FaithWorld

Vietnam’s not-so-simple eviction of Buddhist monks and nuns

thichA government-backed mob in Vietnam about a week ago booted nearly 400 Buddhist monks and nuns out of a monastery in the centre of the country, bringing an apparent end to an ugly standoff with complicated origins. The incident has raised questions about the ruling Communist Party’s commitment to progress on religious freedom, but the Bat Nha Monastery narrative is much more complex than simply an “authoritarian government cracks down on the faithful” story. (Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh at Non Nuoc pagoda north of Hanoi, 20 April 2007/Nguyen Huy Kham)

Some of the basic facts seem pretty straightforward. For nearly three years, the monks and nuns had lived at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, largely with the blessing of the local authorities via cooperation with local Buddhists, after their leader, the Vietnamese-born, French-based Buddhist zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, visited Vietnam in 2005 for the first time in 39 years. Last year, the local authorities started to put pressure on the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village school of Buddhism. In late June of this year, electricity, water and phone services to the monastery were cut and a mob attacked the group to try to evict them, but they refused to leave. In July, a smaller mob attempted another attack. The government set Sept. 2 as a deadline for them to leave, but that date came and went. monksThen, on Sunday, Sept 27, the group’s overseas adherents reported that “an unidentified mob” of about 150 people, believed to include plain clothes policemen, violently evicted the 379 resident monastic followers of Thich Nhat Hanh. (Photo: Monks pray at Dong Pagoda northeast of Hanoi, 26 Nov 2008/Nguyen Huy Kham)

The central government’s line has been that local Buddhists wanted Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers out of their monastery and the government had nothing to do with it. Asked about the incident, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said in a statement it was “an internal issue between two groups of people following Buddhism at Bat Nha monastery. The dispute was non-violent, nobody was injured or detained.”

But Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village followers said police were involved in the eviction. A local government document from last month obtained by Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers and shown to Reuters stated that the group was not recognised by the state or the official Buddhist congregation and was staying at Bat Nha illegally. The roots of the problem may go back, in part at least, to Thich Nhat Hanh’s late 2007 visit to Vietnam. During that trip, he told Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet that the government should abolish the arm of the police that tracks religious groups and disband the government’s Religious Affairs Committee, which regulates religious activities.

Then, in early 2008, the annual journal of Plum Village proposed that the government abandon Communism, take the word Communist out of the name of the ruling political party and remove “Socialist” from the country’s official name, Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Although the comments may have been made with the interests of the Vietnamese nation in mind, they were resented by the religious police who, from that point on, pretty much had it in for Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers, a Plum Village document detailing the background of the incident said.

Swiss Council of Religions united against proposed minaret ban

minaret (Photo: Minaret of Zurich’s Mahmud Mosque, 23 May 2007/Christian Hartmann)

The Swiss Council of Religions, which is composed of leaders from the country’s Christian, Jewish and Islamic organisations, has issued a statement rejecting a proposed ban on minarets. A group of right-wing anti-immigrant politicians has gathered more than 100,000 signatures to support the so-called Minaret Initiative, saying the minarets threaten law and order. The vote is due on November 29.

The Swiss federal government has warned that the referendum vote was organised legally but a ban would violate international human rights and the country’s constitution. “Such a ban would endanger peace between religions and would not help to prevent the spread of fundamentalist Islamic beliefs,” its Department of Justice and Police said in late August.

The Council statement, the first it has made on a political issue since it was formed in 2006 to foster interfaith dialogue, denounces the bid as an affront to the tradition of diversity in the multilingual Alpine country. Here are some excerpts from the statement:

from India Insight:

What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?

Last week, a college in Mangalore in India banned a student wearing a burqa from attending class. The principal told local media the college had a policy of not allowing symbols of religion.

The media did not say if there were students on campus with a 'bindi' (dot) on their foreheads or crucifixes around their necks or turbans on their heads, other symbols of religion one commonly sees in India, besides the ubiquitous "Om" scarves and t-shirts.

