FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Mumbai violence brings New York faith groups together

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Matthew Weiner, the author, is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

When terror attacks like those in Mumbai occur, many people of faith want to stand together despite their differences to condemn them with one voice. Faith leaders in New York, having seen their own city targetted in 2001, quickly responded with a show of support for their sister city in India. Their news conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall on Monday was an example of how faith communities in the world’s most religiously diverse metropolis can join hands to speak out against such violence. (Photo: New York interfaith meeting, 1 Dec 2008/Edwin E. Bobrow)

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, senior vice-president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Mo Razvi, a Pakistani-American Muslim and community organizer, and the Interfaith Center of New York organized the meeting while Councilman John Liu got the green light to use City Hall as the venue. Potasnick worked through Thanksgiving weekend to make it happen and insisted on having representatives from every faith. “It is very important to condemn the attacks…but it is imperative we stand together with one voice,” he said.

Indeed almost everyone was there. Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York spoke condemned the attacks by Muslim extremists as un-Islamic. Jaspreet Singh of the United Sikhs spoke on behalf of a community rooted in the Indian Subcontinent. Imam Syed Sayeed, a Muslim from India and longtime New Yorker, recalled his homeland has been a religiously plural place for thousands of years. Ven. Kondannya of the New York Buddhist Council called for a non-violent response to the attacks, as did Jain community representative Naresh Jain, who lost a friend in the killing. Members of Chabad, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic community who lost a rabbi in the attacks, were also present.

Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, said she had trained in a Mumbai hospital that treated many victims and remembered the discussions that students of different faiths used to have there. “In Mumbai now, they are getting back to work,” she said. “This is all we can do. It is what the terrorists want to stop us from doing.” Dr. Mysorekar had held a prayer service with Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn just hours after the attack and prayers have continued at her temple in Queens ever since.

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

Where is the line between criticism and blasphemy?

Where is the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable criticism of religion? How should the media cover issues that offend certain believers? These issues came up at last week’s Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome and in the public editor’s column in the Sunday New York Times. In both cases, useful distinctions were made. But I’m not sure how much agreement they will produce the next time someone finds a depiction of a religion, its beliefs or its symbols outrageous. (Photo:Filipino Muslims protest outside Danish embassy in Manila, 15 Feb 2006)

The Catholic-Muslim Forum, an unprecedented meeting between Vatican and Muslim leaders and scholars, approached the issue as one of the rights of a minority religion, since cases they are concerned about — such as the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad — involved criticism of a minority faith by the local majority. They agreed that “religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices … and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.”

When I asked Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Catholic delegation, whether this meant the Vatican would support moves to limit criticism of religion that some western critics see as censorship, he said: “One must distinguish between a critical spirit, a spirit of criticism, and mockery. Freedom of speech means that we have the right to express opinions about religion, philosophy, philosophers and theologians and founders of religion. That is one thing. But deriding them and mocking them is something else… That impacts the values on which millions of people base their lives. That’s why we talk about mockery. I introduced that term… Mockery is very strong.”

Bishop sees slow progress on churches in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches on its territory is a thorny issue that loomed over the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting this week in Rome. Some Catholics say the question of religious freedom for minority faiths in Muslim countries is so important that the Vatican should insist on strict reciprocity in such interfaith talks.  (In photo: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opens in Doha on 15 March 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

However, more believe it is not a good idea to make the dialogue hostage to a single issue, so it did not become a dealbreaker here. It did get discussed in the closed-door talks, which delegates said were quite lively at times, and it was referred to in the final declaration. Cynics may say nothing was resolved, but there are interesting nuances that could lead to change.

The final declaration had this to say: “Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.” Having Muslim delegates sign up to a statement that non-Muslims should be able to worship publicly in Muslim majority countries, i.e. have their own churches, is an important step. This is clearly aimed at Saudi Arabia, where the rights of other faiths are most clearly limited. A Catholic delegate told me some Muslims did not like the final part about practising religion in private and public but their delegation head, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, reminded them that this passage could also help minority Muslims who want to build mosques in Western countries. This is an interesting example of how the globalisation of Islam is starting to influence the traditional Muslim world.

Does Sony need a religious affairs adviser?

Box art for LittleBigPlanet/Sony handoutDoes Sony need a full-time religious affairs adviser? Someone who says “that’s OK” or “whoa, don’t go there!” It looks like they could use one, judging by its decision to recall and remaster its Playstation 3 video game LittleBigPlanet because it might offend Muslims. LittleBigPlanet was supposed to be one of the biggest releases of the season. And then Sony found out some background music had a few phrases from the Koran in it and they decided to replace the disks with different music. An in-house religion maven who does some “content debugging” would cost much less than this embarrassing exercise.

Sony isn’t the only company to trip over religious sensitivities. Microsoft had to withdraw its Xbox fighter game Kakuto Chojin; Back Alley Brutal in 2003 because of Koran verses chanted in the background. Back in 1998, Muslims accused Nike of sacrilege for selling sneakers bearing a logo showing the word “air” written in fiery letters that looked like the Arabic word “Allah.” Nike ended up withdrawing the shoes, giving sensitivity training to employees and building playgrounds at several mosques in Virginia.

Muslims haven’t been the only ones complaining. A French jeans poster showing women imitating Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Last Supper”, was banned in France and Italy after Catholics there complained. A leading anti-Semitism watchdog howled last spring when a South Korean cosmetics company advertised a skin lotion with a picture of a young woman sporting what appears to be a Nazi officer’s hat.

Hindu nationalist politics fuels anti-Christian campaign in India

Christians at New Delhi protest against Orissa violence, 2 Oct 2008/Vijay MathurOne 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.”

