FaithWorld

Al Qaeda offers to free French hostages if burqa ban ended – TV

veilAl Qaeda’s north African arm wants a repeal of a ban on the Muslim face veil in France, the release of militants and 7 million euros to free hostages who include five French, Al Arabiya TV said on Monday.  Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is holding seven foreigners in the Sahara desert after kidnapping them last month. (Photo: A woman protests outside the French Embassy in London against France’s veil ban, 25 Sept 2010/Luke MacGregor)

The sources did not specify which militants the hostage-takers wanted released. France’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the report as one of several “rumours” since the kidnappings in mid-September.

The government has not received any demands from AQIM since the seven were taken, but has said it would consider negotiating with the hostage-takers for their release. Initial contacts with AQIM through local chiefs in Mali were “not encouraging” due to the nature of the demands, the sources told the Dubai-based television station.

France became the first country in Europe to outlaw the veil after the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional authority, approved the ban last week. It will be enforced after a six-month transition period during which fully covered women will be warned about penalties they could face.

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Austrian far-right surges in Vienna vote

vienna elexAustria’s resurgent far-right party won over a quarter of the vote in Vienna’s provincial election as voters took their discontent to the ballot box, reflecting a wider European trend as voters concerned about the economic crisis and integration of Muslims turn to rightist parties. (Photo: Heinz-Christian Strache, top candidate of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), October 10, 2010/Leonhard Foeger)

Vienna’s Social Democrats under Michael Häupl, mayor since 1994, won 44.1 percent, losing their absolute majority while Heinz-Christian Strache’s far-right Freedom Party scooped up 27.1 percent, up from 15 percent in 2005. All the other main parties lost ground. The results suggest Freedom, which has called for a ban on mosques with minarets and on Islamic face veils, is returning to its strength of the late 1990s.

Analysts say that if the centrist parties keep losing support, they might start catering more to far-right concerns on social policy, mulling for example a ban on Islamic face veils in public and stricter limits on immigration.

Christians in Arab Gulf face hurdles to worship

doha church (Photo: Worshippers pack the first Mass at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Doha, March 15, 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

Every Friday in the Muslim Gulf Arab state of Kuwait, 2,000 worshippers cram into a 600-seat church or listen outside to the mass relayed on loudspeakers, prompting their Roman Catholic bishop to worry about a stampede. “If a panic happens, it will be a catastrophe … it is a miracle that nothing has happened,” said Bishop Camillo Ballin.

These churchgoers represent only the tip of the iceberg. Ballin reckons his flock in Kuwait numbers around 350,000 out of a total of half a million Christians in the country.

At least 3.5 million Christians of all denominations live in the Gulf Arab region, the birthplace of Islam and home to some of the most conservative Arab Muslim societies in the world. The freedom to practice Christianity — or any religion other than Islam — is not always a given in the Gulf and varies from country to country. Saudi Arabia, which applies an austere form of Sunni Islam, has by far the tightest restrictions.

Christians in Lebanon fret despite privileged role

lebanon christiansAfter a panicky mass flight from his Christian village, Sami Abi Daher watched from across the valley as Syrian-backed Druze fighters burned and looted it. That was back in 1983 when battles forced tens of thousands of Christians from their homes in the Aley and Shouf hills near Beirut in a bloody postscript to Israel’s 1982 invasion. (Photo: Supporters of Christian Lebanese Forces commemorate the Lebanese Resistance Martyrs in Jouniyeh, north of Beirut, September 25, 2010./ Mohamed Azakir)

Abi Daher, a former Christian militiaman, has never returned to live in his village, Rishmaya, instead working and bringing up his three children in a Christian district of Beirut.

Twenty years after the 1975-90 civil war, Christians formally enjoy a reduced but still disproportionate weight in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system. While under no specific threat, as a community they are weak and divided.

In Holy Land, Christians are a community in decline

latinIn the land where Jesus lived, Christians say their dwindling numbers are turning churches from places of worship into museums. And when Christian pilgrims come from all over the world to visit the places of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, they find them divided by a concrete wall. (Photo: Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal at a checkpoint in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 24, 2009/Ammar Awad)

Members of the Abu al-Zulaf family, Palestinian Christians, have left the hills and olive groves of their village near Bethlehem for Sweden and the United States, seeking a better life than that on offer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Ayman Abu al-Zulaf, 41, moved to France in 1998. But he returned to Beit Sahour, the village where he was born, a year later. “I needed to be here, not in France,” he said. “Without Christians, the Holy Land, the land of Jesus, has no value.”

