Does McCain see real faith factor in Russia-Georgia conflict?

Russian tank rolls through Georgian region of South Ossetia, 10 August 2008/Vasily FedosenkoRecognising when religion plays a part in a military conflict can be a tricky business. Its role can easily be overemphasized, underplayed or misunderstood. Having covered several such conflicts myself, I was curious when I saw Ted Olsen’s post at Christianty Today about how John McCain stresses Georgia’s Christian heritage when talking about its conflict with Russia. When Russian forces rolled into Georgia in support of pro-Moscow separatists there,  McCain’s reaction statement noted that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion.” In his televised discussion with leading evangelical pastor Rick Warren on Saturday, he said “the king of then Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the fourth and fifth century.”

John McCain and Rick Warren, 17 August 2008/Mark AveryHistory is fascinating but McCain’s use of it here begs the question whether there is an actual faith factor in this conflict or just in his presentation of it. Russia, after all, is also a traditionally Christian nation, but he made no mention of that. After the fall of communism there, the Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its traditional role there — as has the Georgian Orthodox Church in the Caucasian republic after state-sponsored atheism lost out there too. There are no obvious doctrinal disputes that divide them.

Church-to-church relations also seem reasonable. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, senior officials of the two churches spoke by telephone last week and “declared their common peacemaking position and readiness to cooperate in this field.” Patriarchs of both churches have called for a ceasefire and condemned the violence among fellow Christians. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love confront each other,” Russia’s Primate Alexiy II said. “What is most important (is that) we (are) united with Christian faith and must live peacefully without blood,” Georgian Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II said.

Georgian Patriarch Ilia II (r) speaks with Russian Major General  Vyacheslav Borisov in Gori, Georgia, 15 August 2008/Gleb GaranichSince Orthodox churches are organised nationally, each side naturally reflects in some way its own country’s political view of the crisis. But even in his protest letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Ilia’s only reference to religion was his lament that Orthodox were killing each other.

Other religious authorities — Pope Benedict after an Angelus prayer and the World Council of Churches and Conference of European Churches in a joint statement — have also mentioned the two countries’ common Christian heritage in their calls for a ceasefire but not implied it played any role in the conflict.

UPDATE: Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasBlogging takes time, which I didn’t have on Friday after finishing an analysis for the Reuters wire about religion in Turkey posted here. I went to Istanbul to research several religion stories. The main impression I left with was that the prospect for religious policy changes raised by the “post- Islamist” AK Party government in recent years has mostly evaporated. The current political crisis that could end up banning the party and barring Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from belonging to a political party means the end of any liberalisation. In fact, the steam went out of the reform drive a few years ago after Ankara got the green light to negotiate Turkish membership in the European Union.

Turkey has been a test case for what Islam experts call “post-Islamism,” a trend among Muslim political groups that have given up dreams of some kind of Islamic state in favour of more democracy and human rights that include greater religious freedom (here’s a useful summary of the concept). The idea that Islamists could turn into “Muslim democrats” (or “latte Islamists“!) without a hidden agenda to introduce Sharia law once in power met with considerable scepticism. But the Erdogan government, which promoted greater freedoms in Turkey as a means to join the European Union rather than to break down secularist controls on religion in the public sphere, seemed to be prove this view. His cautious approach seemed to reflect a long-term policy to make changes gradually. It’s too much to say this could be a “model” for other Muslim countries because there are too many aspects specific to Turkey and the limits its powerful secularist elite places on religion in the public sphere. But it could be an important test case for reconciling democracy and religious rights.

Turkish models display headscarves at an Ankara fashion show, 5 March 2008/Umit BektasThe political analysts I spoke to were unanimous in rejecting the idea that Erdogan’s AK Party had a long-term “hidden agenda” to “islamise” Turkey. The real goal of Erdogan’s policy was to establish his bloc of business interests from the more religious countryside as partners in the national power structure dominated by the secularist urban elite. Part of this process was to appeal to the religious sentiments of the masses, but religion was never the core of its program. They dropped this caution after their election victory in 2007 by pressing for an end to the ban on headscarves at universities — and paid the price by provoking the legal challenge to their legitimacy.

Turkish crisis puts “post-Islamist” reform on hold

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and guard of honour in Ankara, 17 March 2008/Umit BektasI’m in Istanbul this week for a few stories. The first one, about how Turkey’s political crisis has put a trend towards a more liberal stand on religious freedom on hold, has just run on the Reuters wire (click here for full text).

I’ll get back to this issue in a later post.

In the meantime, feel free to post questions in the comments box and I’ll try to answer them.

