FaithWorld

The pope and the Holocaust: Regensburg redux?

The uproar over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust highlights an open secret here in Rome: Vatican departments don’t talk to each much, or at least as much as they should. The pope appears to have decided to lift the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops of the SSPX (including Williamson) without the wide consultation that it may have merited. The Christian Unity department, which also oversees relations with Jews, was apparently kept out of the loop. The head of the office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told The New York Times it was the pope’s decision. Kasper’s office and the Vatican press office, headed by Father Federico Lombardi, were clearly not prepared for the media onslaught that followed the discovery of Williamson’s views denying the Holocaust. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Pope Benedict’s lifting of the ban and Williamson’s comments about the Holocaust are unrelated as far as Church law is concerned. The excommunications lifted last Saturday were imposed because the four were ordained without Vatican permission. As Father Thomas Resse, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told me: “The Holocaust is a matter of history, not faith. Being a Holocaust denier is stupid but not against the faith. Being anti-Semitic, however, is a sin.” This is an important distinction, but not one the Vatican seems to be able to get across.

It was all very reminiscent of the pope’s Regensburg speech in 2006. Few in the Vatican knew it was coming. The Vatican was overwhelmed by the Muslim reaction and the media interest. This time, it is also not clear how many people in the Vatican even knew about Williamson’s history. Surely, those negotiating with the traditionalists for the lifting of the excommunications should  have known. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they not tell Kasper’s department? The Holocaust is such a sensitive issue for Jews that this response could have been seen from miles away. (Photo: Pope Benedict speaks at Regensburg University, 21 Sept 2006/KNA)

Even if the Vatican felt the rapprochement with the traditionalists was necessary, a clear and severe distancing from Williamson’s views issued simultaneously to the announcement of the lifting of the excommunications certainly would not have hurt.

It is still too early to gauge the public relations fallout within the Jewish community and in the Church itself. In all the years I have been covering Catholic-Jewish relations, this is the biggest blow-up I can recall — bigger than the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, the Good Friday prayer,  the controversy over Pius XII or the late Pope John Paul receiving Arafat.  It will take a long time for this one to heal. Those involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue say it will go on. It will.

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.

Catholic-Mormon tension over LDS baptism of the dead

Salt Lake Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, 28 May 2007/Lucy NicholsonThe issue of Mormon proxy baptisms has resurfaced with the news that the Vatican has written to Catholic dioceses around the world telling them not to provide parish records to the Genealogical Society of Utah. As the Catholic News Service reported last week, the letter calls proxy baptism using these records “detrimental” and says the Vatican did not want Catholic parishes “to cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. Mormons use genealogical data to find names of people to baptise posthumously, a practice the Roman Catholic Church rejects on theological grounds.

The LDS Church has not yet replied, but the comments section of the Church-owned Deseret News has erupted with hundreds of entries. Many are from Mormons who cannot understand why anyone would object to their baptism of the dead. Several criticise the Vatican for withholding the data, arguing it actually belongs to the general public. Other blogs have also been commenting for (mostly Mormon — see here, here, here, here, here) and against (mostly Catholic — see here, here, here, here, here). There are also critical comments from Mormons and ex-Mormons (see here, here, here).

Most of this commentary misses the point. There is no way either side is going to agree on proxy baptisms; different religions exist precisely because they disagree on fundamental issues. It is also futile to argue about religious freedom, because obviously both Churches have the right to practise their faith. The idea that one religion’s teachings give it a right to another religion’s data is also a non-starter.

Danish artist aimed turban bomb cartoon at “spiritual dynamite”

“I have no problems with Muslims. I made a cartoon which was aimed at the terrorists who use an interpretation of Islam as their spiritual dynamite.”

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, Sept. 2006 file photo/Preben Hupfeld/ScanpixKurt Westergaard, the Danish artist who drew the “turban bomb” cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad that sparked violent protests across the Muslim world, says he has no regrets about the caricature that changed his life. He lives under death threats that seem to be more than just words; last month, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service arrested three men suspected of planning to kill him. But, as he told our Copenhagen senior correspondent Kim McLaughlin, the cartoons sparked off a debate that Muslims must face if Islam is to integrate into western societies.

Read the whole interview here. Is this the way to view this issue — a turban bomb cartoon against the “spritual dynamite” of radical Islamism?

More activity on the Christian- Muslim dialogue front

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe dust had hardly settled from the Magdi Allam baptism story when Saudi King Abdullah announced he wanted to promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The World Council of Churches came out with its endorsement of the Common Word dialogue appeal after consulting member churches (many of which have already responded positively). And the World Economic Forum issued a study that says, among other things, that fewer than 30% of Muslims and Christians polled thought the other faith was sincerely interested in better understanding and cooperation. What’s going on?

The first thing to say is that these all seem to be different developments. We’ve already covered the Magdi Allam baptism story. That incident looks like a bit of unexpected turbulence that should calm down now that Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed criticised the Vatican for it and L’Osservatore Romano said the baptism was not a hostile act towards Islam. For more on this, see Nayed’s statement, his El Pais interview today (English, Spanish) and the L’Osservatore Romano editorial (Italian).

King Abdullah’s comments popped up in the Saudi press on Tuesday. He has been making positive comments and taking interesting steps such as his November visit to the Vatican and a recently announced plan to retrain Saudi imams to preach moderation. But what this latest statement really means is still unclear. It is not connected to the Common Word initiative, which has some Saudi signatories but otherwise no link to Saudi Arabia. It is not clear whether the Saudi religious establishment, which is usually more conservative than the royal family, has signed on to this. And it is not clear whether the foreign Muslims who Abdullah says he wants to lead to dialogue with Christians and Jews really want to be that close to a Saudi project. It is certainly interesting to hear the Saudi king speak of inter-faith dialogue, especially when he includes Jews in it, but there are still a lot of question marks over this plan.

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

Italian far-right uses pig to “desecrate” future mosque site

A pigItaly’s far-right Northern League has come up with some provocative ways to protest against the construction of mosques. One of its members, Senator Roberto Calderoli, has called for a “Pig Day” to demonstrate against a planned mosque in Bologna. In December 2006, protesters left a severed pig’s head outside a mosque being built in Tuscany. Their latest idea was to parade a pig around the site of a planned mosque in Padua last weekend to “desecrate” the property.

Italy’s Sky TV has the video here. It’s in Italian but you’ll get the point.

The woman leading the protesters is former deputy Education Minister Mariella Mazzetto, a Northern League member. She told the journalist: “We have blessed the ground that the city of Padua wants to transfer for the mosque … It is a question of defending Italian identity.” Muslims and non-Muslims joined in denouncing the protest.