Egypt Christians say intolerance grows, close ranks

coptsMinarets and church towers mingle on Cairo’s skyline, but tensions mar Egypt’s record of religious coexistence and a perception of growing intolerance is leading some Christians to shun their Muslim compatriots.

Amira Helmy, from a middle-class area of the capital, was brought up by a Muslim neighbour after her mother died and attended a state school alongside Muslim children. “Most of my friends were Muslims. We used to go on outings together and some would call to me from below my house so we could walk to school,” recalls Helmy with a smile. (Photo: Leader of Egypt’s Copts, Pope Shenouda (C), with fellow clergymen,June 8, 2010/Asmaa Waguih)

Now a housewife in her 40s, she sends her daughter Christine and son Kirollos to a private Christian school and forbids them from mingling with Muslim children to protect them from insults. Around a tenth of Egypt’s 78 million people are Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts — descendents of Christian communities that founded monasticism in the early centuries after Jesus.

Vatican synod to mull Middle East Christian exodus

baghdad churchWith Christianity dwindling in its Middle Eastern birthplace, Pope Benedict has convened Catholic bishops from the region to debate how to save its minority communities and promote harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

For two weeks starting on Sunday, the bishops will discuss problems for the faithful ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and strife in Iraq to radical Islamism, economic crisis and the divisions among the region’s many Christian churches. (Photo: Worshippers light candles after Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Baghdad October 3, 2010/Mohammed Ameen)

They come from local churches affiliated with the Vatican, but the relentless exodus of all Christians — Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants — has prompted them to take a broad look at the challenges facing all followers of Jesus there.

Christians in Middle East much more than a numbers game

Franciscan Father David Jaeger is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most authoritative experts on the Middle East. Until a few weeks ago, he was the delegate of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in Rome. A convert from Judaism who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1986, he is  a noted canon lawyer. He was part of the Vatican team that negotiated diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 and is part of the Vatican team that is still ironing out the final subsidiary details of that accord. He spoke to Reuters and Reuters Television about the upcoming Mideast synod in the atrium of Antonianum University in Rome. Here is a transcript of parts of the conversation.

jaegerWhat do you expect from the synod?

I think it is intended to be a very significant step forward in the development of the witness of the Church in the Middle East.  Synods are convened not simply, or not necessarily, in response to a current affairs concerns but as a moment for the Church to grow, in faithfulness and in effectiveness of  witness. (Photo: Fr. David Jaeger in a screengrab from a Reuters Television interview in Rome, 6 Oct 2010)

The moment in the  Middle East is particularly appropriate for this further development. There is hope for new ecumenical relations. There is a growth of the Church itself in the Middle East, in awareness of fundamental values of Vatican II, such as religious freedom and the civic responsibility of Christians. I don’t think people in the West appreciate to what extent the thematics of the synod are totally new to so much of the Church in the Middle East. Religious freedom some decades ago was not even a known concept. It had never been experienced in 13 centuries. It had always been presupposed that it could not be attained,  yet now it is being spoken of in the preparatory documents of the synod as a serious subject, not as something already existing of course, but as  something realistically to be looked forward to.

Constitution, not sharia, is supreme law in Germany – Merkel

merkelChancellor Angela Merkel has said Muslims must obey the constitution and not sharia law if they want to live in Germany, which is debating the integration of its 4 million-strong Muslim population.

In the furore following a German central banker’s blunt comments about Muslims failing to integrate, moderate leaders including President Christian Wulff have urged Germans to accept that “Islam also belongs in Germany.” (Photo: Angela Merkel at a CDU conference in Wiesbaden, 6 Oct 2010/Alex Domanski)

Merkel , the daughter of a Protestant pastor brought up in East Germany who now leads the predominantly Catholic CDU party,  said Wulff had emphasised Germany’s “Christian roots and its Jewish roots.”

Wilders’s anti-Islam film screened in Dutch court

wilders wednesdayThe hate trial of Dutch anti-Islamist politician Geert Wilders, who will have a powerful shadow role in the Dutch government, resumed on Wednesday with a showing of his controversial film that criticises the Koran. (Photo: Geert Wilders (R) in court with his lawyer Bram Moszkowicz (L)  in Amsterdam, October 6, 2010/Marcel Antonisse)

The screening in court of Wilders’s 2008 film “Fitna,” which accuses the Koran of inciting violence, threatened to interrupt the trial for a second time in a week when defence lawyer Bram Moszkowicz objected to comments from presiding judge Jan Moors.

When one complainant said she did not wish to see the film, which accuses the Koran of inciting violence, Moors said: “I can understand that” — prompting a sharp response from Moszkowicz who said such a remark is simply not allowed. Moors stressed he was not expressing any judgement over the film.