Fierce battle rages for top job in Church of Greece

Funeral of Archbishop Christodoulos in Athens, 31 Jan. 2008/John KolesidisThe gloves are off in the election campaign for a new primate of the Greek Orthodox Church following the death of Archbishop Christodoulos last week. At least four metropolitan bishops are openly vying for the powerful Greek Church’s top post, some of them making their intentions known literally minutes after Christodoulos was buried last Thursday. The election is set for Feb. 7 and mud-slinging and accusations of blackmail are on the daily agenda.

A total of 78 members of the Holy Synod, the majority of whom were appointed by the late Archbishop Serafim (died 1998), are entitled to vote. Metropolitan Bishop Chrisostomos from the Peloponnese said in an open letter at the weekend he was a victim of “blackmail and mud-throwing” from supporters of Efstathios, Metropolitan Bishop of Sparta. Efstathios, one of two front-runners in the race, said: “I cannot believe any one of my supporters could be involved in something like that.”

What is at stake is the powerful influence of the Church over about 95 percent of Orthodox Greeks among the 10 million population, the Church’s extensive financial interests including major real estate developments and a mending of ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Church of Greece’s relations with the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians were damaged to the brink of collapse during Christodoulos’s tenure. While Christodoulos deftly used the media to raise his own profile, this exposure turned some supporters away in the later years of his 10-year reign. Critics said he used the media to interfere in government policy-making, accuse homosexuals of having a “handicap,” call Turks “barbarians” and attack the patriarchate. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek from Turkey, runs a tiny Orthodox community in what was once the Byzantine capital of Constantinople and needs outside support for his delicate balancing act with the Turkish government.

Vatican conversion document may become news, but not yet

Catholic nuns of the Missionaries of Charity sing hymns during mass in Calcutta, 24 Dec 2000The Roman Catholic Church statement about evangelisation last Friday was one of those classic Vatican documents that are short on news but long on content. We covered it in a news story from Vatican City, but it was not top news that day (“Christians should spread the faith” is not exactly a new message). The document also avoided the blunt tone that sometimes comes out of the Vatican — an angle journalists were watching out for — and dealt with a sensitive issue “softly, softly,” as one theologian put it.

The impact of this document should unfold slowly in the context of the Vatican’s relations with Orthodox churches and with Muslims. It proclaims a duty to spread the Gospel without respect to geographical boundaries. That sounds like a rebuff to the Russian Orthodox argument that Rome should not seek or accept converts in traditionally Orthodox countries. It’s also a challenge to Muslim countries that forbid conversion, to the point of declaring apostasy — i.e. leaving Islam — a crime worthy of the death penalty. Since the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) says it issued the text because of “a certain confusion about whether Catholics should give testimony Pope Benedict and Metropolitan Kirill at the Vatican, 7 Dec 2007about their faith in Christ,” this document amounts to a practical guide for dealing with these situations. That’s not news now, but it can well become news at some point ahead if this leads to tensions.

Relations with the Russian Orthodox are sensitive and difficult to read. Metropolitan Kirill, the “foreign minister” of the Russian Church, met Pope Benedict on December 7 and said the session was proof of improving ties. A quick look at the Interfax Religion service seems to hint at a more critical view in Moscow. Kirill seems to take a tougher line back home. The Moscow Patriarchate is also concerned that Opus Dei, which just opened an office in the Russian capital, might proselytise in Russia.

Praying for news at the Vatican

You’ve probably seen on TV how reporters swarm around leaders coming out of closed-door meetings and the politicians step up to deliver their soundbites for the cameras. The Vatican held a big closed-door meeting on Friday and a wave of cardinals — the “princes of the Church” who rank among the most prominent leaders of Roman Catholicism — emerged at their lunch break to find a pack of journalists eager to pounce on them with questions. I’m in Rome for a few days and was out there waiting for them in a parking lot between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope Paul VI Hall where they were meeting. The scene was quite different from those “normal” media scrums.

Cardinals leave closed-door meeting with Pope Benedict, 23 Nov. 2007The session was a rare meeting of cardinals from around the world who are here at the Vatican for a ceremony on Saturday when 23 men “get their red hats,” i.e. join the College of Cardinals whose members under 80 years old elect the next pope. They were discussing the Catholic Church’s sensitive relations with other Christians — Orthodox they want to get closer to, Anglicans who are drifting further away, Protestants who are increasingly divided and Pentecostals who are encroaching on their flocks. These sessions presided over by Pope Benedict are supposed to remain confidential. So the men who emerged from the meeting looked and acted like anything but a bunch of politicians hoping to make it on to the evening news.

