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.

Cardinal Martino does it again

Cardinal Renato Martino, the papal aide who angered Israel and Jews by comparing Gaza to a “big concentration camp” is no novice at being outspoken or controversial. The southern Italian cardinal speaks his mind, loves to talk and sometimes has had to pay the price. Martino, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (effectively its justice minister), has a laundry list of people and governments with whom he has clashed. But that hasn’t stopped him. (Photo: Cardinal Martino at the Vatican, 12 April 2005/Tony Gentile)

Perhaps his most famous remark came in December, 2003 when, shortly after U.S. troops captured former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Martino told a news conference at the Vatican that U.S. military were wrong to show video footage of Saddam. “I felt pity to see this man destroyed, (the military) looking at his teeth as if he were a cow. They could have spared us these pictures,” he said at the time.

The “treated like a cow” remark was heard around the world and, needless to say, was not very appreciated in the White House. The Vatican had opposed the U.S.-invasion of Iraq in March of that year. In fact, a certain chill developed between Martino and then U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, a Vietnam veteran who later went on to become Bush’s Secretary for Veteran Affairs.

A Catholic Google? Are Muslim, Jewish or other Googles coming?

So now there’s Catholic Google*, a search engine that calls itself  “the best way for good Catholics to surf the web”, It claims that “it produces results from all over the internet with more weighting  given to Catholic websites and eliminates the vast majority of unsavoury content, such as pornography”.

When I heard this today, my first question was whether Google was getting into the religion business. Were there Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or other versions of the search engine out there as well? If not, would Google come up with them soon? Would it design filters that screen out cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, pro-Palestinian websites or other items that followers of certain faiths might not want to see?

It turns out the answer is “No” to all above. Catholic Google has no connection to Google itself (here’s its disclaimer).  Somebody has reserved a URL for a Muslim Google but it has no content. There’s a Jewgle out there, but it’s more about jokes than real searches.

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.

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.

Collateral damage from French headscarf law continues

When French President Jacques Chirac ‘s government wanted to ban Muslim headscarves in state schools back in 2004, it had to find a way to (1) make the ban look fair and (2) avoid a backlash from the majority Catholic electorate.  A ban had to target all religions, but couldn’t be absolute because that could violate international rights norms. It also risked alienating some Catholic voters because because many Catholic girls wore necklaces with small gold crosses. So Paris came up with a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” that would bar  Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That only bishops actually wore large crosses did not seem to matter. (Photo: Sikhs in France protest against turban ban, 31 Jan 2004/Charles Platiau)

In the haste to pass and apply the law, the government overlooked a religious group that would also be hit by the new restrictions — the Sikhs. There are about 10,000 of them, mostly living in the Paris area, easily identifiable by the distinctive turbans the men wear. When local Sikh community leaders and Sikh activists from London protested that a turban is not a religious symbol, they were given a polite hearing and ignored. The Sikhs said the turban was simply a practical way of covering the real religious symbol, their uncut hair, so taking it off would expose the religious symbol the ban was meant to bar from state schools. It was a clever argument — one that, as the cynical French quip puts it, had the additional merit of being true — but the government was not going to allow any exceptions that could leave a back door open for Muslim girls to squeeze some kind of  headscarf through.

The uproar over the ban has long since calmed down, but the Sikhs continue to campaign to overturn it. A group called United Sikhs asked a U.N. human rights committee on Monday to declare that France had violated a student’s rights by expelling him for wearing a turban and to recommend repealing the law that led to it.

Graves desecrated often in France, mostly Christian

If you go by what’s reported in the media (including by us), you’d think cemetery desecrations in France like the big one last weekend happen occasionally and target mostly Jewish and Muslim graves. Those are the cases the police report and we write about. A report by two parliamentary deputies, however, has taken an overall look at the problem nationwide and come up with some unexpected conclusions.

First, there are far more cemetery desecrations than we knew about. They happen on an average of every two to three days!  There were 144 last year and 110 up until Sept. 1 this year. And most of them target Christian — which in France would mean overwhelmingly Catholic — graves. Most desecrations are vandalism by teenagers, with only a small minority prompted by the racism, anti-Semitism or satanic cult practices normally highlighted in the media, the report said. The news story on this by our parliamentary correspondent Emile Picy is here. (Photo: Police inspect desecrated graves in France, 8 Dec 2008/Pascal Rossignol)

The report is not aimed at playing down the gravity of attacks on Muslim and Jewish graves, but rather to get an overall idea of the problem in order to suggest possible remedies. It lists some obvious ideas like better surveillance of cemeteries and better use of existing punishment. What I found the most interesting was their discussion of the waning respect for the dead. The title of the report highlights this — “Du respect des morts à la mort du respect?” (“From respect for the dead to the death of respect?”)

TIME magazine lists its 10 top religion stories of 2008

TIME magazine has come out with its list of the 10 top religion stories of 2008. The winner is a story about how religion did not tip the balance in the U.S. presidential election. U.S. media often publish this kind of list at the end of the year. Are there similar lists out there from other countries? Please let us know if you see them elsewhere.

Here are TIME’s top 10:

1. The Economy Trumps Religion 2. Never Count the Mormons Out

3. The Pope Wows the States 4. The Canterbury non-Tale

5. America’s Unfaithful Faith

6. Tibet’s Monks Rebel

7. The Birth of the New Evangelicalism

8. The Challenge of Recession

9. When Kosher Wasn’t Kosher

10. Extraterrestrials May Already be Saved

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.

Tragic end to hostage drama at Mumbai Jewish centre

The two-day hostage drama at Mumbai’s Jewish centre ended tragically on Friday when Indian anti-terrorist forces stormed Chabad House, the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community center, only to find Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg and three other hostages had been killed by Islamist gunmen.

The Israeli-born rabbi, who grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in New York, arrived in Mumbai in 2003 with his Israeli wife to serve the small Jewish community there, running a synagogue and Torah classes, and assisting Jewish tourists in the seaside city. (Photo: Indian anti-terrorist commando lowered down to Mumbai’s Nariman House, where Chabad House was located, 28 Nov 2008/stringer)

We have been filing the story from Mumbai and New York, but inevitably the rest of the Mumbai drama — the clearing of the Trident-Oberoi hotel and the continued fighting at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel — has competed with space in our updates. If you’re looking for more information, the Holtzbergs’ Chabad Lubavitch communities in Crown Heights and in Mumbai have been posting extensive information on their websites: