FaithWorld

Russian extremism law targets religious minorities, dissenters

jehovah (Photo: Alexander Kalistratov leaves a court building in Gorno-Altaysk, December 16, 2010/Alexandr Tyryshkin)

When armed Russian security officers forced their way into Alexander Kalistratov’s home, he hardly imagined they were after his books. The local leader of a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia now faces up to two years in prison if found guilty this week of inciting religious hatred for distributing literature about his beliefs.

“They swept everything from my shelves without even bothering to sort it, even my Bible,” Kalistratov, a street sweeper, said by telephone from the Siberian town of Gorno-Altaysk, 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow. His trial is the first of a dozen pending against Jehovah’s Witnesses and scores of others caught up in the widening net of criminal prosecutions brought under Russia’s anti-extremism law.

Rights activists say the vaguely worded legislation, first passed in 2002, is increasingly being exploited by the authorities to persecute religious minorities, intimidate the media and clamp down on opposition activists.

“It can be used to target anybody … political, religious or even completely apolitical groups such as labor union activists,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, whose SOVA rights group monitors hate crimes, extremism and religious freedoms. “In practice, it’s a universal tool.

In the case against Kalistratov, activists say local authorities are really aiming at cracking down on groups frowned upon by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church has undergone a revival since the fall of the Soviet Union ended decades of repression under Communism and it has strong ties to the state. It has repeatedly complained that other churches are poaching converts in its territory.

Algeria hails its religious freedom, critics not so sure

algiers (Photo: An Algerian stands near the newly restored Notre Dame D’Afrique Basilica in Algiers December 13, 2010/Zohra Bensemra)

A Catholic church that has been a landmark in Algeria’s capital for over a century has officially re-opened after restoration work, providing a symbol of religious tolerance in the mainly Muslim country. Algeria is emerging from a nearly two-decade-long Islamist insurgency, but the Catholic community has maintained a presence, even though several Christian clergymen have been among hundreds of thousands killed in the violence.

The Notre Dame d’Afrique basilica was built by French settlers in the late nineteenth century.  An inscription running around the inside of the dome reads: “Our Lady of Africa, pray for us, and for the Muslims.”

“Religious freedom in Algeria is a reality,” Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told reporters after a ceremony to mark the completion of repair work on Monday. “Everybody has the right to practice their religion provided that the law is fully respected,” he said.

Canada’s anti-polygamy laws go on trial in Vancouver

jeffsA Canadian court opened hearings on Monday into whether anti-polygamy laws violate constitutional protections of religious freedom. The court is wrestling with civil liberties and moral questions surrounding a breakaway sect of the Mormon church that has practiced plural marriages at its compound in rural British Columbia since the late 1940s. (Photo: U.S. polygamist group leader Warren Jeffs escorted into a court hearing, in Las Vegas, Nevada, August 31, 2006/Steve Marcus)

“We are beginning on an historic reference,” Robert Bauman, chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court told a packed courtroom in Vancouver.

The provincial government asked the court to probe the law’s constitutionality ahead of a criminal case against leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that is expected to test the issue.

World cardinals hold rare Vatican meeting on abuse, converts

consistoryRoman Catholic cardinals from around the world met in a rare gathering at the Vatican on Friday to discuss religious freedom, sexual abuse of children by priests and accepting  Anglican converts. The debate on religious freedom unfolded against the backdrop of a fresh Vatican conflict with China’s communist government over the ordination of a bishop without papal permission. (Photo: Pope Benedict meets cardinals at the Vatican November 19, 2010/Tony Gentile)

The closed-door meetings were taking place on the eve of a ceremony known as a consistory at which the pope will create 24 new cardinals, including 20 who are under 80 and thus eligible to enter a secret conclave to elect his successor.

The existing cardinals and cardinals-elect will also hear reports about the sexual abuse scandal which has rocked the Church in a number of countries.

