FaithWorld

Condemned Christian woman seeks mercy in Pakistan

bibiA Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on charges of blaspheming Islam said on Saturday she had been wrongfully accused by neighbours due to a personal dispute, and appealed to the president to pardon her.

Asia Bibi, mother of four, is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law which rights groups say is often exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores. (Photo: Asia Bibi in an undated photo handed out by family members on November 13, 2010. Standing left to right is Bibi’s brother Ramzan, Asia, brother Yunus and son Imran)

The 36-year-old farm worker was taken into custody by police in June last year and was convicted by a lower court on Nov. 8. She has been in prison since then, with her case drawing international media attention as well as appeals by human rights groups, and, according to Pakistani media, Pope Benedict.

“I told police that I have not committed any blasphemy and this is a wrong accusation, but they did not listen to me,” Bibi told reporters after meeting with Salman Taseer, governor of the central Punjab province where she is imprisoned. “I have small kids. I have wrongly been implicated in this false case,” she said in the prison, covered in a cloak that only revealed her eyes.

Taseer said he would take up Bibi’s case with President Asif Ali Zardari, who has the constitutional power to pardon her. “Inshallah (God willing) her appeal will be accepted,” Taseer said, adding that he had studied Bibi’s case and found that she had not committed any blasphemy.

German Chancellor Merkel honours Mohammad cartoonist at press award

merkelChancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to freedom of speech on Wednesday at a ceremony for a Dane whose cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad provoked Muslim protests that led to 50 deaths five years ago.

Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, recalled her joy over the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “Freedom for me personally is the happiest experience of my life,” Merkel, 56, said at the conference on press freedom in Potsdam near Berlin. (Photo: Kurt Westergaard (L) congratulated by Angela Merkel (R) in Potsdam, September 8, 2010/Odd Andersen)

“Even 21 years after the Berlin Wall fell the force of freedom stirs me more than anything else,” she said.  She called press freedom a “precious commodity”.

Qatari firm in talks to make Prophet Mohammad film

mohammadA film about the Prophet Mohammad backed by the producer of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix” is under discussion, a Qatar media firm said Sunday, with the aim of creating an English-language blockbuster for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

Filming of the $150 million movie is set to start in 2011, with Barrie Osborne as its producer, Almoor Holdings said. Almoor said the film – in which the Prophet would not be depicted, in accordance with Islamic strictures – was in development and talks were being held with studios, talent agencies and distributors in the United States and Britain.

Alnoor said it aimed to attract the “best international talent” to star in the motion picture.

Is there a place for God’s Holy Mountain in Jerusalem?

God's Holy MountainAsher Frohlich’s painting of “God’s Holy Mountain” (at right) depicts a scene from an imagined future Jerusalem where Islam’s Dome of the Rock stands beside a rebuilt Jewish temple and worshipers of different faiths mingle in the courtyard.

Is this scene too good to come true?

The problem today, in the simplest of terms, stems from the fact that one spot in the heart of the old city of Jerusalem, is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Jews know it as  the Temple Mount and Muslims call it al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). For more about the religious history of the complex, click here.

Today, a gilded dome stands above a rock where Muslims believe Mohammad rose to heaven. It is the same spot where a sanctuary known as the ‘holy of holies’ of two ancient Jewish temples is believed to have been located. Many Jews still pray for the temple to be rebuilt, a step some believe would then herald the return of the Messiah and a time of world peace.

Islamic tone, interfaith touch in Obama’s speech to Muslim world

obama-speech-baghdadIt started with “assalaamu alaykum” and ended with “may God’s peace be upon you.” Inbetween, President Barack Obama dotted his speech to the Muslim world with Islamic terms and references meant to resonate with his audience. The real substance in the speech were his policy statements and his call for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with Muslims, as outlined in our trunk news story. But the new tone was also important and it struck a chord with many Muslims who heard the speech, as our Middle East Special Correspondent Alistair Lyon found. Not all, of course — you can find positive and negative reactions here. (Photo: Iraqi in Baghdad watches Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Mohammed Ameen)

Among Obama’s Islamic touches were four references to the Koran (which he always called the Holy Koran), his approving mention of the scientific, mathematical and philosophical achievements of the medieval Islamic world and his citing of multi-faith life in Andalusia. These are standard elements that many Islam experts — Muslims and non-Muslims — mention in speeches at learned conferences, but it’s not often that you hear an American president talking about them.

