FaithWorld

Visiting the Samaritans on their holy West Bank mountain

samaritan-slideshow (Click on the photo above for a slideshow on the Samaritans)

Samaritan High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa was relaxing on his porch watching Al-Jazeera on a wide-screen TV when we dropped by his home to talk about his ancient religion. “I like to keep up with the news,” the 83-year-old head of one of the world’s oldest and smallest religions explained as he turned down the volume. Told we wanted to make him part of the news, more precisely part of a feature on Samaritanism, he sat up, carefully put on his red priestly turban and proceeded to chat away in the fluent English he learned as a boy under the British mandate for Palestine. Our interview with him and other Samaritans were the basis for my feature “Samaritans use modern means to keep ancient faith.”

sadaqa (Photo: High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa at his home, 19 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Visiting the descendants of the biblical Samaritans was the last stop in a series of visits in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank I made after covering Pope Benedict’s trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Leaving Jerusalem with Ivan Karakashian from our bureau there, we drove through Israel’s imposing security barrier to Ramallah, picked up our Nablus stringer Atef Sa’ad there and then drove north along the web of priority roads that link the spreading network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank back to Israel. Signs of the Israeli-Palestinian face-off were all around — Israeli army patrols and checkpoints, guarded Jewish enclaves flying the Star of David flag on the hills and Palestinian villages with their mosques and minarets in the valleys. The tension seemed to melt away, though, when we turned onto a narrow road to wind our way up Mount Gerizim to the Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza.

The West Bank Samaritans used to live in Nablus, the nearest Palestinian city, but left it when the first intifada in 1987 brought the tension too close for comfort. The Samaritans get along with both Israelis and Palestinians and many have identity papers from both sides, Husney Kohen, one of the faith’s 12 hereditary priests, told us at the community’s small museum in Kiryat Luza. But their custom of not taking sides and keeping secrets meant that gunmen began using their neighbourhood as a place to execute enemies in broad daylight without worrying about witnesses. “We weren’t hurt, but we were afraid,” he said. Now living on their holy mountain, the Samaritans feel safe.

The museum looked like a treasure trove of ancient Judaica, but Kohen made sure to point out the differences between Samaritanism and Judaism. “We are Israelites but not Jewish … we have 7,000 differences between our Torah and the Jewish one,” he declared as he showed a copy of a Samaritan scroll he said was the oldest book in the world. The original is locked in their temple for safe keeping. The museum boasted genealogical lists dating generations back to Adam and a few paintings of biblical scenes where Samaritans play a cameo role. kohen-scroll

Amid all the ancient artifacts, it seemed strange to hear Kohen talk about Samaritan boys meeting girls over the internet or Samaritan couples going to Israeli hospitals for pre-nuptual genetic tests. Samaritan life is governed by strict laws, especially those isolating women during menstruation and after childbirth, but Samaritan women do not keep any other kind of purdah. In fact, they stand out in Nablus — along with the few Christian women there — walking around in western clothes and flowing hair among the veiled and covered Muslims. Kohen’s oldest daughter works as a journalist for the Palestinian news agency Wafa, the second is a pharmacist and the third is studying English at the university in Nablus.

Israel to fund Reform conversions to Judaism? Not so fast.

An Israeli demonstrator holds up a sign in Jerusalem as an Orthodox man prays behind him. Reuters photograph.

The latest front in the ongoing conflict in Israel between ultra-Orthodox Judaism and less observant movements — the subject of a brief blog yesterday on Faithworld — heated up with a front page article in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday that quoted an ultra-Orthodox parliament member calling Reform Jews, among other things, “trecherous backstabbers to Judaism”.

The rather harsh, though not unprecedented, comments were reportedly made by Moshe Gafni from the religious United Torah Judaism party. Gafni is chairman of Israel’s finance committee and was quoted in a phone interview following a high court decision that ordered federal funding of non-Orthodox Jewish conversions.

Gafni’s office could not be reached to confirm the quote.

It’s not clear if Gafni will have any influence in this specific ruling, but his promise to try to block any attempts to allocate funds could certainly take the quarrel up a notch.

Can academia help Islam’s dialogue with the West?

Prince Alwaleed bin TalalSince 9/11, studying the relations between Islam and the West have become a growth field in academia. Among its leading proponents is Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars via his Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation creating study centres at leading universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. (Photo: Prince Alwaleed in Kabul, 18 March 2008/Ahmad Masood)

In the wake of the Islamist attacks in Mumbai last November, the foundation’s executive director, Muna AbuSulayman said recently, the organisation is keen to set up a centre in India and also to foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

A Mumbai Jewish community centre was seized and its rabbi and his wife killed during those attacks, in which 179 people were killed in a days-long rampage by members of a Pakistan-based militant group. “What has happened in India with the shooting was a wake up call,” she said. “India and Pakistan have a history, there’s a reason they separated. We want to help them minimise that.”

