FaithWorld

When others beat you to the blog

Conference of European Churches logoWhen Jane Stranz of the World Council of Churches emailed me a link to her blog about me, I thought I should mention something here that is already out there on the web. The Conference of European Churches in Geneva has awarded its John Templeton Award for the European Religion Writer of the Year 2006 to yours truly.

Atlas of CreationThe Headscarf AffairThe award was for articles on the Atlas of Creation, a Muslim creationist book by Harun Yahya (left) that was mysteriously distributed for free in Turkey (and later more widely in Europe), Vienna imam Sheikh Adnan Ibrahim who says yes to Europe but no to Euro-Islam and a French comic book by René Pétillon called The Headscarf Affair (right) that spoofs the debate about Muslim headscarves.

At the award ceremony in Paris this week, I gave a short speech about the problems international religion writers face when struggling to express untranslatable foreign words and concepts in English. Since much of our reporting and research is done in foreign languages, this is a constant challenge. Ecumenical News International has a short item on the speech and the text.

With Muslim women’s headgear becoming a political issue in some European countries, do you think journalists in these countries are right to adopt words like hijab or niqab as better terms to use than headscarf or veil?

Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs

A burning car in Villiers-le Bel, 28 Nob 2007As soon as a riot starts in one of the poor suburbs around Paris, we get emails from readers and see comments on blogs accusing the media of hiding the supposedly key fact about the unrest. That fact, they tell us without providing any proof, is Islam. Why don’t we call this violence “Muslim riots?” they ask. What are we trying to hide by not identifying the rioters as Muslims? Do the MSM have a hidden agenda? Don’t we have the courage to “tell the truth?”

We’ve had rioting this week and the same questions came again. This blog has discussed this issue already in a post last month called “Smoke without fire – there was no Paris intifada in 2005.” That dealt with the 2005 riots in detail. This latest unrest is a good opportunity to explain why we don’t write “Muslim riots” — and ask in return why readers so far from the events are so convinced that we should.

We mention race and religion in Reuters news stories when they are relevant to the event being covered. It would be absurd to write “Presbyterian second baseman XYZ…” in a baseball story. He may be a Presbyterian, but he is not at second base as a Presbyterian, but as a baseball player.

Praying for news at the Vatican

You’ve probably seen on TV how reporters swarm around leaders coming out of closed-door meetings and the politicians step up to deliver their soundbites for the cameras. The Vatican held a big closed-door meeting on Friday and a wave of cardinals — the “princes of the Church” who rank among the most prominent leaders of Roman Catholicism — emerged at their lunch break to find a pack of journalists eager to pounce on them with questions. I’m in Rome for a few days and was out there waiting for them in a parking lot between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope Paul VI Hall where they were meeting. The scene was quite different from those “normal” media scrums.

Cardinals leave closed-door meeting with Pope Benedict, 23 Nov. 2007The session was a rare meeting of cardinals from around the world who are here at the Vatican for a ceremony on Saturday when 23 men “get their red hats,” i.e. join the College of Cardinals whose members under 80 years old elect the next pope. They were discussing the Catholic Church’s sensitive relations with other Christians — Orthodox they want to get closer to, Anglicans who are drifting further away, Protestants who are increasingly divided and Pentecostals who are encroaching on their flocks. These sessions presided over by Pope Benedict are supposed to remain confidential. So the men who emerged from the meeting looked and acted like anything but a bunch of politicians hoping to make it on to the evening news.

Some strode past the waiting journalists flashing half a smile and a quarter of a wave. Others found polite variations of the old “no comment”, like one who offered the (weak) joke: “If anything important had happened, you reporters would know it already.” Another walked straight up to a reporter from his home town, said he knew there was no way he could leave without talking to him, and then confessed with a smile: “But actually, I have nothing to say.”

To trust or not to trust — Vatican diplomat vents frustration at Israel

Italians have a wonderful phrase they use when things don’t work out as they had hoped: “It was better when it was worse.”

Archbishop Pietro SambiThat was the thrust of controversial comments about the Catholic Church’s relations with Israel by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, currently the Vatican’s nuncio (ambassador) to the United States and formerly the papal envoy to the Jewish state.

Sambi, who was nuncio in Israel from 1998-2005, could not have been clearer about his discontent: “If I must be frank, relations between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel were better when there were no diplomatic relations.” That was the opening salvo in a long interview in Italian with www. terrasanta.net, an on-line publication of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Stem cell breakthrough — science the ethical way?

A microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells.We noted here just the other day the all-but-absent ethical angle in the Daily Telegraph story about the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep and a new technique for creating stem cells without embryos. Now, we have two reports from Maggie Fox, our Health and Science Editor in Washington, that address the scientific and ethical issues.

Our story length limits meant the two had to be broken up, but they should be read in tandem.

One deals with the science:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two separate teams of researchers announced on Tuesday they had transformed ordinary skin cells into batches of cells that look and act like embryonic stem cells — but without using cloning technology and without making embryos.

