God can judge. Not me.”

The handful of journalists present repeatedly asked about one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, whose denial of the Holocaust this week outraged Jewish leaders. “The Jewish community was not shocked by this decision, it was shocked by the comments of Bishop Williamson,” he said. “He may have some twisted thoughts, but it’s not because the excommunication is lifted that these twisted thoughts have been approved.”

Paris Muslims attacked in new twist to Gaza tension in France

The tension in France because of the Gaza conflict has taken a new twist with a charge by three Muslim youths that Jewish militants had beaten them up because one of them had thrown away a pro-Israel pamphlet. The focus until now has been on rising anti-Semitic attacks, presumably mostly by Muslims angered by Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, but this puts another layer of complexity on the story. The attack happened almost a week ago, on Thursday Jan. 8, but the details are still unclear and the versions being put out don’t match up.

According to the victims’ account, about seven youths from the Ligue de Défense Juive (Jewish Defence League) were distributing the pamphlets on Jan. 8 outside Janson de Sailly, a leading lycée, secondary school, in a chic district of Paris, and handed one to a pupil of North African Arab origin.  When he threw it away, the JDL militants beat up him and one or two other youths of Maghrebin origin who came to help him. The lycée pupil and two others then filed a complaint with the police against the Jewish militants and police are now investigating the incident.

An LDJ spokesman flatly denied any link to this attack and said it does not distribute these pamphlets outside of lycées, only at universities. On its website, it was less clear, saying only that it “denounces the aggression against two pupils of the Janson de Sailly lycee. The LDJ rejects every form of violence.” The LDJ spokesman said his group had the same name and logo as the militant Kach movement banned in Israel and the Jewish Defence League banned in the United States — in both cases because they were suspected terrorist organisations — but had nothing to do with these groups.

French faith leaders work to contain any Gaza backlash

Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations. (Photo: Police survey housing project in Paris suburb, 1 June 2006/Victor Tonelli)

Among those groups are Muslims and Jews, many of whose families came from the same parts of North Africa. About 7-8 years ago, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, some of the far more numerous Muslims took out their anger at Israel on their Jewish neighbours. The official reaction against that wave of anti-Semitism was slow in coming back then, but leaders in France today — especially leaders of the main religious groups — seem determined to do their best to head that off this time around.

They have their work cut out for them. According to a French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) list (here in French), there have been 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza.  That includes several firebombs and several Jews beaten by thugs. Muslim and Jewish leaders have already issued several calls for calm. In some cities such as Strasbourg and Lyon, they have joined the mayor and their Catholic colleagues. After meeting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday evening, the national heads of the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities said they would produce a joint appeal soon. See my story on this here.

Collateral damage from French headscarf law continues

When French President Jacques Chirac ‘s government wanted to ban Muslim headscarves in state schools back in 2004, it had to find a way to (1) make the ban look fair and (2) avoid a backlash from the majority Catholic electorate.  A ban had to target all religions, but couldn’t be absolute because that could violate international rights norms. It also risked alienating some Catholic voters because because many Catholic girls wore necklaces with small gold crosses. So Paris came up with a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” that would bar  Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That only bishops actually wore large crosses did not seem to matter. (Photo: Sikhs in France protest against turban ban, 31 Jan 2004/Charles Platiau)

In the haste to pass and apply the law, the government overlooked a religious group that would also be hit by the new restrictions — the Sikhs. There are about 10,000 of them, mostly living in the Paris area, easily identifiable by the distinctive turbans the men wear. When local Sikh community leaders and Sikh activists from London protested that a turban is not a religious symbol, they were given a polite hearing and ignored. The Sikhs said the turban was simply a practical way of covering the real religious symbol, their uncut hair, so taking it off would expose the religious symbol the ban was meant to bar from state schools. It was a clever argument — one that, as the cynical French quip puts it, had the additional merit of being true — but the government was not going to allow any exceptions that could leave a back door open for Muslim girls to squeeze some kind of  headscarf through.

The uproar over the ban has long since calmed down, but the Sikhs continue to campaign to overturn it. A group called United Sikhs asked a U.N. human rights committee on Monday to declare that France had violated a student’s rights by expelling him for wearing a turban and to recommend repealing the law that led to it.

Graves desecrated often in France, mostly Christian

If you go by what’s reported in the media (including by us), you’d think cemetery desecrations in France like the big one last weekend happen occasionally and target mostly Jewish and Muslim graves. Those are the cases the police report and we write about. A report by two parliamentary deputies, however, has taken an overall look at the problem nationwide and come up with some unexpected conclusions.

First, there are far more cemetery desecrations than we knew about. They happen on an average of every two to three days!  There were 144 last year and 110 up until Sept. 1 this year. And most of them target Christian — which in France would mean overwhelmingly Catholic — graves. Most desecrations are vandalism by teenagers, with only a small minority prompted by the racism, anti-Semitism or satanic cult practices normally highlighted in the media, the report said. The news story on this by our parliamentary correspondent Emile Picy is here. (Photo: Police inspect desecrated graves in France, 8 Dec 2008/Pascal Rossignol)

The report is not aimed at playing down the gravity of attacks on Muslim and Jewish graves, but rather to get an overall idea of the problem in order to suggest possible remedies. It lists some obvious ideas like better surveillance of cemeteries and better use of existing punishment. What I found the most interesting was their discussion of the waning respect for the dead. The title of the report highlights this — “Du respect des morts à la mort du respect?” (“From respect for the dead to the death of respect?”)

Islamic finance sector needs more sharia scholars

Articles about Islamic finance are usually long on finance and short on Islam. Knowing that the various schools of Islam can interpret and apply sharia in different ways, I recently wondered how this looked in the financial sector, especially since Islamic banking has spread in recent years and non-Muslim institutions and investors were getting into the business. A conference on Islamic banking in France brought several sharia scholars to Paris, so I took the opportunity to interview them for the news story posted here.

While the financial side wants as much standardisation as possible, the scholars insist it would be un-Islamic to impose rules that apply fully around the world. So rulings from the sharia boards of financial institutions can differ, although the existence of voluntary standards — such as those worked out by the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) in Bahrain — has helped to harmonise them. Also, the fact that individual scholars sit on several sharia boards at the same time brings a certain conformity.

But, as Mufti Barkatulla told me, there are not enough young scholars entering the field. A sharia board needs a minimum of three members and can have up to 10, depending on its workload, he said. The problem is that acquiring the needed knowledge can take years. Barkatulla himself was a sharia judge at London’s Central Mosque for 30 years, mostly ruling on family issues such as divorce, before getting involved in Islamic finance five years ago. Like him, Sheikh Nizam Yaquby of Bahrain, another scholar at the Paris conference, continues to decide such family cases in addition to his work in the world of finance.