German-speaking bishops insist SSPX accepts opening to Jews

Catholic bishops in the German-speaking countries have been especially outspoken in demanding the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), whose four excommunicated bishops were welcomed back into the Church on Saturday, must explicitly accept Second Vatican Council documents assuring respect for the Jews. The Vatican had been demanding full acceptance of Council documents for years, including in a compromise it offered last June but the SSPX rejected it. As far as is known, it was not part of the deal that has now led to the bans being lifted. The issue has hit the headlines because one of the four, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, openly denied the Holocaust in an interview on Swedish television broadcast last week. (Photo: St. Peter’s Basilica, 5 Feb 2005/Tom Heneghan)

The German Bishops Conference noted the four bishops, whose dissent against Rome mostly concerned its rejection of the Council reforms including a modern liturgy and recognition for Judaism and other religions, must now discuss their future status in the Church with Vatican officials. “We have the clear expectation and make the urgent request that the four bishops and the Society announce unmistakably and credibly their loyalty to the Second Vatican Council and especially the declaration ‘ostra Aetate,’ said a statement by Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff, its main official for relations with Jews. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, is the cornerstone of the post-Council opening to Jews, Muslims and other religions.

Munich’s Archbishop Reinhard Marx said Williamson’s comments were “unspeakable, unacceptable…” and added “Every denial of the Holocaust must be punished harshly.” In a statement, he noted the Vatican would now negotiate the conditions of the four bishops’ return into the Church. “There is no doubt that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council are binding for that.”

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.

‘Clash of Civilizations’ author dies, thesis lives on

Political scientist Samuel Huntington, whose controversial book “The Clash of Civilizations” predicted conflict between the West and the Islamic world, has died at age 81, Harvard University said on Saturday. You can see our story here.

In his 1996 “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” which expanded on his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Huntington divided the world into rival civilizations based mainly on religious traditions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism and said competition and conflict among them was inevitable.

His thesis was one of the most influential, controversial and widely debated in foreign affairs circles in the past decade or so.

“Religulous” — a film call to atheist arms

Maher and director Larry Charles pose during Toronto International Film Festival, 7 Sept 2008/Mark BlinchComedian and talk-show host Bill Maher has issued the latest “call to atheist arms” in his recently released documentary “Religulous.”

He wants his fellow non-believers and doubters to “come out of the closet” to counter what he views as religion’s dangerous influence on the world. To do so, he preaches to the converted in “Religulous”, a scathing documentary that skewers Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

The film is part of the “neo-atheist” backlash to the rising influence of religion in public life, following a path recently blazed by a trio of best-selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins, a renowned Oxford biologist, has also presented a documentary critical of religion called “Root of all Evil?” on British television.

Ex-diplomat Cardinal Tauran pulls no punches now

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, 25 Nov 2005/Jameson WuCardinal Jean-Louis Tauran has apparently left diplomacy behind in his past life. The cardinal is now the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and as such, Pope Benedict’s point man for relations with all non-Christian religions except for Judaism.

From 1975 to 2003, Tauran was often a tight-lipped Vatican diplomat. He did his job so well he ended his previous life as Secretary for Relations with States, effectively the
Vatican’s foreign minister and number three position in the Secretariat of State.

When he left that job, the Frenchman was briefly Archivist of Holy Roman Church and kept a mostly low profile.

A rabbi, an imam and a priest discuss their “painful verses”

The Painful Verses, published by Editions Lessius, BrusselsA rabbi, an imam and a Catholic priest have written a book about the “painful verses” in scriptures that offend other faiths. Instead of plucking quotes out of each others’ holy books, however, they went to their own texts and picked out the passages they found difficult themselves. The result, recently published in France in the book Les Versets douloureux (The Painful Verses), amounts to an interfaith dialogue that goes straight for some of the most sensitive topics between different faiths.

The trio — Rabbi David Meyer, Imam Sohaib Bencheikh and Rev. Yves Simoens — thought it was a needed switch from the polite interfaith meetings they were used to attending.

Here’s a feature I wrote today after their book presentation this morning. Meyer said there were no plans yet to translate it but their publisher Editions Lessius was in contact with counterparts in Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain.