FaithWorld

French faith leaders work to contain any Gaza backlash

Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations. (Photo: Police survey housing project in Paris suburb, 1 June 2006/Victor Tonelli)

Among those groups are Muslims and Jews, many of whose families came from the same parts of North Africa. About 7-8 years ago, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, some of the far more numerous Muslims took out their anger at Israel on their Jewish neighbours. The official reaction against that wave of anti-Semitism was slow in coming back then, but leaders in France today — especially leaders of the main religious groups — seem determined to do their best to head that off this time around.

They have their work cut out for them. According to a French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) list (here in French), there have been 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza.  That includes several firebombs and several Jews beaten by thugs. Muslim and Jewish leaders have already issued several calls for calm. In some cities such as Strasbourg and Lyon, they have joined the mayor and their Catholic colleagues. After meeting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday evening, the national heads of the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities said they would produce a joint appeal soon. See my story on this here.

The impromptu news conference in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace showed how delicate this project can be. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Catholic archbishop of Paris, could simply say a few words about peace and not have to explain too much more. (Photo: From left, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, CFCM head Mohamed Moussaoui and Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, 12 Jan 2009/Charles Platiau)

But Mohamed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), and Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim were grilled about what they and their communities should do to avoid more violence. One reporter badgered them to say they would march together at the head of a parade for peace that, until now at least, has neither been suggested nor organised by anyone. Both thoughtful and soft-spoken men, Moussaoui and Bernheim made sure they showed enough support for “their” sides in the Gaza conflict without burning the shaky bridges between their communities here.

Italy’s Muslims divided over Gaza prayer protests at cathedrals

Many Italians were shocked to find pictures in their daily newspapers recently of Muslims kneeling in prayer on the piazzas in front of the cathedrals in Milan and Bologna during demonstrations in support of Palestinians in Gaza.
Predictably, politicians in the centre-right government criticised the protests with some, including the ministers for defence and European affairs, calling them a blasphemous provocation. (Photo: Il Giornale says Milan square “transformed into a mosque”)

The government ministers noted that it would be impossible for Christians to pray in Mecca and one called on the Roman Catholic Church to take a harder stand and be less tolerant.

Critics of the demonstrations have found an unlikely ally in Yahya Pallavicini, the vice-president of CO.RE.IS, Italy’s Islamic Religiuos Community. The demonstrations were organised by another Islamic group, the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) and Pallavicini thinks they went over the top.

GUESTVIEW: Gaza, New York, Mayor Bloomberg and interfaith dialogue

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

By Matthew Weiner

The last day of 2008 was a bad day for interfaith relations in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had his annual Prayer Breakfast at the New York Public Library, where several hundred religious leaders gathered (see video here). As usual there were prayers offered from many faiths. The Hindus were miffed, because a Sikh got their usual slot. Instead of praying, the Sikh explained Sikhism for a bit too long. The Buddhist monk also prayed too long, and the translation took forever. But poor staging was not the reason for the dark cloud that hung over us all. (Photo: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 3 Nov 2008/Lucas Jackson)

Instead, it was the bombing of Gaza. Or rather it was the Mayor’s response the day before that created  tension in the audience. The night before, Bloomberg had sided with Israel in the conflict. “I feel very strongly that Israel really does have a right …to defend itself,” he said. The mayor said nothing about the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side.

Strains grow in Malaysia as Muslims reassert majority status

(Photo: A Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur, 7 Feb 2008/Bazuki Muhammad)

Malaysia prides itself on its multicultural heritage, and rightly so. The Southeast Asian nation of around 27 million people is one of the few countries in the world where so many races and religions live together in peace and stability.

Having arrived in July from Hungary, an ex-communist country that has one of the least diverse ethnic makeups in the world, I can attest it is a truly amazing cultural experience and one of which the country should be proud.

After four years of seeing nothing but look-alike Hungarian baroque churches, I now find Hindu and Buddhist temples nestled side-by-side in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A whitewashed Protestant church sits on a square where the country’s independence from Britain was proclaimed. There is a mosque near where I live and the evening call to prayer is still a sound that thrills and intrigues. When you see and hear all that, it is easy to believe the public face of the country.

