FaithWorld

South Korea’s religious harmony put to the test by Christian president

(South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the presidential Blue House in Seoul June 9, 2011. Credit: Reuters/Jo Yong-Hak)

Many South Koreans concerned about the country’s increasing religious polarisation are haunted by a single image – their president on his knees. While attending a national prayer breakfast in March, President ??Lee Myung-bak knelt to pray at the urging of Christian leaders.

Footage of the event shocked many in this pluralist country, where about half the population professes no particular faith and the remainder is split between Buddhists, Christians and homegrown creeds. The main Buddhist Jogye Order called the scene “unforgiveable,” and even right-leaning media outlets generally supportive of the conservative leader expressed reservations.

The Joongang Ilbo daily in an editorial urged Lee, a devout Protestant and an elder at Seoul’s Somang Church, to keep his beliefs private and avoid provoking public ire. “(The prayer breakfast) convinced people how dangerous the current situation really is,” said Park Gwang-seo, head of the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom, a civic group that works to promote the separation of religion and state. “We’re at a peak as far as the relationship between politics and religion is concerned.”

South Korea’s constitution stipulates that there is no official religion and bars the country’s leaders from elevating one faith above others, but analysts say Lee’s outspoken religious beliefs and strong links with the Christian community have opened the administration to charges of bias.

Mideast Christians struggle to hope in Arab Spring, some see no spring at all

(A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the period of interfaith unity on February 6, 2011/Dylan Martinez)

Middle East Christians are struggling to keep hope alive with Arab Spring democracy movements promising more political freedom but threatening religious strife that could decimate their dwindling ranks. Scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians protesting side by side in Cairo’s Tahrir Square five months ago marked the high point of the euphoric phase when a new era seemed possible for religious minorities chafing under Islamic majority rule.

Since then, violent attacks on churches by Salafists — a radical Islamist movement once held in check by the region’s now weakened or toppled authoritarian regimes — have convinced Christians their lot has not really improved and could get worse.

Egyptian Christians worry their country is being hijacked by Salafists

(An Egyptian Christian chants slogans as he protests against recent attacks in front of the state television building in Cairo May 15, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh )

Last January, Nazih Moussa Gerges locked up his downtown Cairo law office and joined hundreds of thousands of fellow Egyptians to demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down. The 33-year-old Christian lawyer was back on the streets this month to press military rulers who took over after Mubarak stepped down to end a spate of sectarian attacks that have killed at least 28 people and left many afraid. Those who camped out in Tahrir Square side by side with Muslims to call for national renewal now fear their struggle is being hijacked by ultra-conservative Salafist Islamists with no one to stop them.

“We did not risk our lives to bring Mubarak down in order to have him replaced by Salafists,” Gerges said. “We want an Egypt that will be an example of democracy and freedom for the whole world.”

Muslims rush to restore torched Egyptian church

(A Coptic Christian boy looks out of the Saint Mary Church which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on Saturday in the heavily populated area of Imbaba in Cairo May 8, 2011/Asmaa Waguih)

Mohammed Fathi worked his brush gently over an icon of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, removing soot from its surface inside a church gutted in an attack by Islamist militants this month. “It takes a lot of careful work to do that,” Fathi said. “We have to do a lot of tests with chemicals to try to restore the icon to its original condition.”

The 26-year-old is one of a vast group of mostly Muslim craftsmen tasked with restoring St Mary’s Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba after militants set it on fire on May 7. Egypt’s military rulers have ordered its restoration at a time when tensions between Christians, who account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and Muslims are on the rise. The ground floor of the four-storey church was gutted in the fire, destroying 10 out of 27 old icons beyond repair.

French religious leaders warn against divisive Islam debate

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(Abderrahmane Dahmane displays green star to protest against France's Islam debate, March 29, 2011/Gonzalo Fuentes)

The leaders of France’s six main religions warned the government on Wednesday against a planned debate on Islam they say could stigmatise Muslims and fuel prejudice as the country nears national elections next year. Weighing in on an issue that is tearing apart President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, the Conference of French Religious Leaders said the discussion about respect for France’s secular system could only spread confusion at a turbulent time.

