Kirill tells L’Osservatore that Moscow-Vatican ties thawing

L’Osservatore Romano, Nov. 1, 2007We reported on Wednesday that Metropolitan Kirill, the external relations chief of the Moscow Patriarchate, has been making very positive comments about relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. “We now have a positive tendency — we have moved on from a severe frost to a thaw,” he told journalists in Moscow on Tuesday.

Now he’s said it directly to the Vatican, in an interview with the pope’s own paper L’Osservatore Romano (at the upper right of the PDF, in Italian). The Vatican daily on Thursday has an unusual front-page interview with Kirill where he spoke again of a thaw. “The big chill is over and it’s thawing time,” he said. The rest of the short interview repeats earlier statements about how the two churches share the same spiritual and moral valules and should work together to tackle the many problems facing humanity today.

This is not a bad Catholic joke …

It’s one of those stories you can’t make up. Phil Stewart in our Rome bureau reports that one of Italy’s most infamous mobsters has become a father this week without ever consummating his marriage to his daughter’s mother. What’s more, his wife’s name is Immacolata (Immaculate)… But this is not some kind of bad Catholic joke.

A view of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius in the backgroundRaffaele Cutolo, a former boss of the Naples-based Camorra crime network, got multiple life sentences on “hard time” — without conjugal visiting rights — on murder charges over two decades ago. He married Immacolata in prison in 1983 but was never allowed to be alone with her. In fact Cutolo, now 65, told the Rome daily La Repubblica last year that he had only kissed his wife once in 23 years. But he said: “I want so much to give her a child.”

According to Il Messaggero newspaper, the couple immediately asked for permission to try artificial insemination, but it wasn’t until 2001 that this was granted. They apparently needed several tries before their daughter was conceived.

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.

Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case”?

File photo of patient Terry Schiavo in a Florida hospital, 2001Does Italy have its own “Terry Schiavo case“? Eluana Englaro has been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for the past 15 years and her father is trying to get legal permission to remove her feeding tube. Italy’s highest appeals court recently sent the case back to a lower court in Milan that had refused to let him do so. The local media have already dubbed Eluana “Italy’s Terry Schiavo” and the retrial (when it happens) looks set to spark off another major bioethics debate there.

Beppino Englaro has been caring for his daughter at home and says it’s time to free her from “the inhumane and degrading condition in which she is forced to exist”. The appeals court (Court of Cassation) said the lower court must determine whether her PVS is irreversible and whether she expressed the wish not to be kept alive if in a PVS. Her father said she had expressed that wish, but apparently has no living will or other tangible evidence to back that up.

Eluana’s case lacks the husband-vs-parents element that propelled the Schiavo case into the U.S. national headlines in 2005. But thorny cases of bioethics get into the national spotlight in Italy. A Roman judge is still investigating a doctor who last year removed the respirator of paralysed muscular dystrophy patient Piergiorgio Welby, 60, who had described his life as “torture” and asked for the right to die. Only Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S. state of Oregon permit assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

Smoke without fire – there was no “Paris intifada” in 2005

Car burns during riots in Paris suburb Aulnay-sous-Bois, Nov 3, 2005One of the most persistent canards about Islam in France is that Muslim groups played a key role in stoking the three weeks of rioting in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities in late 2005. Stories still regularly pop up on the Internet talking about “Muslim riots” or mentioning that cries of Allah-o-akbar were heard amid all the burning and trashing that went on. These cries, reported in the French press at the time, were taken as a sign the Islamists were behind the unrest. Bloggers coined the term “Paris intifada.” Some talked about “Baghdad-on-the-Seine.” Others were frustrated because the media did not make clear what role religion played in the unrest.

The French television channel France 2 has just broadcast an excellent documentary called Quand la France s’embrase… (When France Flares Up) about the 2005 riots in the suburbs and the 2006 student protests in the centre of many French cities. They interviewed dozens of police, politicians, community leaders and residents. They showed a lot of previously unbroadcast on-the-spot video footage taken on cellphones (sometimes by the rioters themselves). Their conclusion is actually not new. Most journalists covering the riots at the time (myself included) came to same conclusion after some initial confusion caused in part by false statements from politicians who should have known better. But the documentary is an excellent analysis of those confusing days, with new information filling out the story better than anything done before.

Rioters and police face off in Clichy-sous-Bois, Oct. 29, 2005The unrest was spontaneous and hardly organised at all, the documentary concluded. The rioters protested against widespread discrimination, unemployment and the government’s failed integration policies. Many were from North African immigrant families, and therefore from a Muslim background. But religion was not the driving force and Islamists did not organise or stoke the unrest. Some politicians accused Islamists early on in the saga, but this was more a case of clueless suits seeking a scapegoat than solid facts the police observed on the ground, the documentary concluded.

Ball in Vatican’s court after Muslim dialogue appeal

Pope Benedict prays with Muslim clerics in IstanbulAn unprecedented call from 138 Muslim scholars for better Christian-Muslim understanding had a Warholesque 15-minutes-of- fame in most media last week. Their letter to world Christian leaders got covered widely in English-speaking media (including by Reuters) and much less so in many European countries, possibly because the news conferences presenting it were in London and Washington. Some reactions from Christian leaders were included in the reporting that day. The following day, the reaction from the Vatican — the main addressee of the letter that represents more than half of Christianity — made for another story (here is our report and the original Vatican Radio report in Italian).

The story has now faded from the headlines but it’s one of those developments that cry out for a next step. The Muslim scholars invited their Christian counterparts to a dialogue, so the ball is in the Christians’ court. More specifically, it’s in the Vatican’s court. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest and most centralised branch of the Christian family. The Muslims also have a bone to pick with Pope Benedict, who just over a year ago gave his famous Regensburg speech that implied Islam was violent and irrational. That sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world and, in turn, inspired 38 Muslim scholars to write a first letter in October 2006 that denounced that violence, asked for a dialogue (which Benedict had suggested in Regensburg) and questioned his understanding of Islam.

The latest letter is a follow-up, with a far larger group of signatories and the more ambitious goal of engaging in a theological dialogue with Christians. The wealth of Koran and Bible quotes cited and the argument that Islam agrees with the heart of Christian teaching — to love God and neighbour — showed these scholars want a long and serious theological discussion with Christianity.