Two religious references particularly caught my attention because they weren’t the usual conference circuit clichés. One was his comment about being in “the region where (Islam) was first revealed” – a choice of past participle showing respect for the religion.

A selection of religion reports: week of March 8

manila-moonReuters publishes many more reports on religion, faith and ethics than we can mention on the FaithWorld blog. We sometimes highlight a story here, but often leave an issue unmentioned because it was already covered on the wire, or we have neither the time nor any extra information for a blog post. Here’s a sample of some of the stories we’ve published over the past week:

Philippines says open to amending Muslim autonomy law 13 Mar 2009

China says willing to meet Dalai Lama’s envoys 13 Mar 2009

Jews ask pope for Holocaust studies in schools 12 Mar 2009tibet

Turkey denies firing editor over Darwin article 12 Mar 2009

Pope says pained over “hate, hostility” against him 12 Mar 12 2009

China says it must approve Dalai Lama reincarnation 12 Mar 2009

U.S. says some states curb free speech in name of religion 12 Mar 2009

Australia says may quit UN racism conference 12 Mar 2009

Pope admits Holocaust denier affair was mishandled 12 Mar 2009

Pope to visit Rome synagogue in autumn 12 Mar 2009pope-rabbi

Malaysia Christians battle with Muslims over Allah 11 Mar 2009

“Big Love” network apologizes to Mormons 11 Mar 2009

Catholics protest Connecticut church finance bill 11 Mar 2009

Russia church offers to help Kremlin weather crisis 11 Mar 2009

Pope admits Holocaust denier affair was mishandled 11 Mar 2009

Cardinal says bad bankers must ask God’s pardon 11 Mar 2009

US fertility patients want final say on embryos 11 Mar 2009

Dalai Lama slams China over Tibet “suffering” 10 Mar 2009obama

Cameroon demolishes street stalls for Pope’s visit 10 Mar 2009

Stem cell go-ahead puts Obama at odds with pope 10 Mar 2009

Somali cabinet votes to implement sharia law 10 Mar 2009

FACTBOX: Embryonic stem cells, the ultimate master cell 10 Mar 2009

Stem cell advocates finally get their Obama moment 09 Mar 2009

French filmmaker slammed for likening illegals to WWII Jews 09 Mar 2009

jp2-yad-vashem1Vatican paper: Washing machine liberated women most 09 Mar 2009

Chechnya wants newborns to be named after Mohammad 09 Mar 2009

Obama to let health institute decide on stem cells 08 Mar 2009

US stem cell announcement only a first step 08 Mar 2009

Pope to visit Holocaust memorial during Israel trip 08 Mar 2009

Turkish Mosque Holds First Official Kurdish Sermon 08 Mar 2009

(Photo credits from top: Romeo Ranoco, Philippe Wojazer, Alessia Pierdomenico, Larry Downing, stringer)

Vatican forgives John Lennon for “more popular than Jesus” quip

When John Lennon said in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” there was a furious reaction in the United States. Dozens of radio stations in the South and Midwest banned Beatles music and some concert venues cancelled scheduled appearances by the band. Their manager Brian Epstein quickly flew to the U.S. to try to quell the storm. Soon afterward, Lennon told a news conference in Chicago that he was sorry for making the comparison, although he added he still thought it was true. The Vatican, as far as I can see from online archives, stayed silent and aloof even thought it could hardly agree with or approve Lennon’s message. (Photo: Japanese band performs in Lennon’s memory, 8 Dec 2005/Toshiyuki Aizawa)

When the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano came out with a nostalgic look back at the Beatles on the 40th anniversary of their 1968 White Album on Saturday, it lead off the article with Lennon’s famous quote and promptly shrugged it off. “The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a ‘boast’ by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up with the legend of Elvis and rock and roll,” it wrote. The Beatles’ music was creative and original, even more so than their haircuts and clothes, and has stood the test of time, it said. The Italian-language original has now been overtaken on the OR website by the latest edition, but an English translation will certainly pop up somewhere (on Zenit?).