The UMP plans to hold a public forum on secularism next week that critics decry as veiled Muslim-bashing to win back voters who defected to the far-right National Front at local polls last week and could thwart Sarkozy’s reelection hopes in 2012.

Egypt’s Grand Mufti prays with generals, urges Muslim-Christian unity

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(A rally to demonstrate unity between Muslims and Christians at Tahrir Square in Cairo March 11, 2011/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Egypt’s problems will melt under “the sunshine of freedom”, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa said in a sermon attended by the ruling military council on Friday when thousands gathered across the country to condemn sectarian violence. He prayed for God to bestow strength on the military which has been governing Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was forced from power on Feb. 11 by an uprising demanding political reform and an end to autocratic rule.

Addressing the sectarian violence that broke out in Cairo this week, killing 13 people, Gomaa said attacks on Christians were un-Islamic. Thousands of Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, gathered after Friday prayers to call for unity and to condemn the arson attack that ignited the sectarian tension. Thirteen people were killed in clashes between Muslims in Christians in Cairo on Tuesday night after the arson attack on a church. Activists have described the violence as a threat to the revolution.

Catholics & Jews discuss their future dialogue, possible Muslim trialogue

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(Collège des Bernardins, site of the ILC meeting in Paris, 2 March 2011/Tom Heneghan)

Jewish and Roman Catholic leaders reviewing their dialogue over the past four decades expressed concern on Wednesday that younger generations had little idea of the historic reconciliation that has taken place between them. The two faiths must keep this awareness alive at a time when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying and both the Catholic and Jewish worlds are changing in significant ways, they said at the end of a four-day interfaith conference.

The International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC) met in Paris to discuss the future of the dialogue begun after the Catholic Church renounced its anti-Semitism and declared its respect for Judaism at the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

Indian court sentences 11 to death for fiery attack on Hindu pilgrims

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(Smoke pours from the burning train in Godhra, February 27, 2002/Stringer)

A special Indian court on Tuesday sentenced to death 11 people for setting fire to a train in Godhra in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, killing 59 people in an act that led to some of the worst religious riots in the country since independence in 1947. The Sabarmati Express was carrying Hindu devotees returning from the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

More than 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the subsequent riots in Gujarat. Critics say the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules Gujarat, did little to stop the violence and many believe the riots led to the defeat of the BJP in the 2004 general elections.

The court last week found the 31 defendants on trial guilty of conspiracy to torch the train, a judgment that seemed to back the BJP’s stand that the train was deliberately set on fire to provoke the riots. Opponents say the fire was accidental and was used as an excuse for the violence. The death sentences must be confirmed by a higher court.

Extend Catholic-Jewish amity to Islam, Jewish official tells dialogue meeting

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(An art exhibition poster reading "coexist" using the Islamic crescent, Jewish David Star and Christian cross, in Jerusalem, May 13, 2001 /Reinhard Krause)

The historic reconciliation between Jews and Roman Catholics over the past 40 years should be extended to Muslims to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, a senior Jewish official has said. The regular dialogue the two faiths have maintained since the Catholic Church renounced anti-Semitism at the Second Vatican Council should be “a model for transformed relations with Islam,” Rabbi Richard Marker told the opening session of a meeting reviewing four decades of efforts to forge closer ties after 1,900 years of Christian anti-Semitism and to ask how the dialogue can progress in the future.

“Forty years in the histories of two great world religions is but a blink of an eye,” Marker, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation, said on Sunday evening. “But 40 years of a relationship is a sign of its maturity.”

Timeline – Ups and downs in recent Catholic-Jewish relations

Senior officials from the Roman Catholic Church and international Jewish groups met on Monday in Paris to review relations after 40 years of sometimes difficult dialogue.

Following is a timeline of the ups and downs in Catholic-Jewish relations since the first papal visit to Israel.

1964 – Pope Paul VI is the first modern pope to visit the Holy Land. During the visit he avoids using the word Israel, which the Vatican did not recognise at the time.