Concern mounts as Netherlands readies for anti-Islam film

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, 23 June 2007/Yves HermanConcern is mounting in the Netherlands as the country prepares for a film about the Koran by a far-right populist known for his hostility to Islam. It reached the point last Friday that Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende publicly appealed for restraint. A former Malaysian ambassador in The Hague has said the reaction could make the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy look like “a picnic.”

Geert Wilders, who wants to ban the Koran as a “fascist” book and has warned of a “tsunami of Islamisation” in the Netherlands, has proceeded with the film despite warnings from the Dutch justice and foreign ministers. (We blogged on this last November when the warnings came). It’s not clear when it will be broadcast, but it is expected soon. Wilders has denied reports that it will be shown on Friday Jan. 25. There is already a spoof on YouTube.

The last Dutchman who made a film critical of Islam, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by an Islamist radical in 2004. That unleashed a violent anti-Muslim backlash in the Netherlands. Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish daily sparked off violent protests in the Muslim world.

Geert WildersWith that in mind, the Dutch government has been considering the possible reaction this time around and what to do about it. According to media reports, “these include quick evacuation of Dutch citizens from Muslim countries. The government is expecting riots, flag burnings and boycotts, and has informed municipalities and police to be ready for such eventualities.” Last Saturday, about 200 Christians from various churches met in Zwolle to pray “for calm and tolerance” when the film comes out.

Ehsan Jami, a Dutch-Iranian who launched a Committee of Ex-Muslims last September, has said he is working on a film about the life of Mohammad due out in February or March.

The papal speech not heard around the world

Students accuse Pope Benedict of homophobia, 15 Jan 2008/Dario Pignatelli For the first time since Pope Benedict’s election in 2005, the Vatican has issued a speech he did not read. The Pope was to have visited Rome’s La Sapienza University on January 17 but student demonstrations (the kind that would have made anyone who was alive in the 1960s nostalgic) forced him to change his plans.

A small number of students and professors accused the Pope of being against science, citing a speech he made in 1990 when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The students and professors argued that that speech showed he would have supported the church’s heresy trial against the astronomer Galileo in the 17th century. The speech did not, in fact, state that and the Vatican promptly said the protesters had misunderstood it.

As pictures from the university showed, the protest appeared to be more against a man accused by some Italians of interfering in politics with his positions against gay marriage and abortion, and his opposition to proposed legislation that would give unmarried couples more rights. While many Italian students do not like Benedict, Italian media reports said most believed he had a right to speak, even if he would be booed. A large group of students turned up at the Pope’s weekly audience on Students hold up banners supporting Pope Benedict, 16 Jan 2008/Dario PignatelliWednesday with banners saying “If Benedict doesn’t come to La Sapienza, La Sapienza will come to Benedict” and “Students with the Pope.” One held up an Italian flag with the slogan “Viva il Papa.”

Fund for films to boost West-Islam understanding

Jordan’s Queen Noor at Alliance meeting in Madrid, 15 Jan 2008/Sergio PerezThe Alliance of Civilisations is setting up a $100 million fund to make films to promote harmony between the West and Islamic countries.

Queen Noor of Jordan told a meeting of the Alliance in Madrid that the fund’s backers included Richard Branson, YouTube and the company that produced “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore.

“They say ‘perception is reality’ and that ‘seeing is believing’. So let us find a way to show the world something that will change their perceptions and ultimately their actions,” she said.

Vatican daily has Jewish historian comment on Bush and Auschwitz

Apologies aren’t easy, especially for the infallible.*

President Bush visits Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, 11 January 2008During his visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, President George Bush saw aerial photos of the Auschwitz death camp taken by American planes during World War Two and was quoted as saying: “We should have bombed it.” This presented an interesting challenge to the Pope’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Critics have long accused Pope Pius XII of failing to help Jews during the Holocaust and his successors of failing to say mea culpa in apology. German-born Pope Benedict heard the same in May 2006 after he avoided the issue during a visit to Auschwitz. So how should the Vatican daily report what looked like an indirect apology (the first of its kind?) by the U.S. president?

The Sunday edition showed the way. L’Osservatore, a once-bland broadsheet livened up under its new editor Giovanni Maria Vian, invited the Jewish historian Anna Foa to write a front-page commentary on “The Missed Bombing” (text in Italian). She writes: “A president of the United States, George W. Bush, has admitted publicly what many historians and a part of public opinion have been saying for years: that in 1944, the Americans should have bombed Auschwitz.” Foa noted that, as early as 1942, information about the death camps had reached “the Red Cross, the neutral countries, the Holy See, the chancelleries of the Allies. Many of these reports were not believed at the time. But in 1943, all governments knew.

Pope Benedict enters Auschwitz death camp, 28 May 2006/Pawel KopczynskiBombing Auschwitz could have slowed or stopped the slaughter there, especially of the half a million Hungarian Jews deported in the summer and autumn of 1944, but the Allies did not do it. Not because bombing would not be useful, Foa writes, but for “a more general reason: saving the Jews did not have priority in the overall management of the war.” Bombing the train tracks leading to Auschwitz or even the gas chambers themselves “would have broken the silence that settled over the death camps, given the war an incomparable ethical motivation and forced all of Europe to know” what was happening there.

