Telegram diplomacy, Vatican style

July 14, 2008

What do Albania, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,  Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia have in common?
Their heads of state all received identical or nearly identical telegrams from Pope Benedict as his plane was flying over their countries on the way from Rome to Australia to preside at the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth.
sydney.jpgThe telegrams said “FLYING OVER (NAME OF COUNTRY) EN ROUTE TO AUSTRALIA FOR THE CELEBRATION OF WORLD YOUTH DAY, I SEND CORDIAL GREETINGS TO YOU AND TO ALL YOUR FELLOW-CITIZENS, ALONG WITH THE ASSURANCE OF MY PRAYERS THAT ALMIGHTY GOD WILL BLESS THE NATION WITH PEACE AND PROSPERITY. BENEDICTUS PP. XVI.
That was the version received by heads of state of countries whose majority of citizens practice one of the three monotheistic religions. The others, where other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced, received a slightly different version  in which the phrase “invoking divine blessings” replaced the phrase “that almighty God will bless the nation”. 
But one could not help but wonder why the telegrams were virtually identical (apart from the God/divine difference) even though the situation in the various countries hardly is.  Current events in Greece, for example, are hardly similar to those in Myanmar or Afghanistan.
When he flew over countries, the late Pope John Paul would sometimes tailor his telegrams to reflect the situation on the ground, even if only obliquely. So, when reporters aboard Benedict’s  plane were handed out 18 telegrams, some read them expecting, or hoping, that a  straightforward or diplomatically creative tea-leaves message might be found in those being beamed to hot spots such as Afghanistan, which is engulfed in war, Myanmar, which is still trying to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis and whose human rights record has prompted concern by the international community, or Vietnam, with which the Vatican hopes to soon establish full diplomatic relations after decades of tensions.
Granted, telegrams are not the building blocks of any state’s diplomacy. But of all the countries that were flown over, the pope has only visited one (Turkey) and perhaps this is the closest he will come to most of the rest of them. 
And, a little old-style tea leaves reading would have helped reporters who clocked more than 20 hours of flying with the pope between Rome and Sydney kill a little time.
And maybe even have produced a story or two more.  

“I’ll be at Lambeth telling my story…” — Gene Robinson

July 10, 2008

Bishop Gene Robinson, 7 March 2004/Brian SnyderBishop Gene Robinson hasn’t been invited to the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference, which opens next week, but he’s sure to be in the news all the same. The openly gay Episcopal bishop, whose consecration in 2003 sparked a near-schism by traditionalist Anglicans from the Global South, plans to preach in churches, attend receptions and appear at a film premiere in Britain before, during and after Lambeth (details below). He also plans to blog at a site called Canterbury Tales from the Fringe. Extensive coverage seems guaranteed.

Turkey says journalists just don’t understand hadith project

June 25, 2008

Hadith of Sahih al-BukhariThe more outside attention Turkey’s project to purge Islam’s hadith (sayings of Prophet Mohammad) of sexism and superstition gets, the more the religious authorities insist it is being misunderstood. Ali Bardakoglu, chairman of the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate, insisted this was not a reform of Islam when the project was presented as just that in western media early this year. His deputy Mehmet Görmez gave us a long interview in March to explain that Turkey was updating its way of understanding the hadith, but not the religion itself. They explain this all in detail, but the message still doesn’t seem to come out that way at the other end.

Is Turkey facing Khomeini-style return of Islamic leader?

June 25, 2008

A poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 4 June 2001/Damir SagoljIs Turkey heading towards a Khomeini-style return of its most influential Islamic leader? Turkish media asked the question today after the Court of Appeals upheld the acquittal of Fethullah Gülen on charges of plotting to establish shariah law in the officially secular state. Gülen, who lives in the United States, has millions of followers in Turkey and abroad who support his modern and moderate form of Islam and the schools and media he has set up to propagate it. This week, he came out on top of a Foreign Policy magazine poll of the world’s leading public intellectuals. That was an Internet survey, so it can’t be considered scientific, but the flood of votes for him is a rough indicator of wide and/or well-organised support.

Survey says world’s top 10 intellectuals are Muslims

June 25, 2008

Foreign Policy July/August issue coverThe bimonthly U.S. international affairs journal Foreign Policy has just published a survey of the world’s top 20 public intellectuals and the first 10 are all Muslims. They are certainly an interesting group of men (and one woman) but the journal’s editors are not convinced they all belong on top. In their introduction in the July/August issue, they wrote: “Rankings are an inherently dangerous business.” It turns out that some candidates ran publicity campaigns on their web sites, in interviews or in reports in media friendly to them. So intellectuals who many other intellectuals might have put at the top — say Noam Chomsky or Richard Dawkins — landed only in the second 10 or in a much more mixed list of post-poll write-ins.

Orthodox Anglicans skate around schism at conference

June 20, 2008

Religion reporters have been tracking the slow disintegration of the Anglican Communion since 2003 with one word itching away at the tips of their typing fingers — schism. We don’t get to write history with a capital “H” that often and the few times we do can be career high points. So the prospect of covering an event where you can draw parallels to the Great Schism of 1054 (east-west back then, north-south now, etc) is tempting. In the meantime, though, even a hint of a schism is enough to land the term in a story. But it has to have the right packaging — adjectives such as “potential” or “looming” or something else — to indicate the big kaboom has not actually happened (or at least not yet). So we can scratch the itch a bit, but not too much.

Soundbites but no solutions in French “virginity lie” case

June 3, 2008

A bride waiting for her wedding, 14 Feb 2008/Shannon StapletonThe “virginity lie” case gripping France for the past two days has given French politicians the opportunity to indulge in one of their favourite pastimes — expressing indignation. There’s been much more heat than light in this story since it broke last Friday.

NYT has second thoughts about “Sharia smear” on Obama

June 2, 2008

New York Times front page, 1 June 2008Thank you, Clark Hoyt. The public editor (ombudsman) of the New York Times has torn apart Edward Luttwak’s op-ed piece on Barack Obama supposedly being a Muslim apostate, right in the Grey Lady’s pages. In his Public Editor column on Sunday, Hoyt called it “a single, extreme point of view” and said the NYT should not simply publish opinion pieces based on patently false facts. We blogged about this last week when a leading Muslim scholar refuted Luttwak’s article. Luttwak is a military historian and  conservative analyst of strategic issues who has advised the U.S. military, National Security Council and State Department. He lists his fields of expertise as “geoeconomics, strategy and national strategies and military policies” but not Islam.

French Muslims’ marriage annulled over virginity lie

May 30, 2008

A French court has annulled the marriage of two French Muslims because the husband complained his wife was not the virgin she had claimed to be. His lawyer won the case by arguing a civil marriage is a legal contract and lying about an important element in it amounts to fraud. Religion had nothing to do with it, he argued, and the court agreed. More details are in our news story here.

Lambeth Conference: News or Not?

May 23, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 22 Feb 2008/Darren StaplesIt has been spoken of as a setting for schism. But could the Lambeth Conference — the worldwide Anglican Communion‘s once-a-decade global meeting beginning July 16 in England — be a bust when it comes to headline-making news?