FaithWorld

A week after riots, Thai capital prays for peace

bangkok

Buddhist monks receive alms in Bangkok on May 26, 2010 during a gathering for peace prayers/Yannis Behrakis

Thousands of Thais prayed for peace and unity in Bangkok on Wednesday, a week after a deadly military crackdown on protesters sparked a terrifying night of arson and riots that levelled buildings and killed 54 people.

But analysts say without major reforms to a political system that protesters claim favours an “establishment elite” over the rural masses, such prayers and forgiveness will not end a polarising crisis costing the economy billions of dollars.

Hundreds of saffron-robed Buddhist monks received food from well wishers along a shopping mall occupied by anti-government protesters for six weeks until they were dispersed by troops and armoured vehicles last week.

Next to them were Christian, Muslim and Sikh leaders, who also conducted prayers to bless the riot-torn city of 15 million people as predominantly Buddhist Thailand grapples with widening social and political rifts that have spiralled dangerously into the open in the past five years.

Out with the old? Turkish secularists seek new vision and leader

chp

Republican People's Party (CHP) congress with portrait of Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Ankara May 22, 2010/Umit Bektas

Turkey’s secular opposition is expected to choose a new, younger leader this weekend at a congress that will usher out an old guard who had posed little threat to the Islamist-leaning ruling party’s hold on power.  The Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s oldest party and the voice of the secularist elite, is seeking a makeover in the hope of stopping Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from winning a third consecutive term in an election due next year.

Having been trounced by Erdogan’s AK Party — which has its roots in political Islam — in the last two general elections, CHP delegates will meet Saturday and Sunday in Ankara, where they are widely expected to choose Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a moderate, as new chairman, party insiders say.

Morocco expels proselytising Christians ‘to prevent conflict’

rabat church

Saint Pierre Cathedral in Rabat, November 12, 2008/Rafael Marchante

Morocco has expelled foreign Christians who tried to convert Muslims because, as a moderate Islamic state, it wants to foster “order and calm” and avoid a clash between faiths, its Islamic affairs minister has  said.

The government has expelled around 100 foreign Christians since March, many of them aid workers, in what Western diplomats have called an unprecedented crackdown on undercover preaching.

“These incidents (expulsions) were prompted by the activism of some foreigners who undermined public order,” Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmed Toufiq told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday. “There are some who hide their proselytism and religious activism under the guise of other activities.”

After minarets, will Switzerland ban burqas too?

zurich

Zurich and the Limmat River, April 20, 2008/Arnd Wiegmann

Full Muslim face veils could become the next divisive religious issue to take centre stage in Switzerland, where voters last November approved a measure banning the construction of new minarets. The Swiss federal government said in February it saw no need for a “burqa ban.” Politicians at the national level say there’s no “burqa problem” in Switzerland. But few thought there was a “minaret problem” either, until the question was put to a national referendum and the minaret ban campaigners won.

Like the minarets, of which there are only four in Switzerland, there are very few veiled women in Switzerland. The most likely place to see them is Geneva, where many rich Middle Easterners do their banking. Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey recently told the newspaper Blick that she’d once seen fully veiled women there and was “furious, because the burqa is a symbol of the enslavement of women.” But she insisted to her interviewers: “I’m against burqas. And I’m against a burqa ban … we don’t have a burqa problem in Switzerland. Very few women wear a burqa here. Have you even seen one?”

Similarly, Economy Minister Doris Leuthard, who is also serving this year as the country’s president, has said  “we’ve got much tougher, more important problems.” Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has said “we don’t really have a burqa problem in Switzerland now.” She did add, though, that she was watching to see whether a “parallel society” was developing. “We are not ready to let our legal system and our values be compromised,” she said.

Sarkozy says Muslims should not feel singled out by full veil ban

burqa

A veiled woman in Nantes, western France, on April 26, 2010/Stephane Mahe

France attempted the arguably impossible on Wednesday by presenting a bill to ban Muslim face veils and asking Muslims not to feel it was singling them out in the process.

President Nicolas Sarkozy made a brave effort of it at the cabinet meeting that approved the government’s draft “burqa ban” that we reported on here.  Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who Sarkozy’s UMP party always seems to call on when things get tough, did her best in an interview (here in French) that got the part about Mecca wrong. There will be more of this in the months ahead as the bill moves through the National Assembly and Senate.