At the risk of possibly over-interpreting an arts page story, I wonder what all this says about the ridiculing of religious leaders. The uproar back in 1966 was mostly from the U.S. “Bible Belt” and the Vatican seems to have been quiet. Would it be the same today? At the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome three weeks ago, the two sides agreed in a statement about religious minorities that “their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule.” Muslim countries, which were not very vocal on the international scene back in the 1960s, are now working hard at the United Nations to push through a global blasphemy law.

Bali bombers: martyrs or monsters?

Did the “Bali bombers” end up as martyrs or monsters? That’s what many must be wondering after the three young men convicted of the Bali nighclub bombings in October 2002 were executed in the dead of the night last weekend in an orange grove on Java. (Photo: Funeral of bomber Imam Samudra, 11 Nov 2008/Supri)

The run-up to the executions turned into a media circus. The three men from the Jemaah Islamiah group – Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, and Amrozi — were interviewed extensively by domestic and foreign media before they faced a firing squad last Sunday. They were defiant to the end, calling for more attacks like the one they perpetrated that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists. They had, in fact, become media celebrities and the public was fascinated with them. But as monsters or martyrs?

Mainstream Indonesia was nervous and unhappy about the public spectacle that “infuriated relatives of the victims and prolonged their pain”, the Jakarta Post said.

Afghan journalist gets 20 years for insulting Prophet Mohammad

Afghan journalist Kambakhsh attends hearing at court in Kabul, 21 Ocy 2008/Omar SobhaniThe sentencing of an Afghan journalist to 20 years in jail for distributing an Internet article that said the Prophet Mohammad had ignored the rights of women has raised questions about freedom of expression and possibly the rising influence of hardline Islamists in war-ravaged Afghanistan. But is there politics at play here as well?

Sayed Perwiz Kambkhash, 23,  a reporter for the  newspaper Jahan-e-Naw (“New World”), was sentenced to death in January for insulting the Prophet after his arrest a few months earlier in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The trial reportedly took five minutes and he was not allowed to offer a defense. The appeals court commuted that sentence to 20 years.

Death sentences for blasphemy sound like something the Taliban would impose, but Mazar-i-Sharif is far from being  a Taliban redoubt. It was once a stronghold of the old Northern Alliance, which backed by U.S. firepower, ousted the Taliban from power after the Sept. 11 suicide airliner attacks. The capital of Balkh province, Mazar-i-Sharif, is home to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the “Blue Mosque” revered by Shias. The dominant language is Persian (Uzbek is also spoken) and ties with Iran have traditionally been strong. The Pashtu-speaking Taliban, who are Sunnis from eastern and southern Afghanistan, have little to do with that part of the country.

Novel about Mohammad’s wife published — what comes next?

Cover of The Jewel of MedinaThe Jewel of Medina, a novel about the Prophet Mohammad’s child bride Aisha already linked to an arson attack in London, was rushed into U.S. bookstores on Monday in a bid to head off any other violence. Author Sherry Jones says it’s a respectful account of Aisha’s life but Random House baulked at publishing it after being warned it could offend Muslims and provoke violence from a “small, radical segment”.

Publisher Eric Kampmann, president of the Beaufort Books company whose London office was firebombed, told Reuters that the surprise measure would help change the discussion about the book. “We felt that, given what was happening, it was better for everybody… to let the conversation switch from a conversation about terrorists and fearful publishers to a conversation about the merits of the book itself,” he said.

Comments from Muslims in Britain about The Jewel of Medina have been mixed, with some approving a vigorous protest and others saying their views have evolved since the Rushdie affair. Comments on blogs since the novel went out to U.S. bookshops range from those criticising it as a “flawed jewel”, those (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali) cheering the publisher for not caving in and those urging Muslims not to be provoked even by this “distorted picture of Aisha”. Some, citing a review saying it’s just a “second-rate bodice ripper-style romance”, wonder what the fuss is all about.