FaithWorld

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.  

Hunting for heretics in the 21st century

Jakarta protester with poster against Ahmadiyya founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, 9 June 2008/Dadang Tri“Popular imagination relegates ‘heresy’ to the Middle Ages…” says the Wikipedia entry on heresy. The Inquisition, the Salem witch trials and other excesses of religious zeal against dissenters also seem to be located comfortably far back in the past. But several  news items these past few days have shown that hunts for heretics continue in the 21st century. Locations, religions and methods may be different, but the intolerance is the same.

“Thousands of hardline Indonesian Muslims rallied outside the presidential palace and Jakarta police headquarters on Monday to urge the president to disband a sect branded by many Muslims as “deviant”, a news report from our Jakarta office said. “Militant Muslim groups have attacked mosques and buildings associated with Ahmadiyya, and are lobbying the government to outlaw the sect.”

Ahmadiyya, a late 19th-century movement that considers its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a latter-day prophet who came to perfect Islam, says it is a Muslim denomination. Most Muslim scholars dispute this, saying Mohammed was the last one, the “seal of the prophets”. Comparisons between religions are always tricky, but its situation looks similar to that of Mormonism within Christianity. Mormons say they are Christians with latter-day prophets and scriptures, but several traditional Christian churches dispute this. This disagreement may have lost Mitt Romney some votes in the Republican primaries in the United States, but otherwise it has not had much effect on public life.

Kissinger, Iraq and India’s Muslims – a new domino theory?

Henry Kissinger at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 21 Jan 2008/Wolfgang RattayIs Henry Kissinger trying to update the domino theory to fit what he fears in 2008? He had a “Lunch with the FT” interview in Saturday’s Financial Times and surprised his interviewer, historian Stephen Graubard, by linking the war in Iraq and Muslims in India. As Graubard wrote:

He believes the military “surge” is working and says the next question is when to start to move away from an exclusively military option. “This is not a war of states,” Kissinger says. “If we withdraw from Iraq, the radical elements in all the neighbouring Arab countries will be greatly encouraged.” We will, he fears, be unable to maintain ourselves in Afghanistan, or to retain our present position in Pakistan.

He fears a rapid withdrawal could radicalise the vast Islamic community in India. I am fascinated by this statement – I have never heard anyone else say it so robustly – and suggest that he argued in a similar vein about the dangers of a departure from Vietnam. “Not at all,” he says, adding that the collapse in Vietnam was partly compensated for by the almost simultaneous and fortuitous disintegration of the Soviet Union.

from India Insight:

Are Indian Muslims leading the way in condemning terror?

A man prays at the Nizamuddin shrine in New DelhiFor those Western critics that say Islam does not enough to to condemn terrorism, perhaps they should look at India, home to one of the world's biggest Muslim populations -- around 13 percent of mainly Hindu India's 1.1 billion people.

 On Wednesday, it was the turn of Khalid Rasheed, head of the oldest madrasa in the northern city of Lucknow -- a traditional centre for Muslims and religious scholarship. He rejected terrorism as anti-Islamic after he and his colleagues had been accused of apostasy over their pacifist stance by at group that calls itself the Indian Mujahideen.

Indian Mujahideen made threats against the madrasa in which they also claimed responsibility for last week's bomb blasts in Jaipur, western India, which killed 63 people.

India’s Hindu caste quotas edge towards private companies

The issue of redressing the imbalance of Hinduism’s ancient caste system by creating job and college entry quotas for lower caste and other disadvantaged groups in India seems to be gaining headway in an election year. Now it may be the turn for private industry.

Medical students attend protest in Kolkata, 26 Sept 2006/Parth SanyalParties across India’s political spectrum appear to be seeing caste-based reservations, as the quotas are known, as potential vote winners. It is a sign again that caste consciousness will become ever more important in what in theory is a secular Indian state.

Now multinationals enjoying the fruits of an Indian economic boom may find they are not immune. Much to the horror of many industrialists worried about their international competitiveness.

Pope breaks “silence” on Tibet with carefully worded appeal

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessings at the end of his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the VaticanAs readers of this blog will have noticed, I posted a note yesterday about calls by Italian intellectuals for Pope Benedict to break his supposed silence over Tibet. On Wednesday he did so at his weekly general audience, making a carefully worded appeal (here in Italian) for an end to the suffering of the people there.

Given the delicate nature of relations between the Vatican and China, the appeal seemed to strike a balance between his concern for the people and Vatican diplomacy. He mentioned the violence without mentioning China.

In fairness to the Pope, the accusations of “silence” made by some in Italy were perhaps, as was noted by his defenders in yesterday’s blog, a bit premature. Unless he is saying a Mass on a Church holy day or a similar occasion, the Pope only has set days in which he can make a public appeal that the Vatican believes is most effective — Sunday at the Angelus prayer from his window and Wednesday at the general audience.