What we still don’t know about Blair’s conversion

Tony BlairDoes the public have the right to know the reasons why Tony Blair converted to Roman Catholicism just before Christmas? I mean the real reasons — what does the Catholic Church give him in terms of spirituality, theology or tradition that the Church of England did not? The initial news stories and follow-up articles over the holidays repeated the known circumstantial evidence, such as the fact his wife and children are Catholic and he has attended Catholic mass for years. Many took a political angle, noting that he waited until he had left office. Some accused him of hypocrisy for doing so despite supporting policies the Vatican opposes. But they didn’t give the real reasons.

The articles didn’t report Blair’s innermost convictions because he hasn’t revealed them. And he may never do so. There is so much public use and misuse of faith in politics that he may have decided he did not want his beliefs torn apart by his critics or the media, so he waited until they could no longer argue the prime minister’s faith was a matter of public interest. Journalists regret this, because we always want to know more, but fair-minded people can respect it.

I mention this because the latest edition of the U.S. Jesuit magazine America has the most informative article on Blair’s conversion that I’ve seen. In “From Thames to Tiber,” Austen Ivereigh, a former adviser to London Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O’Connor, tells us that “Blair’s background is in liberal Anglo-Catholicism; his favorite theologians are Leonardo Boff and Hans Küng, not Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He America magazinebelongs to an ecclesial tradition in which the gate is wide, and bridges more important than borders.” He says Blair was attracted by “the Church’s vast international reach, its commitment to the poor, its capacity for mobilisation against injustice and its courage to stand firm on unpopular issues.” That goes a lot further in locating his faith.

Is Al Qaeda’s Zawahri going YouTube?

Ayman al-Zawahri in his latest video, 17 Dec. 2007 Where did they get this idea from, the YouTube debates? Al Qaeda’s second-in- command Ayman al-Zawahri will take questions from around the world next month in a video interview. This news got buried a bit in the reporting on his latest video but I asked our correspondent Firouz Sedarat in Dubai for some more information. He says this looks like the first time that Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man will go interactive like this.

As-Sahab, the Al Qaeda online media outlet that broadcasts these videos, has asked its viewers to send in “brief and focused” questions for the elusive Egyptian. “We urge the brothers overseeing the gathering of the questions to pass them on without any changes, be they pro or con, and As-Sahab will do its best to issue the answers by Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri to these questions as soon as possible,” it said. It gave no further details about the format.

Republican candidates take questions at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, Nov 29, 2007Zawahri himself didn’t mention any Q&A in the 97-minute video, so it’s not clear if he knows about the YouTube debates in his hideout. He talks about both religious and political issues in his videos, although his statements related to security issues usually grab the headlines. Among the religious issues in the latest video was an attack of Saudi King Abdullah for meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican last month. In an unusually fast reaction, the Vatican responded by saying he seemed afraid of dialogue with other religions.

Sat-TV obit channel to go live soon

Tomb in a cemetery in BudapestObituaries on TV? Satellite broadcasts of cemetery visits? It may sound morbid, but a German television producer plans to launch a satellite TV channel dedicated to obituary videocasts, features on famous graveyards and practical advice for those nearing death. And he thinks he’s got a huge target audience that can only get bigger in coming years.

Etos TV had planned a launch this year but put it back to early 2008 because of all the interest shown in the project in Germany and abroad, its founder Wolf Tilmann Schneider told the German media magazine That will give it time to integrate suggestions from new business partners, he said. “Every country has a different (funeral) culture, but all have the same problem — the decline of this culture,” he said.

There are 485,000 obituaries published in (German) newspapers every year, but there’s nothing about the people in them,” Schneider told the Financial Times Deutschland. “With our service, people will be able to contribute obituaries for anyone who dies, with pictures and texts that are professionally produced.”

Science helps religion in stem cell debates

A microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells.Science and religion are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, especially by the “new atheists“, but the real picture has always been more complex. The latest breakthrough in stem cell research shows how quickly opposing sides can become allies. On Nov. 20, two research teams announced they had transformed ordinary skin cells into stem cells without destroying human embryos in the process. That meant that scientists could solve an ethical dilemma they had effectively created when they began using human embryos to produce stem cells.

Religious groups critical of embryonic stem cell research immediately hailed the breakthrough as an advance that opened the door to ethnical use of these potential wonder cells. They have now begun to use it as a welcome argument to bolster their positions in disputes on the issue. This must be happening in quite a few places, but here are two examples that show how science is helping religion in this case.

In Germany, the Roman Catholic Church has severely criticised the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for agreeing to loosen tight restrictions on embryonic stem cell research there. The law bars German scientists from working on stem cell lines developed after January 1, 2002. Researchers say this is hampering their work and want the cut-off date to be moved up to 2007.

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.

British media react to Christianophobia debate

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Westminster Abbey, 19 Nov. 2007What a difference a day makes. A post here yesterday noted that British media had all but ignored today’s debate about Christianophobia in parliament and asked whether that term was an appropriate one to use. Well, today several newspapers have taken up the issue, with different angles.

Andrew Brown in the Guardian says “Civilisation is safe” and sees influences from across the Atlantic for the debate: “The American nationalist right – and now an obscure Tory MP – would have us believe that Christian traditions are under threat. I don’t think so.” He also says that a BBC story about the debate was the second most emailed story on the BBC’s website. His post sparked a long list of comments.

A question on the Daily Telegraph site “How should we tackle ‘Christianophobia’ ?” also sparked a lively discussion. The Daily Express ran the blaring headline: “SOON ALL BRITAIN’S CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS MAY BE KILLED OFF.” The Daily Mail spoke of “rising Christianophobia and busybodies who downgrade Christian traditions.”