Burnout on the God beat – second top religion writer calls it quits

Covering religion may be harmful to your faith. Two leading religion journalists — one in Britain, one in the United States — have quit the beat in recent months, saying they had acquired such a close look at such scandalous behaviour by Christians that they lost their faith and had to leave.

Bates article in New HumanistStephen Bates, who recently stepped down as religious affairs writer for the London Guardian, has just published an account of his seven years on the beat in an article entitled “Demob Happy” for the New Humanist magazine. Bates followed the crisis in the Anglican Communion for several years and even wrote a book on it, A Church At War: Anglicans and Homosexuality.

“Now I am moving on,” his article concludes. “It was time to go. What faith I had, I’ve lost, I am afraid – I’ve seen too much, too close. A young Methodist press officer once asked me earnestly whether I saw it as my job to spread the Good News of Jesus. No, I said, that’s the last thing I am here to do.”

Jewish author published in Vatican daily — more to come?

Any foreign correspondent who ever covered the old Soviet bloc remembers how the official press seemed to print only news-free communiques and bland official photos. Scanning newspapers like Pravda or Scînteia or Neues Deutschland, the skilled reader looked for subtle changes from the norm as hints of possible shifts in official thinking. Once a slight deviation was sighted, readers would watch to see if it was just a flash in the pan or whether it became a normal feature.

L’Osservatore Romano front page, Nov. 10, 2007That style of reading came to mind when L’Osservatore Romano published on Sunday what may be its first article ever by a Jewish writer. With its columns of papal speeches and discretion about internal Church issues, the Vatican daily has an unmistakable stylistic likeness to those old party organs. Not in content or purpose or inspiration, I hasten to add (hold the emails, I’m not saying the comparison goes that far). But as newspapers go, it’s as daunting as those other papers and its regular readers develop the same keen sense of small differences. So what does this change mean? Is the official voice of the Catholic Church opening up to views from other faiths? Will Muslims, Hindus or others follow?

The article was a review of a new book Brutti Ricordi (Ugly Memories), an Italian translation of two essays by Israeli academics Anita Shapira and Ephraim Kleiman on the departure of the Palestinians from Israel in 1948-1949 (review here in Italian). The author, Anna Foa, is a history professor at La Sapienza University in Rome. “The byline is not the only significant element,” writes veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso magazine. It was also interesting, he said, that the book dealt with the dispute in Israel about whether the Palestinians left in 1948 “of their own will or were forcibly banished by the victorious Jews.”

Catholic culture slips a bit in Benedict’s backyard

Bavarian children greet Pope Benedict in Munich, Sept. 9. 2006The southern German state of Bavaria is one of those areas, like southern Poland, that are known for their fervent folk Catholicism. It was on full display last year when Bavaria’s favourite son, Pope Benedict, visited his native state. But Catholicism is changing even in Bavaria, as his successor as archbishop of Munich and Freising has admitted. Cardinal Friedrich Wetter told fellow Bavarian bishops on Thursday that so many candidates for the priesthood have such insufficient knowledge of Catholic teaching that seminaries will have to introduce remedial courses to bring them up to standard.

Candidates for the priesthood increasingly come from various backgrounds and apply for the admission to the seminary with sometimes quite different prior experiences of faith and the Church,” he said in a statement (here in German). “With a propaedeutic course inserted before normal theology studies in the seminary, the Bavarian bishops want to add an educational phase that fosters the seminarians’ spiritual growth and personal discernment, … transmits basic theological knowledge and allows insight into the real situation of the Church through participation in social and pastoral work.”

A further translation of that translation would be: “we need a remedial course because the incoming seminarians don’t know enough about the Catholic Church.”

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.”

Do Christian paradigms work for Islamic problems?

Bishop Margot KässmannOctober 31 was Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther issued his famous 95 Theses, and as such a fitting occasion for Lutherans around the world to reflect on the reforms he brought to Christianity. It was probably inevitable that a Lutheran cleric somewhere would comment on the relevance of the Reformation to a major issue in today’s religious world — the future of Islam. Margot Kässmann, the Lutheran bishop of Hannover in Germany, told the local newspaper: “Something like a Reformation would also be good for Islam.”

Bishop Kässmann is one of the most prominent religious leaders in Germany, an effective preacher and a popular talk show guest. It’s clear that she means Muslims should question their traditions and shed abuses, much like Luther did in Christianity. That’s a view that Muslim reformers can also support in principle. It leads to the question, though, of how far the paradigm of the Reformation is applicable to Islam. Has the term “Islamic Reformation” become a soundbite that brings more confusion than clarity?

The Reformation in 16th-century Europe ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly of religious authority and led to a multitude of Protestant denominations. One of the driving forces was the liberating effect of questioning traditions, Kässmann said in her interview. The result was the de-centralisation of Western Christianity. By contrast, Islam already has a multitude of different schools and interpretations. Islamist radicals such as Osama bin Laden are not religious scholars, but they issue fatwas on their own that reinterpret traditional views of Islam. So part of the religion’s problem today, some Islam experts argue, is that there is no central authority that can settle disputed issues. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest — and only partly in jest — that Islam actually needs a Luther or a pope to bring about the reforms Kässmann refers to.