It’s hard not to single out Muslims when they’re the only ones who wear full face veils. The bill avoids mentioning them as such, saying only that the ban applies to “concealment of the face in public. But nobody’s fooled, a fact Sarkozy acknowledged in his comments to the cabinet: “This is a decision one doesn’t take lightly. It’s a serious decision because nobody should feel hurt or stigmatised. I’m thinking in particular of our Muslim compatriots, who have their place in the republic and should feel respected. Laïcité means respect for all beliefs, for all religions.

Swedish Mohammad cartoonist’s house targeted in latest attack

vilks

Lars Vilks in Stockholm March 10, 2010/Bob Strong

Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who angered Muslims by portraying the Prophet Mohammad as a dog, has suffered a failed arson attack on his house, but was not home when it happened.

Vilks told Reuters on Saturday that people smashed windows at his house in the small town of Nynashamnsvage in southwest Sweden and tried to light petrol that they threw inside. But the attack resulted only in small damage in the kitchen and on the facade.

Earlier this week, Vilks was assaulted by a man during a lecture after he started showing a video (see below) about homosexuality and religion, particularly Islam. Vilks has been a target for Muslim protests since he depicted the Prophet Mohammad with the body of a dog in 2007.

France’s burqa debate stokes passions in North Africa

Anne, an assumed name, a 31-year old French woman who has been fined for wearing a niqab while driving, speaks to the media during a news conference with her husband Lies Hebbadj in Nantes, western France, April 26, 2010.  REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/Files

Veiled French woman Anne (an assumed name) fined for wearing a niqab while driving in Nantes meets journalists on 26 April 2010/Stephane Mahe

A French proposal to ban full face veils has stoked debate in Europe and also provoked strong reactions across the Mediterranean in North Africa, where many of France’s Muslims trace their origins.

Former French colonies Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are still tied to France by history, language and migration, so their views on the “burqa” issue could have a direct influence on how Muslims inside France react to a ban.

Tearing away the veil — French lawmaker explains burqa ban

cope Jean-François Copé on September 5, 2009/Olivier Pon

One of the most frequent questions I get from readers outside of France is how politicians here can justify banning Muslim face veils in public places. Isn’t this a blatant violation of the freedom of religion?  Why isn’t this seen as such an obvious case of discrimination that legislators reject the idea outright?

Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly, is one of the most outspoken champions of a complete ban on niqabs and burqas in all public spaces in France. An ambitious politician who political junkies here suspect has presidential pretensions, Copé continued campaigning for a ban even after legal experts said it could be unconstitutional. He eventually won out, however, when President Nicolas Sarkozy backed a full ban. The French cabinet plans to review the draft bill on May 19 and then send it to the National Assembly for debate.

Copé has published an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times — Tearing Away the Veil — that clearly explains his position on a veil ban. The column, written for non-French readers, is stripped of some of the political rhetoric that obfuscates the issue here. I recommend it to readers still trying to figure out what France is doing and why.

Egyptian Christians want action on “insulting” novel

copts

Egyptian Copts celebrate the Feast of Assumption in Dronka, 400 km (310 miles) south of Cairo on August 21, 2008/Amr Dalsh

Egyptian Christians have called for government action against the author of a widely read novel they say insults Christianity, in an unusual case that puts freedom of expression in Muslim-majority Egypt under fresh scrutiny.  Government investigators are looking into the complaint filed by a group of Egyptian and some foreign Copts against Youssef Ziedan, a Muslim who wrote the 2008 award-winning novel Azazeel (Beelzebub).

Azazeel, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, backed by the Booker Prize Foundation, tells the story of a 5th-century Egyptian monk who witnesses debates over doctrine between early Christians. Mamdouh Ramzi, a Coptic lawyer, said the author insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history … He is not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?”

Malaysia court hears landmark dispute on religious conversion

kl skyline

Kuala Lumpur, August 25, 2009/Bazuki Muhammad

Malaysia’s highest court has begun proceedings on a landmark inter-religious child custody dispute whose outcome could further raise political tension in this mainly Muslim country.  The Federal Court heard objections by lawyers for an ethnic Indian couple fighting each other for custody of their two children and adjourned for two weeks before hearing the case.

A Hindu woman, Shamala Sathiyaseelan, won temporary custody of her two children in 2004 following her husband’s conversion to Islam. She is seeking full custody and a declaration that it is illegal under Malaysia’s constitution for a parent to convert a minor to Islam without the other’s consent.

Malaysia’s dual-track legal system where Muslims fall under Islamic family laws while non-Muslims come under civil laws has led to overlaps and unresolved religious disputes that have fuelled minority unhappiness and raised political tensions.