Speculation starts about pope’s health, possible successor

Pope Benedict at Yankee Stadium in New York, 20 April 2008/Mike SegarIt’s never too early to start speculating about the next pope. The Paris daily Le Figaro seems to be the first out of the starting blocks with an article on Friday saying that Pope Benedict appeared tired during his U.S. tour and has been delegating more and more of his duties. “Three years after the election of Benedict XVI, his succession is not yet a daily issue at the Vatican but the rumours are rife, Rome correspondent Hervé Yannou wrote. “It’s true that he celebrated his 81st birthday on April 16 and everybody knows his health is fragile. The sovereign pontiff still climbs the stairs and is mentally alert, but he’s as old as his years. And it’s no secret for anyone that the pope has a weak heart.”

Perhaps to calm any concern the article might stir up, Yannou promptly says Benedict still plans to visit France on September 12-15, where he will celebrate a large outdoor mass at Les Invalides in Paris and visit the sanctuary at Lourdes. After a bit more background, he returns to the succession issue and names Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (photo below left), 74, as the front-runner. If the cardinal electors lean towards a non-European, Yannou’s pick is Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, 72, the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires who emerged as the main alternative to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now B16) at the 2005 conclave.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at Havana’s Catholic cathedral, 22 Feb. 2008/Enrique de la OsaThe reason for this speculation may have less to do with Benedict’s health than the fact that another “papabile” (pope candidate) has all but thrown his hat into the papal succession ring. On April 14, the day before Benedict left for Washington, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, 65, published a book in France entitled De la difficulté d’évoquer Dieu dans un monde qui pense ne pas en avoir besoin (The difficulty of evoquing God in a world that thinks it doesn’t need him). In it, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa (photo below right), who was considered a long-shot papabile back in 2005, wrote about the possibility of a non-European pope. This pontiff should be a “man of the 21st century” who embodies both tradition and innovation and whose knowledge of the concerns of the Third World would mean he could influence North-South relations, he wrote in what sounded very much like a self-description and job description rolled into one. French reporters covering Benedict’s U.S. visit briefly discussed the book one day in the press centre, but it didn’t sound like the start of the succession speculation season.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, 12 April 2005/Alessandro BianchiCertainly, the pope is 81 years old,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican Press Office, told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. “But on live television, before the eyes of the whole world, anyone can see that he’s fine and is performing all of his duties.” Allen said the article illustrated “an iron-clad rule of Vatican coverage: however thin the pretext may be, speculation about the next pope is always guaranteed to generate an audience.”

Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale noted that Benedict, following his U.S. visit, had celebrated a funeral, would preside over a long ceremony on Sunday and planned trips in the coming months to northern Italy, southern Italy, Australia and France. “Il Giornale has confirmed there is no (health) alarm,” he wrote.

Harun Yahya’s Islamic creationist book pops up in Scotland

Atlas of CreationRemember Harun Yahya’s Atlas of Creation, the lavishly illustrated Islamic creationist book that first turned up in Turkey, then France and other European countries and prompted a disapproving resolution by the Council of Europe? It’s now being mailed to universities in Scotland, the Sunday Herald there reports:

“I find it quite staggering,” said Aubrey Manning, emeritus professor of natural history at the University of Edinburgh. He houses his seven copies in a cupboard in the zoology department’s staff room. “Every academic I know says they’ve got one of those. And it’s peddling an absolute, downright lie…”

According to Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University in the US who has written several books on Islam and science, Oktar is “the leader of a small religious sect and an art school drop-out.”

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?

Sarkozy wants French pupils to ‘adopt’ Holocaust child victims

Nicolas Sarkozy and Richard Prasquier at CRIF dinner, 13 Feb 2008/Gonzalo FuentesThe “Sarko & secularism” story takes on ever new twists. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already kicked up lively debates in France by praising religious faith whenever he can, defending his country’s Christian roots in a Roman basilica and complimenting the Saudis in Riyadh for fighting against fanaticism and fundamentalism. After the Catholics and the Muslims, France’s Jews were in line for some presidential stroking. It came on Wednesday evening, at the annual dinner of the leading Jewish organisation here, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

Always good for a surprise, Sarkozy unexpectedly announced he wanted each 10-year-old pupil to study the life and death of one of France’s 11,000 child Holocaust victims. The president also announced he would visit Israel in May to mark its 60th anniversary and “won’t shake hands with people who refuse to recognise Israel” — a remark apparently ruling out any face-to-face meetings with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

File photo of children survivors of Auschwitz showing their tattooed ID numbersOne of Sarkozy’s remarks at the CRIF dinner seemed to go too far even for his hosts. He said: “The drama of the 20th century was not due to an excess of God, but to his awesome absence. There is not a line in the Torah, the Gospel or the Koran, when seen in its context and the fullness of its meaning, that can put up with the massacres committed in Europe during the 20th century in the name of totalitarianism and a world without God.”

Sarkozy and France’s Jews

Nicolas Sarkozy and Lyon Chief Rabbi Richard Wertenschlag, 28 Nov. 2002/poolWe’ve had several news stories and blog posts about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to modify France’s policy of laïcité, that almost untranslatable term for secularism. The focus in the discussion here is usually on what that would mean for Muslims and Christians. But what about Sarkozy and France’s Jews? Before I got the chance to look into that, my former Reuters colleague Bernard Edinger produced a very informative piece on this for the Jerusalem Report . I’ll let him tell the story right here.

