FaithWorld

Reform Judaism in Israel wins small battle for recognition

Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance at a wedding in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen (JERUSALEM)

The Reform Judaism movement in Israel claimed a small victory in its fight for recognition when the High Court this week ruled in favor of state funding for non-Orthodox conversions.

For years Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel have been trying to break the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinic Court, which is the sole authority for Jewish ceremonies like weddings and conversions. That’s an especially big responsiblity in a country where there is no civil marriage, essentially forcing all Jewish Israelis to seek an Orthodox rabbi when they wish to wed — or go abroad.

The more modern, liberal movements have a less strict interpretation and observance of Jewish law than the Orthodox, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.

This week’s ruling came after the Reform movement petitioned the court, seeking state funding for conversions carried out by non-Orthodox movements. Whether it will have any real impact is unclear, since the Jewish state still only recognises Orthodox conversions for legal purposes.

PAPA DIXIT — Pope’s last day and departure for Rome

On the last day of his Holy Land pilgrimage, Pope Benedict visited the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic partriarchates, prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and delivered a farewell address that touched on the main political points of his trip.

Here are some excerpts from his speeches:

pope-greekAT THE GREEK ORTHODOX PARTRIARCHATE OF JERUSALEM:

ECUMENISM: “I pray that our gathering today will give new impetus to the work of theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, adding to the recent fruits of study documents and other joint initiatives. Of particular joy for our Churches has been the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew I, at the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome dedicated to the theme: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. The warm welcome he received and his moving intervention were sincere expressions of the deep spiritual joy that arises from the extent to which communion is already present between our Churches. Such ecumenical experience bears clear witness to the link between the unity of the Church and her mission.” (Photo: Pope Benedict presents a book at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, 15 May 2009/Pool).

AT THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE:

GUESTVIEW: Finding and defining the religious pluralism within

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. Rev. Bud Heckman is Director for External Relations at Religions for Peace and editor of InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook (SkyLight, 2008).

By Matthew Weiner and Rev. Bud Heckman

Mary Rosenblatt grew up Jewish, she married a Catholic and her children are “exposed to both faiths.” In her adult life, she has become particularly drawn to meditation as practiced by a local Buddhist circle. If she participated in a survey about religious identity, how might she be portrayed?  And what about her kids?

pew-logoThe Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released a survey entitled “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” that attempts to map changes in religious affiliation in the U.S.  It follows on the coattails of the important “U.S Religious Landscape Survey” conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007.  If read in cross-tension with the “American Religious Identification Survey 2008″ released by Trinity College in Hartford, one can begin to see a complex and diverse picture of faith affiliation for Americans, as well as some patterns of change.

Vatican tangled in the Web

jpii-and-laptopOne passage in Pope Benedict’s letter today about the Williamson affair particularly stood out — the part where he confessed to almost complete ignorance of the Internet. There can’t be many other world leaders who could write  the following lines without blushing: “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.” This made it look as if the world’s largest church was ignorant of the world’s liveliest communications network.

That’s not the case, of course. The Vatican runs a very full website of its own, www.vatican.va, as do Vatican Radio (in 38 languages), Catholic bishops conferences, dioceses and parishes as well as Catholic publications all around the world.

icann-logoIn fact, somebody in the Vatican seems to be following the Internet far more closely that the mainstream media (including ourselves), which missed an interesting little nugget now popping up on tech blogs and some Catholic sites mostly in Europe. The Holy See’s representative to the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently warned against the tensions that could be caused if ICANN created new top-level domain names (so-called gTLDs) for religions.

Behind the walls, an ancient monastery in a changing Turkey

Dressed in black robes and headcaps, the monks at the ancient Syriac Christian Orthodox monastery of Mor Gabriel in southeast Turkey sat gravely for dinner one recent cold night. Led by their bishop, they said their prayers in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and ate their meal of meat and rice in sepulchral silence, the clinking of forks and spoons resonating in the bare white room.

On the face of it, little has changed in a life of meditation and prayer at the Mor Gabriel Monastery since it was built in AD 397; but the monks feel the cares of a changing Turkey, beyond their walls, weighing upon them. A land dispute between neighbouring villages and Mor Gabriel is threatening the future of one of the world’s oldest monasteries, and a Reuters multimedia team had travelled to the remote monastery to cover the row.

Once supper was over, they said prayers again and we filed into an adjacent room, where the monks started conversing about Turkey’s rocky path to join the European Union and “Ergenekon”, a shadowy group suspected of plotting a coup in a case that has consumed media attention in faraway Ankara and Istanbul. In the words of Saliba Ozmen, the bishop of the city of Mardin, Turkey is changing and even the Syriac monks of southeast Turkey can feel its ripple effects.

Russian Orthodox to elect new patriarch in late January

The Russian Orthodox are wasting no time with the election of their new leader to replace the late Patriarch Alexiy. Although Church statutes give them six months to ponder the decision, a Holy Synod meeting today decided to hold a General Council in late January to elect a successor.

“On Jan. 27 the General Council will open. It will be held on Jan. 28-29,” acting Partriarch Kirill — one of the frontrunning candidates — said in Moscow.

“Jan. 30-31 will be dedicated to preparations for the enthronement of the newly elected Holy Patriarch. The enthronement will be held on Feb. 1,” he told journalists in Moscow.