Christians cower from Hindu backlash in Orissa

Christian woman outside her destroyed house in an Orissa village, 2 Sept 2008/Parth Sanyal TIKABALI, India (Reuters)On a starry night last week, as Lal Mohan Digal prepared to go to bed, a mob of raging, machete-wielding Hindu zealots appeared above the hills of his mud house and swarmed over a bucolic hamlet in Orissa. By dawn, Christian homes in the village were smoking heaps of burnt mud and concrete shells. Churches were razed, their wooden doors and windows stripped off.

Krittivas Mukherjee, a correspondent in our New Delhi bureau, recently visited the eastern Indian state of Orissa for a first-hand view of the continuing Hindu nationalist violence against minority Christians there. His eyewitness feature “Christians cower from Hindu backlash in Orissa” paints a vivid picture of the drama unfolding in the ransacked Christian hamlets and makeshift relief centres packed with frightened refugees.

Orissa has a history of religious violence (see our factbox). The Reuters India website archive shows 37 stories since last Christmas from datelines including Bhubaneswar (Orissa state capital), New Delhi, Rome and Vatican City. The United Nations freedom of religion investigator warned back in March about more violence to come. Mukherjee’s harrowing story comes from a hamlet so small it doesn’t show on web maps.

Christians flee, leaders deplore religious violence in India

Car burns in church compound in Kandhamal district of Orissa, 26 August 2008/Stringer IndiaRaphael Cheenath, the Roman Catholic archbishop in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, calls the religious violence there “ethnic cleansing of Christians.” Pope Benedict, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Italian government have all called for an end to the killings in the eastern state. The death toll is now 13 and possibly up to 10,000 people — mostly Christians — have sought shelter in makeshift refugee camps. More than a dozen churches have been burned. Catholic schools across India closed in protest on Friday. Local officials say the week-long violence may be waning, but this remains to be seen.

The criticism from outside the state hinted the critics believed authorities in the state had not done enough to halt the violence. No names are named, but anyone who knows Indian politics can connect the dots. The violence by Hindu mobs broke out after a Hindu leader in Orissa, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, was killed. The state is run by a coalition which includes the main Hindu nationalist opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), so suspicions immediately fall on a party that has also been already accused of turning a blind eye to the deaths of about 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The BJP’s Lal Krishna Advani, head of the opposition in the Indian parliament, has said Maoists were suspected of the killings.

Fire at Christian orphanage in Bargah, Orissa state, 26 August 2008/Reuters TVAs our correspondent Jatindra Dash in the Orissa state capital Bhubaneswar wrote: Most of India’s billion-plus citizens are Hindu and about 2.5 percent are Christians. In the Kandhamal area, more than 20 percent of the 650,000 people are mainly tribal inhabitants who converted to Christianity. Religious violence has troubled the tribal regions of Orissa for years, with Hindus and Christians fighting over conversions. While Hindu groups accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith, the Christians say lower-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape a complex Hindu caste system.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Kashmir’s lost generation

Kashmiri children wait for gunbattle to end (file photo)/Fayaz KabliiOne of the more troublesome aspects of the latest protests in Kashmir, among the biggest since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989, is the impact on the younger generation.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra writes that India's attempt to crush the revolt in 1989 and 1990 ended up provoking many young Kashmiris to take to arms and embrace radical Islam. 

"A new generation of politicized Kashmiris has now risen; the world is again likely to ignore them - until some of them turn into terrorists with Qaeda links," he writes.  Calling on India to take some first steps to ease the situation by cutting the number of troops in the Kashmir Valley and allowing Kashmiris to trade freely across the Line of Control -- the military demarcation line which divides the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan -- he says the past record does not inspire much hope.

Telegram diplomacy, Vatican style

What do Albania, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,  Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have in common?
Their heads of state all received identical or nearly identical telegrams from Pope Benedict as his plane was flying over their countries on the way from Rome to Australia to preside at the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth.
sydney.jpgThe telegrams said “FLYING OVER (NAME OF COUNTRY) EN ROUTE TO AUSTRALIA FOR THE CELEBRATION OF WORLD YOUTH DAY, I SEND CORDIAL GREETINGS TO YOU AND TO ALL YOUR FELLOW-CITIZENS, ALONG WITH THE ASSURANCE OF MY PRAYERS THAT ALMIGHTY GOD WILL BLESS THE NATION WITH PEACE AND PROSPERITY. BENEDICTUS PP. XVI.
That was the version received by heads of state of countries whose majority of citizens practice one of the three monotheistic religions. The others, where other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced, received a slightly different version  in which the phrase “invoking divine blessings” replaced the phrase “that almighty God will bless the nation”. 
But one could not help but wonder why the telegrams were virtually identical (apart from the God/divine difference) even though the situation in the various countries hardly is.  Current events in Greece, for example, are hardly similar to those in Myanmar or Afghanistan.
When he flew over countries, the late Pope John Paul would sometimes tailor his telegrams to reflect the situation on the ground, even if only obliquely. So, when reporters aboard Benedict’s  plane were handed out 18 telegrams, some read them expecting, or hoping, that a  straightforward or diplomatically creative tea-leaves message might be found in those being beamed to hot spots such as Afghanistan, which is engulfed in war, Myanmar, which is still trying to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and whose human rights record has prompted concern by the international community, or Vietnam, with which the Vatican hopes to soon establish full diplomatic relations after decades of tensions.
Granted, telegrams are not the building blocks of any state’s diplomacy. But of all the countries that were flown over, the pope has only visited one (Turkey) and perhaps this is the closest he will come to most of the rest of them. 
And, a little old-style tea leaves reading would have helped reporters who clocked more than 20 hours of flying with the pope between Rome and Sydney kill a little time.
And maybe even have produced a story or two more.