FaithWorld

Gillian… the teddy… shouts and lashes in the courthouse

Khartoum correspondent Opheera McDoom looks back at the “teddy bear saga”

Gillian Gibbons with son John and daughter Jessica, 5 Dec. 2007The “teddy bear saga” broke on a Monday with the news that Gillian Gibbons had been arrested by authorities. We’re used to stories of people being taken from their homes at night by armed security forces in Khartoum, so I was caught a little by surprise at the immense interest this case attracted. But as the story grew, the world’s press descended on Khartoum and the adrenalin of covering one of the world’s top stories kicked in.

The court case was an agonising and panicked rush in the morning as no one — not even Gibbons’ defence lawyers — was quite sure where the case was going to be heard. Unusually, she was in court the day after charges were pressed . The judge decided to keep going long into the night, and after the busy courthouse had emptied of its usual crowd, before reaching a verdict.

It was a chaotic scene. I bumped into many of my Sudanese journalist colleagues. I had assumed they were there to cover the case, but instead I found that many journalists from the independent press were there for another reason — they had court cases against them for libel or defamation. The editor of Sudan’s leading independent daily and his deputy — two colleagues I really respect in the profession — were being escorted Khartoum court where Gibbons was tried, 29 Nov. 2007through the courthouse. They were being released after nearly two weeks in jail for defaming the government. And then a dazed and confused Gibbons was led through a crowd of onlookers to the courtroom, escorted by police.

The judge decided on a closed court, usually reserved for military trials, and the police formed a locked line. Shouting loudly, they gradually pushed the crowd, including defence lawyers, journalists and British embassy officials, back away from the court room. After a screaming match, the head defence lawyer was allowed in and, a few hours later, the British consul too. But journalists were edged further and further away as the long day went on.

Support for UN religious rights expert detained in Pakistan

Six international human rights groups have appealed to the U.N. Human Rights Council to press Pakistan to release Asma Jahangir, the world body’s special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief. The Pakistani lawyer, a leading human rights campaigner in her country, was put under house arrest in Lahore when President General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3.

Asma Jahangir presents 2006 Pakistan human rights report, Feb. 8, 2007The six groups — Amnesty International, The International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, World Organisation against Torture and Pax Romana — also said Pakistan should lift a threat of detention against Hina Jilani , the U.N. special representative on the situation of human rights defenders who is currently outside of her native Pakistan but would be arrested if she returned. Jahangir and Jilani are sisters who have been active campaigners for women’s rights in Pakistan.

A group representing all 38 UN special representatives and working groups on human rights also protested against emergency rule in Pakistan and singled out the arrest of their colleague Jahangir and the detention order against Jilani. “We are concerned that placing a Special Procedures mandate holder under house arrest may adversely impact on his or her ability to carry out the activities necessary to fulfill the mandate. We are alarmed that a detention order remains in place against Hina Jilani, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders,” they said.

EU pressures Turkey to boost rights for non-Muslims

Turkey has signalled it may soon amend a free speech law that has been a stumbling block in its drive to join the European Union. Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said this on Tuesday soon after the European Commission issued its annual progress report on Ankara’s membership bid. The interesting angle here for this blog is that the EU criticism singled out not only the much-criticised law on “insulting Turkishness” but also current restrictions on freedom of religion.

Demonstrator wrapped in the Turkish flag at a Brussels protest against the Kurdish PKK, Nov. 3, 2007Releasing the report, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted democracy had prevailed over military meddling in Turkish politics this year. “The new momentum should now be used to relaunch the reforms to improve fundamental freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression and religious freedom, so that they prevail in all corners of the country and in all walks of life,” he said (my emphasis).

The report gave Turkey a mixed review concerning religion. “As concerns freedom of religion, freedom of worship continues to be generally guaranteed,” it wrote. But it added: “Overall, the environment as regards freedom of religion has not been conducive to the full respect of this right in practice. A legal framework has yet to be established in line with the European Convention on Human Rights so that all religious communities can function without undue constraints. No real progress can be reported on the major difficulties encountered by the Alevis and non-Muslim religious communities.”

Ex-atheist takes on religion bashers with new book on God

book coverThe “neo-atheists” in the best-seller lists over the past year or so are getting serious competition from the other side. The new book There Is A God is all the more challenging because it comes from a former atheist who is far better versed in the complex arguments at the core of this debate. And he has a major U.S. publisher to promote this story of how a leading atheist philosopher eventually changed his mind. Anthony Flew doesn’t like to call his story a conversion, but a lot of people will probably see in it a modern Saul-to-Paul experience.

Anthony Flew is a British philosopher, now 84, who provided modern atheists with some powerful arguments during his career. His approach was to take atheism as the default position until sufficient evidence for God appeared — he called it “the presumption of atheism” and compared it to the presumption of innocence in the law. In numerous books with titles such as God and Philosophy or Does God Exist?: A Believer and an Atheist Debate, he rejected the usual arguments for God’s existence with logic and style. His approach was a far cry from the “neo-atheists” who rail against caricatures and excesses of religion (and there are certainly enough around to take aim at!) but avoid asking the tough questions that science cannot answer.

When the news came in 2004 that he had come to doubt full-blown atheism and had shifted towards deism, many atheists wrote this off as nothing more than the sign that his mental faculties were fading. Flew insisted in a long interview that he had not started believing in the God presented in the main monotheisms and did not accept the idea of an afterlife. He believed, instead, in what he called Aristotle’s God, the First Cause that created the universe but played no further role in it. He said he had come to the conviction that some form of superior intelligence must have ignited the Big Bang and set up the laws of nature.