Imams and rabbis work for peace, even if debating it can get tense

There’s one thing you have to say about the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace — when they disagree about something, they don’t mind saying so. The final session of their third conference in Paris on Wednesday was the stage for an exchange of dramatic charges and counter-charges abut the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The atmosphere was tense in the UNESCO conference room where the 3-day session took place and several participants spoke up to calm down their more agitated colleagues. Since this was the only session the media was allowed to witness, it would have been easy to conclude that the imams and rabbis needed to seek peace among themselves first before preaching it to others. (Photo: An imam in Berlin, 3 Aug 2007/Fabrizio Bensch)

But there were actions that spoke louder than words in the hall. Several participants were frowning as the finger-pointing progressed. Others turned to the nearest participant of the other faith to chat. At one point, a rabbi in his Hasidic black hat and coat walked over to an imam wearing a karakul hat, embraced him warmly and sat down for a lively talk. A television camera would have had a field day contrasting the words and the deeds in evidence there. (Photo: A rabbi in Debent, Russia, 17 Sept 2007/Thomas Peter)

At the news conference ending the session, the organiser Alain Michel announced there had not been enough time to agree on a final resolution — a sign of a serious disagreement, as any reporter who has covered summit meetings could tell you. But he proceeded to say the meeting had agreed to set up a steering committee that would work out joint statements whenever there were major acts of violence in the name of religion. Names of the committee members were read out and all seemed to be satisfied that this was progress. Here is my news report about the meeting and here’s the official programme.

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.

Confusion over pope’s letter saying interfaith talks impossible

“Pope questions interfaith dialogue,” read a headline on a New York Times report this morning. “In comments on Sunday that could have broad implications in a period of intense religious conflict,”, it wrote, Pope Benedict said that dialogue between religions was impossible. Before noon, a New York rabbi was urgently appealing to Benedict XVI not to “abandon dialogue between faith communities.”

Readers following the recent upswing in interfaith contacts will recall the last time Benedict’s relations with other faiths were in the news was when he warmly received Islamic scholars on Nov. 6 in Rome and spoke of Christians and Muslims as “members of one family: the family that God has loved and gathered together from the creation of the world to the end of human history.” How could he now suggest that talks across faith lines are useless? (Photo: Pope Benedict greets Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric at the Vatican, 6 Nov 2008/Osservatore Romano)

If these readers wonder what’s going on, they’re not alone. We’ve been getting queries from contacts asking how to read a letter written by Benedict that was published in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera on Sunday and got almost no coverage other than in the New York Times. What’s going on is that the Gray Lady has confused the philosophical precision of a German theologian and the real-world pragmatism of the Roman Catholic Church. That theologian, better known as Pope Benedict, restated his definition of interreligious dialogue in the letter to Italian politician and philosopher Marcello Pena. As the NYT reported, he said that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”

U.S. and Canadian Jews, Muslims seek dialogue

Muslim and Jewish leaders across the United States and Canada plan to meet this weekend to discuss ways to fight anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.

The meetings and panel discussions from Friday to Sunday — dubbed the Weekend of Twinning — are part of a broader movement of interfaith dialogue taking place against a global backdrop of tensions between religious groups.

Several of the rabbis and imams have broadcast a public service announcement on CNN appealing for interfaith understanding (see the video above) and published a full-page ad in the New York Times available here in PDF form.

from Global News Journal:

Saudi king basks in praise at UN interfaith forum

The price of oil may have dropped by more than half in recent weeks but the Saudi petrodollar appears to have lost none of its allure, judging by the procession of very important visitors to the New York Palace Hotel this week and to the U.N. General Assembly. With President George W. Bush in the lead, they have all come to present their compliments to King Abdullah, the Saudi ruler, who has turned the Manhattan hotel and the world body into an extension of his court, complete, it would seem, with a Majlis to receive petitioners.

Naturally, all the VIPs visiting him are eager to congratulate his majesty on his interfaith initiative, a gathering of religious and political leaders which took place  this week under the auspices of the United Nations. The meeting has attracted extravagant praise from, among others, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister,  and Shimon Peres,  the veteran Israeli president.

It is a fact that the king's initiative is unprecedented and bold, taking place despite the displeasure of many influential religious clerics at home. It is also a fact that he is the first Saudi leader to have travelled to the Vatican, opening dialogue between the two largest religions.

How credible is a Saudi initiative on interfaith dialogue?

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. State Department lists as a “country of particular concern” because of its severe restrictions on religious freedom, is sponsoring talks at the United Nations in New York today and tomorrow on improving interfaith dialogue. Is this a credible exercise? (Photo: King Abdullah with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. in New York, Nov 12, 2008)

Analysis leading up to the meeting has been full of reservations. Our Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond noted that the influential religious establishment in Saudi Arabia shows scant support for the king’s initiative. Our Middle East news editor Samia Nakhoul quotes Saudi delegation member Jamal Khajoggi as saying “The king can change positions, he can hire and fire people but he cannot change the mind-set of people or the clerical establishment quickly. It has to be gradual.”

The most brutal assessment came from Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based Shiite Muslim dissident from Saudi Arabia quoted by the New York Times: “It’s like apartheid South Africa having a conference at the U.N. on racial harmony.”