Europe cited in US religious freedoms report

minaret 1 (Photo: A cow in a Swiss meadow next to billboard against minarets in Zwillikon November 13, 2009/Christian Hartmann)

The United States voiced concern on Wednesday over deteriorating religious freedoms in many parts of the world, including several European countries where “harsh measures” limiting religious expression have been put in place.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled the latest State Department report on global religious freedom, which rates countries around the world.

“Religious freedom is both a fundamental human right and an essential element to any stable, peaceful, thriving society,” Clinton told a news conference

Islam part of Germany, Christianity part of Turkey – Wulff

wulff 1 (Photo: Presidents Christian Wulff (R) and Abdullah Gül, followed by wives Bettina (R) and Hayrünnisa, during official welcome in Ankara October 19, 2010/Umit Bektas)

When German President Christian Wulff recently declared that Islam “belongs to Germany,” Christian Democratic  politicians there howled and Muslims living in Germany and Turkey cheered. Now Wulff, on an official visit to Turkey, has told the Turkish parliament that “Christianity too, undoubtedly, belongs to Turkey.” This time there was applause in Germany, and  silence from the Turkish deputies listening to him in Ankara on Tuesday.

wulff 3In both cases, Wulff’s words could not have come at a better time. (Photo: President Wulff address the Turkish parliament, with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bagis (L) in the background/Umit Bektas)

Germany is in the grip of an emotional debate about Islam and Muslim integration. When Wulff said in his Oct. 3 German Unity Day address that Islam was now part of German society, given the large number (about 4 million) of Muslims living there, it was demographically obvious and politically risky. Several of his fellow Christian Democrats have challenged his view and insisted Germany had a “Judeo-Christian heritage” that Islam did not share. But Wulff, who was considered something of a lightweight for the ceremonial role when he was elected last July,  has taken a clear stand on a political and moral issue — just like Germans want their head of state to do. He is, as the Financial Times Deutschland entitled its editorial on Wednesday, “Finally A President.”

The overwhelmingly Muslim but officially secular state of Turkey is slowly reconsidering the tight restrictions it has long imposed on its tiny Christian minority. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made a small and cautious opening to Christians, allowing religious services at a historic Greek Orthodox monastery and Armenian Orthodox church, allowing an art show at a forcibly closed Orthodox seminary and helping the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch’s succession problem with citizenship for foreign prelates.

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.

Algerian court clears Christians of charge of flouting Ramadan by eating during day

ramadan 1Two Christian men on trial in Algeria for eating during daylight in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan were acquitted on Tuesday, a verdict their supporters said was a triumph for religious freedom.

The two men, members of Algeria’s small Protestant community, were charged with offending public morals for eating at the building site where they were working before the Ramadan fast had been broken for the day. (Photo: Food shoppers in Algiers on first day of Ramadan, August 11, 2010/Louafi Larbi)

After the judge in the small town of Ain El-Hammam, about 150 km (93.21 miles) east of the Algerian capital, ruled they were innocent, a group of about seven Protestants standing on the steps of the courthouse shouted “Hallelujah!”

Excerpts from Pope Benedict’s speech to British society

westminster pope (Photo: Pope Benedict speaks in Westminster Hall in London September 17, 2010/Tim Ireland)

Pope Benedict addressed British society on Friday in a speech in Westminster Hall and argued that faith and reason are not in conflict.

Here are excerpts from the pope’s speech:

“…I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process…

“…Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

Religious tension marks Sept. 11 anniversary

tension 1Religious tensions are overshadowing the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States where President Barack Obama urged a Christian preacher to abandon a plan to burn copies of the Koran.

And a day ahead of Saturday’s ninth anniversary, a report warned that the United States faced a growing threat from home-grown insurgents and an “Americanization” of the al Qaeda leadership. (Photo: Outside the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida September 10, 2010/Scott Audette)

On Friday, Obama appealed to Americans to respect the “inalienable” right of religious freedom and said he hoped the preacher would abandon his plan to burn the Muslim holy book, saying it could deeply hurt the United States abroad.