French student imams study at Catholic university

Imams at the Grand Mosque of Paris, 31 Aug. 2004/Victor TonelliFrance’s long-awaited programme of university training for Muslim prayer leaders and chaplains was launched this week — at the Catholic university in Paris. We wrote about this not too long ago when the project was announced. It was third time lucky for Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Muslim Council and rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, who had earlier tried in vain to get the Sorbonne and another section of the University of Paris interested in the project. The Institut Catholique de Paris finally stepped up to take on the project, which the French government has been encouraging for several years now as a way to ensure imams in France are properly educated. It thinks the fact that 3/4 of the 1,200 imams in France are not French citizens, 1/3 of them don’t speak French and almost all have little or no real religious training is a potential source of radical ideology.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of ParisAccording to Sophie de Ravinel in Le Figaro, the average age of those on the programme is about 40 and just over half of them are French citizens. The rest come mostly from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. Three women — two of them wearing headscarves — are among the students. “Twenty of the 25 students come from the Grand Mosque of Paris. Among them is Abdelkader Khali, a 52-year-old computer specialist born in France. This future chaplain, son and grandson of French officiers, wants to defend ‘an open, tolerant and enlightened Islam’ in the army.”

The imam training project never got off the ground at the Sorbonne and the other section of the University of Paris because professors there thought it would violate laïcité, France’s legal separation of church and state. But from the start, the project foresaw all theological training at the Grand Mosque of Paris. The university was meant to teach secular subjects, such as French law, history and sociology. The idea was that the university education would round out the Islamic training the imams got at the Grand Mosque and give them a recognised university degree. It sounded like a reasonable idea, but laïcité got in the way.

A Tale of Two Secularisms

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Taj Mahal, 26 Jan, 2008/Philippe WojazerFrance and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.

The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).

Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part Muslim protesters burn effigy of Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Sucheta Dasof the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.

French Muslims becoming more observant

Veiled French Muslim girl during a protest against a ban on religious clothing in state schools, 31 Jan 2004/Charles PlatiauFrench Muslims have become more observant in recent years, according to a new survey.

Thirty-nine percent of Muslims surveyed by the polling group IFOP said they observed Islam’s five prayers daily, a steady rise from 31 percent in 1994, according to the study published in the Catholic daily La Croix.

Mosque attendance for Friday prayers has risen to 23 percent, up from 16 percent in 1994, while Ramadan observance has reached 70 percent compared to 60 percent in 1994, it said.

Has Sarko gone too far praising God, faith and the Saudis?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy giving a speech, 17 Jan 2008/Charles PlatiauNicolas Sarkozy’s serial taboo-breaking is getting him into hot water. Anybody following the news these days knows about his roller-coaster love life, which has hurt his popularity ratings in a country where Monsieur le Président is supposed to be more discreet. Now his challenge to France’s laïcitéa word signifying both the separation of church and state and the taboo against bringing religion into public affairs — is provoking a backlash. What especially seems to have got his critics going is the fact that he not only praised religion in a speech in Riyahd on Monday but also counted his Saudi hosts among those Muslims “who struggle against fanaticism and terrorism, those who appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them.” The fact he was also trying to sell nuclear power plants and other big-ticket French export items to Muslim countries during the same trip did not go unnoticed in his detractors’ comments.

The issue came up during parliamentary questions in the National Assembly on Wednesday (click here and search for Glavany for the exchange in French). Now criticism is coming in from the left and the right of the political spectrum, as well as in editorials. Jean Bauberot, a professor of the history of laïcité, told the Catholic daily La Croix he was worried that Sarkozy was pursuing a “lay Catholic civil religion” that might define France as a Catholic nation rather than a secular one.

True to form, Sarkozy broke with the presidential tradition of staying above the fray and shot back at his critics in an aside during a speech on Thursday about economic policy: “I know people accuse me of being much too interested in religion … I am not questioning the secular system.”

Bible as cheap as a cup of coffee is hot seller in France

Bibles“The treasure of humanity … for the price of a coffee.”

With an ad slogan like that and a price of only €1.50 ($2.20), the Bible has become a hot seller in France. In the last four months of 2007, French shoppers snapped up 200,000 copies of a new low-cost edition — as many as are usually sold in a year — in hypermarkets, a leading book chain and in religious bookshops. Another 300,000 have been bought in French-speaking Africa, Belgium, Canada and Switzerland.

The Geneva Bible Society says the new translation (only into French) is meant to be for those who’ve never read the Bible before. “The sentences are shorter and the vocabulary more understandable,” its director Jean-Pierre Bezin told the French daily Le Parisien.

But isn’t France such a secularised country? Frederic Lenoir, editor of Le Monde des Religions, said many French no longer believe in God or attend church but they could not ignore the role of Christianity in western culture. “There are many biblical references in films and books these days and they think it’s useful to know the Bible,” he said. “They wouldn’t spend €25 to buy one, but they’re tempted by €1.50.”