Influential Muslim seminary brands terrorism un-Islamic

Darul Uloom Deoband, India/official photoOne of the most influential Islamic seminaries in one of the world’s most populous Muslim states has issued an important statement denouncing terrorism as un-Islamic. The statement is all the more interesting for the fact that it comes from an institution often linked in the media to the Taliban. But the seminary is hardly known to non-Muslims and the country is not an Arab state, not even a real “Muslim country” as such. So the statement, which was backed by several thousand Islamic scholars, looks like it will end up like the tree that falls in the forest with nobody around to hear it. It got some good coverage in its home country (like here and here and here) , but little anywhere else.

The seminary is Darul Uloom Deoband, a 150-year old institution in northern India that is the spiritual home for the arch-conservative Deobandi school of Islam. Its influence spreads across the subcontinent, into Afghanistan and into Muslim communities abroad, such as in Britain. Its link to Afghanistan’s radical Islamists goes through the madrassas in Pakistan that are considered to be “Taliban nurseries.” Most of them are Deobandi schools. Many of the pro-Taliban Islamist parties in Pakistan are Deobandi. General Zia-ul-Haq, who began Pakistan’s Islamisation drive in the 1980s that helped spread those madrassas, was Deobandi. Etc, etc, etc. Darul Uloom Deoband has always denied any connection with the Taliban and there is no reason to think it had any direct links. Its denunciation of terrorism will probably not influence the men with guns along the Afghan frontier, but it might carry some weight with the Islamist parties and madrassa directors further inland in Pakistan.

A madrassa near the Afghan border where Pakistani troops arrested suspected al Qaeda-linked militants, 15 Sept. 2005/Anjum Naveed/PoolThe declaration saysIslam sternly condemns all kinds of oppression, violence and terrorism. It has regarded oppression, mischief, rioting and murdering among severest sins and crimes.” Maulana Marghoobur Rahman, the ageing rector of Darul Uloom Deoband, told our New Delhi bureau: “There is no place for terrorism in Islam.” Our bureau saw his comments as a sign of deep sense of anxiety among India’s 140 million Muslims that a violent interpretation of Islam was finding root in the country and tarnishing the reputation of the entire community. Indian Muslims were implicated in bomb attacks on packed commuter trains in Mumbai in 2006 and in a failed attack in Britain last year.

When an Indian pilgrimage becomes a vote bank

Y.S. Reddy comforts boat disaster victim in Andhra Pradesh, 19. Jan 2007/stringerFor an example of how India often struggles with its secular ideals, especially in election years, look no further than Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister Y.S. Reddy has decided the large southern Indian state will subsidise pilgrimages for Christians who want to travel to Israel.

This kind of subsidy is not new. The central government has for years offered subsidies to Muslims wanting to join the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. New Delhi even has a special haj air terminal for Muslims, who account for about 13 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population. Tens of thousands travel every year from India.

But the latest announcement has sparked debate in India over whether it further eats into the country’s secular ideals.

Indian kidney scam highlights bioethics challenge

Egyptian shows scar after kidney stolen from him in hospital, 3 Aug. 2007/Nasser NuriBefore it slips from the news, take a look at a scandal in India that illustrates one of the biggest bioethical challenges we face in a globalised world. Last weekend, Nepal handed over to Indian authorities an Indian man arrested on suspicion of running a huge illegal kidney transplant racket. It seems this ring duped poor Indians into selling kidneys that could be transplanted into rich Indians and foreigners at many times the fee that the unwitting donors received. At least five foreigners — two U.S. and three Greek citizens — were found in a luxury guesthouse run by the racket in a city of high-tech companies just outside New Delhi.

Demand for cheap kidneys has skyrocketed in recent years in rich countries, mostly because people there are becoming more obese and suffering from kidney failure. This has led to “transplant tourism” where patients from rich countries travel to the developing world to receive new kidneys. It has led to serious proposals to set up a global kidney market to meet the demand.

This black market in kidneys for transplants is widely denounced as illegal and immoral because it exploits poor people. But would creating a worldwide organ trade make the practice any more moral? Is the danger of exploitation of the poor so strong that lawmakers should ensure that money doesn’t end up deciding everything?

Centre of Silence is golden at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s home

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s house and headquarters in the Netherlands, 7 Feb. 2008/Michael KoorenThe late Indian mystic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi lived out his final years in a golden yellow wooden residence on a secluded site of a former monastery. His house was surrounded by a well-tended garden dotted with animal figures that lit up at night. Two blue elephant statues with raised trunks flanked the front gate.

Visitors removed their shoes when entering the building constructed in a traditional Vedic architectural style in harmony with natural law patterns of orientation, placement, proportion and materials. Nearby was a tent decorated with pots of roses, daffodils and orchids. Rajas in white robes and golden crowns sat on red velvet seats, sometimes drifting off into deep contemplation.

India? Nepal? No, the Netherlands. The former Beatles guru, the man who brought Indian mysticism to the West and attracted westerners to his ashram in India, lived his last years in the Dutch countryside, close to the small town of Vlodrop near the German border.