Some strode past the waiting journalists flashing half a smile and a quarter of a wave. Others found polite variations of the old “no comment”, like one who offered the (weak) joke: “If anything important had happened, you reporters would know it already.” Another walked straight up to a reporter from his home town, said he knew there was no way he could leave without talking to him, and then confessed with a smile: “But actually, I have nothing to say.”

Kirill tells L’Osservatore that Moscow-Vatican ties thawing

L’Osservatore Romano, Nov. 1, 2007We reported on Wednesday that Metropolitan Kirill, the external relations chief of the Moscow Patriarchate, has been making very positive comments about relations between the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches. “We now have a positive tendency — we have moved on from a severe frost to a thaw,” he told journalists in Moscow on Tuesday.

Now he’s said it directly to the Vatican, in an interview with the pope’s own paper L’Osservatore Romano (at the upper right of the PDF, in Italian). The Vatican daily on Thursday has an unusual front-page interview with Kirill where he spoke again of a thaw. “The big chill is over and it’s thawing time,” he said. The rest of the short interview repeats earlier statements about how the two churches share the same spiritual and moral valules and should work together to tackle the many problems facing humanity today.

Frost turns to thaw in Russian Orthodox-Catholic ties

Metropolitan Kirill and Vatican ecumenical chief Cardinal Walter Kasper in Moscow, Feb. 19, 2004Recent high-level contacts between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are starting to show some results. It’s still in the atmospheric stage, but the comments from Moscow are now much more positive than they used to be. The latest came on Tuesday from Metropolitan Kirill, the external relations chief of the Moscow Patriarchate, in a very Russian turn of phrase — “We now have a positive tendency — we have moved on from a severe frost to a thaw.”

Pope Benedict has been wooing the Orthodox churches from the start of his papacy and would like to become the first Roman pontiff ever to meet a Russian patriarch. The current patriarch, Alexiy II, tested the Catholic waters with a visit earlier this month to Paris, where he met Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard and other French prelates. He spoke about “emerging cooperation” between the two churches, without going into too many details. Speaking to journalists the next day, Kirill added a clearer assessment. “We have achieved some very positive results recently,” he said.

So does the frost-to-thaw image add anything? For journalists weighing every word these men say, it pushes the story just a little bit further. It was another departure from the wooden responses we used to hear in the past. That usually signals some real movement behind the scenes. When will we see the next step?

Russians jump the gun on Catholic- Orthodox papacy statement

Orthodox cross on a church in SiberiaThe Russian Orthodox Church has published an embargoed statement from a Catholic- Orthodox dialogue session that it walked out of in protest this month. The Web site of the Church’s representation to European institutions in Brussels posted the text along with a commentary saying it would give its opinion of the statement later. The statement was not due to be released until November 15. According to the French Catholic news service I.Media, its early publication evoked surprise and disappointment at the Vatican department for ecumenical relations, as well as concern this could compromise the continuing talks.

The statement is interesting because Orthodox churches supporting it recognised the primacy of the bishop of Rome, i.e. the Roman Catholic pope. We already mentioned this breakthrough in this delicate ecumenical dialogue in a post on October 17, quoting two participants. The text says the bishop of Rome is the protos, or first among the patriarchs of Christian churches. “They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as protos, a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium,” it said. “It remains for the question of the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches to be studied in greater depth.”

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna, the Russian Orthodox representative to the European Union, said in an interview on the website that the absence of his Church made the work of this International Mixed Commission problematic. “The Moscow Patriarchate represents more than a half of world Orthodox Christianity,” he said. “Without it, the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue will in fact be a dialogue of the Catholic Church with less than a half of the Orthodox Church.”

Catholics, Orthodox tackle deepest differences very slowly

One of the fascinating aspects about reporting on religion is that the timeframes are far longer than most topics news agencies cover. Experts debate the fine points of little-known issues and progress can be slower than a snail’s pace. But it’s sometimes interesting to take a look at where they’re going.

A recent meeting of the International Mixed Commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in Ravenna, Italy ended with a short communique that said: “The theme of the next plenary session, the date and location of which are shortly to be decided, is: “The role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium.” Pope Benedict also mentioned this last week in his audience but didn’t elaborate on it.

Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul in November 2006Two participants at the talks have now fleshed that out a bit. These talks between the Vatican and the Orthodox churches, which broke from Rome and rejected the primacy or authority of the pope in the Great Schism of 1054, are now slowly getting down to discussing the crux of the problem. If Catholics and Orthodox are to achieve some kind of unity, something Pope Benedict has put high on his agenda, they have to figure out the role the pope would play.