Kirill interim Russian Orthodox head, final outcome unclear

The Russian Orthodox Church has chosen Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad as its interim leader, picking one of its best-known personalities to stand in until a successor to the late Patriarch Alexiy II can be chosen. The Church’s charter says this must happen within the next six months, but crucially does not say exactly how the new man should be picked. That introduces a potential wild card into the equation, the so-called “apostolic method” of election that leaves the final decision to be decided by drawing lots. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill, 19 Oct 2008/Ramon Espinosa)

Kirill, 64, has headed the Church’s department for external relations for two decades and has been active in the ecumenical movement abroad. He is considered relatively open to cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, which has been trying for years to arrange a papal visit to Moscow despite tensions over Orthodox charges the Vatican is trying to win over Orthodox to Catholicism. At home, most Russians see him as the public face of the Church, at least partly because of his frequent appearances on television.

While he is considered a front-runner, he reportedly does not have strong support among the bishops, who are considered more nationalist and less outward-looking than he is. Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk is said to be more to their liking. Metropolitan Juvenali of Krutitsy and Kolomna and Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk are also mentioned as possible contenders.

Time to re-think ban on women at Greek holy site?

Last month I visited Mount Athos, a self- governing monastic state in northern Greece where some 1,500 monks live according to rules which have changed little in the last millennium. Athos’ 20 monasteries are considered by the world’s 300 million Orthodox as perhaps the second most holy site of their faith, after Jerusalem. They are home to breathtaking religious art and thousands of manuscripts dating back to the Byzantine empire, as well as priceless relics, like fragments of the True Cross, believed by the Orthodox faithful to have performed countless miracles. (Photo:Simomos Petras monastery at Mount Athos/Daniel Flynn)

For many Orthodox it is the fulfilment of a long-held dream to visit the rugged Holy Mountain — but not if you a woman. Women are completely banned from the 300 sq kilometre peninsula and any breach of this strict rule is a criminal offence in Greece punishable by up to two years in prison. Athonite tradition has it that the Virgin Mary’s ship was blown off course as she travelled with St John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus in Cyprus and that on making ground in Athos she immediately prayed to her son to dedicate the beautiful peninsula to her, which he did, meaning that other women were banned. Modern day monks say there are good practical reasons why women are prohibited: “God built a sexual attraction between men and women. To have them here would distract us from our main aim, which is prayer,” one monk told me. Many pilgrims have more flippant excuses. “Women would not like it here, there are no mirrors,” said one elderly Greek. The ban on women has already raised the ire of the European Parliament, which has two voted to criticise the prohibition: European Union taxes are helping to fund a massive renovation of the monasteries, which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In January a group of women including a Greek MP briefly entered Athos in a protest. Apart from accepting some female refugees during the civil war in the late 1940s, the most the monks have done to open up is allow many of their most precious treasures to be briefly seen at exhibitions in Greece.

But the main treasure of Mount Athos is the place itself and many Orthodox women feel frustrated by the ban on visiting it. “I would love to see it, but I know I never will,” is a common comment, though some say they understand the ban. At the same time, many Greek women are angry that their taxes are being used to fund wealthy institutions that they are banned from setting foot in, arguing that UNESCO status means the monasteries are treasures of humanity, not just of male humanity.

Look who’s celebrating Reformation Day today

Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany and set off the Protestant Reformation. It is a public holiday in the five eastern German states, in Slovenia and — this year for the first time — in Chile.

Chile? Isn’t that traditionally a Catholic country? Even the Catholic parts of Germany don’t celebrate Reformation Day.

Yes, Chile is traditionally Catholic, but now only about 70% so. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Protestant churches — especially evangelicals and Pentecostals — have spread rapidly in recent decades. They now make up just over 15% of the Chilean population, up from 7% in 1970. It’s not a new story, but creating a holiday especially for Protestants is a symbolic step towards recognising the changes in the religious landscape in Latin America.

European Christian politicians respond to pope’s call

College des Bernardins, 1 Sept 2008/Charles PlatiauOne recurring theme in Pope Benedict’s speeches is the need he sees for Christians to speak out more in public on moral issues. A group of European politicians has taken up the challenge and held a brainstorming session in Paris to “find forms of political commitment that responds to their convictions and to the challenges of the 21st century,” as their hostess, French Housing and Urban Development Minister Christine Boutin, put it. The meeting was held at the Collège des Bernardins, the refurbished medieval college where Benedict spoke only last month about Europe’s Christian roots.

Although most politicians there could be described as Christian Democrats, there was no question about starting a specifically Christian political party. Instead, speakers stressed they wanted to bring Christian values back into the general political discourse after decades of being derided as old-fashioned. Several speakers from France mentioned the way secularists had sidelined them in politics. “We Christians have gotten used to living under a kind of house arrest,” said Jean-Pierre Rive, secretary general of the Church and Society Commission of the French Protestant Federation. “We have to get back into politics.”

The financial crisis, they said, provided a dramatic example of what can happen when greed and shady bank practices sideline values such as solidarity and concern for the poor. “A new world is being built and we Christians must play our part,” said Boutin, one of the most outspoken Catholic activists in French politics, at the Oct. 10 meeting. “Christians in France have lost the habit of communicating their experiences. There are politicians who are open to new ideas now. Let’s meet them and talk with them.”