A Massachusetts Yankee in Pope Benedict’s Court

Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican CityU.S. ambassadors are often chosen not for their expertise but because of the size of their campaign contributions. For his next envoy to the Vatican, however, President George W. Bush seems to have opted for one of the best qualified Americans he could find. Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon probably knows more people in the Vatican than all of her predecessors combined. She is almost certainly better connected there than any of her future colleagues from the other 175 countries with diplomatic relations with the Holy See. She has a resumé no other diplomat could match, including leading a Vatican delegation to a United Nations conference and advising the Catholic Church on three different pontifical organisations.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts native still has to be confirmed by the Senate. She would not be the first woman U.S. ambassador to the male bastion that is the Vatican. Corrine “Lindy” Boggs served from 1997 to 2001.

Mary Ann GlendonIn 1994, Glendon became the first woman to lead a Vatican delegation to an international conference — a role that usually was assigned to clerics, preferrably archbishops. It was the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 (see her account of the conference here). While Pope John Paul’s choice of Glendon for that role raised some eyebrows in the Vatican, it also greatly enhanced her profile as one of the Church’s leading laywomen and academics.Since 2004 she has been president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which advises the Pope on social issues, and also serves on the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family. She is the author of numerous books , including “Abortion and Divorce in Western Law.”

Bioethical dilemmas know no boundaries

Bioethical dilemmas know no boundaries. France found that out this weekend when the daily Libération revealed that a French couple that had used a surrogate mother in the United States had won a long legal battle to be recognised as the parents of the twin girls who resulted from the arrangement. Surrogacy is illegal in France. French officials refused to register the twins as the couple’s daughters, leaving them in a legal limbo for seven years. But an appeals court finally granted their wish, arguing it was in the children’s best interests to recognise the U.S. birth certificates that listed Dominique and Sylvie (their surname was not published) as the parents.

an expectant mother France banned surrogacy in 1994 in the hope of preventing a “rent-a-womb” market from developing. But this option is expressly banned by law only in France, Germany and Italy, according to the association CLARA which campaigns to change the French law. It is legal in other places, including Britain, Canada, Greece, New Zealand and some U.S. states. According to the twins’ father Dominique, between 20 to 40 French couples cross the Atlantic every year to have a child with a surrogate American mother.

Since Sylvie and Dominique were recognised as the twins’ parents in a state where surrogacy is legal, they could not be brought to court for breaking the law there. French courts tried to try them for aiding and abetting a case of surrogacy or violating the civil status of the children, but neither charge led to a conviction, Le Monde reported.

Rapid change as Turkey strives to match Islam and democracy

President Abdullah Gul accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, August 31, 2007It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful”, is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed.

Anyone who’s been following the news out of Turkey this year has to nod in agreement when reading the lead to Christopher de Bellaigue’s interesting article in the New York Review of Books. It was only last April that the army issued a veiled threat to intervene if the governing AK party — usually called a “party with Islamist roots” — tried to overturn Turkey’s secular system.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called their bluff and won a snap general election, allowing his AK partner Abdullah Gül to be elected president. The AK-led government now plans to replace the military-era constitution with a new document that will confirm “our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms”, as Gül told parliament early this month.

Thai Buddhists seek blasphemy law to punish offences against their faith

A Thai Buddhist monk rides an elephant to a protest in Bangkok, April 25, 2007The leading role monks played in the September protests against Myanmar’s military rulers has put the spotlight on the politically active side of Buddhism.

Next door in Thailand, this activism takes a quite different form. Buddhist groups there tried in vain earlier this year to have Buddhism declared the country’s official religion in its new post-coup constitution.

In April, they converged on parliament in Bangkok — some riding into the city on elephants — to highlight their demand.

UK abortion debate grows 40 years after first law allowing it

Over at another Reuters blog, Ask… , my London-based colleague Michael Holden has put the spotlight on a growing debate in Britain about the 40-year-old abortion law there. The law has come under increasing fire in recent years from anti-abortion activists, who say medical advances mean a foetus born before the 24-week limit can survive and the limit should therefore be reduced. At the same time, pro-abortion activists want to change the law to make it easier to obtain an abortion by dropping the requirement that two doctors agree to the procedure.

Michael’s post asks: Abortion – time for a change?

October 24th, 2007, filed by Michael Holden

embryo1.jpgThe highly charged issue of abortion is once again becoming a hot political issue.

Ever since terminations were legalised in1967, there has been heated debate between those who argue that abortions are morally wrong and those who say it is a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby.

Malaysia reviews its religious conversion laws

Malaysia’s Federal Court, which rejected Lina Joy’s conversion caseMalaysia has been getting some negative publicity for a while now because of the problems some citizens face when they want to convert from Islam. Malaysia is majority Muslim, with sizable religious minorities, and it leaves Muslim personal law issues to the sharia courts. They do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, meaning apostates end up in a legal limbo because they cannot register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Christian convert Lina Joy learned that to her chagrin in May when the the Federal Court — the country’s highest court — refused to remove the word “Islam” from her identity card.

The government now wants to resolve this problem. “The attorney-general’s chambers is studying the matter,” Malaysia’s de-facto justice minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz, was quoted as telling parliament this week. “It is an ongoing process. It is also a sensitive issue and, God willing, a method can be achieved on how to decide on the religion of a person.”

It’s not clear how this is going to work. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in July that Islamic religious authorities should be ready to handle apostasy cases. “We have to be ready to listen and to solve the problems,” he told reporters. “This is not about something that cannot be done. For those who don’t want to be Muslims anymore, what can you do?”