Mangalore, a cosmopolitan city, is no stranger to controversy; it was recently in the news for attacks on bars and women by a fundamentalist Hindu outfit that declared they were against Indian culture.

GUESTVIEW: Out of our hair and away from our pants!

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Sarah Sayeed is a Program Associate at the Interfaith Center of New York and a board member of Women In Islam, Inc.burkiniBy Sarah SayeedAs an American Muslim woman who adheres to religious guidelines on modest dress, I find it ironic that such remarkably different nations as Sudan and France seem similarly preoccupied with legislating Muslim women’s dress.   The Sudanese government recently arrested and whipped women, including Christian women, for wearing trousers.  The French banned a woman wearing a head-to-toe Muslim bathing suit (a “burkini”) from entering a town pool.
(Photo: Australian lifeguard Mecca Laalaa in her burkini, 13 Jan 2007/Tim Wimborne)

Even if we were to give credence to an argument that pants are immodest for women, there is no injunction in the Quran or any example from Prophet Muhammad which demands corporeal punishment for “inappropriate” dress. Such a harsh practice completely contradicts the justice and compassion that Islam mandates.Likewise, the French ban on burkinis is outrageous.  Wearing the burkini has given me the freedom to enjoy water sports with my son; it has not limited me, but rather enhanced the quality of my life.  But now, I worry that other public pools will follow suit.  In recent years, France banned religious symbols in public schools, including the headscarf, and denied citizenship to a Muslim woman who wears a face veil.  Will this disturbing trend spread across other democratic nations?France and Sudan are miles apart geographically, politically, and culturally.   Yet both countries have imposed on the personal freedom of Muslim women to dress as they choose, and ultimately, to participate in the public sphere.  Sudan’s choice to impose corporeal punishment is far more egregious, relative to banning a woman from entering a pool.  For the average person, Sudan’s actions seem barbaric, but in a way, unsurprising because they conform to a prevailing stereotype about Islamic law as harsh and oppressive to women.But because French laws are enacted in a context which purports more openness, plurality and freedom, they could be more harmful to the cause of global freedom and democracy.  France perceives itself as a free country that allows its citizens to practice the religion of their choice.  France, like other Western European countries or the United States, would want Muslim nations to “look up to it,” to learn from its example how to separate religion and state.  However, the French ban on head covers, face covers, and now on pool attire suggests that religious freedom is bounded, even within a democratic context.volleyballIt is true that the ban on headscarves emerged out of a debate among French Muslims.  Specifically, one group of Muslims felt that their freedom of choice and conscience were imposed upon when other Muslims insulted and physically harassed girls who were not wearing a scarf.  The former turned to the government for assistance.  Out of its sense of responsibility to maintain public order, the government banned all religious symbols in public schools.  But preserving the freedom of conscience of one party need not come at the expense of freedom of religious practice of another.  There are other methods of resolving such conflicts, including prosecuting harassment and attacks as hate crimes, imposing strict penalties on perpetrators, and even community mediation.
(Photo: Palestinian girls play beach volleyball at Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, 20 \june 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

French authorities also voiced a concern that loose fitting swim gear that “can be worn in public may carry molecules and viruses that can be transmitted to other bathers.”  Even though most Muslim women are unlikely to wear the burkini anywhere else, surely a shower before entering the water and the chlorine of a public pool can be counted upon to take care of these dangerous “molecules and viruses!”  A deeper mistrust of Muslims emerges in Mayor Kelyor’s statement that to permit the burkini is to “go back in civilization.”  Muslim women’s practice of modesty poses a threat to French notions of progress just as Sudanese Muslim women’s choice to wear pants was also deemed threatening.Ultimately, authorities in Sudan and France conveyed a parallel message.  To democracy’s nay-sayers in the Muslim world, France communicated that those who practice Islam will be marginalized.  To Islam’s nay-sayers Sudan confirmed the interpretation that Islamic law is an oppressive and restrictive.  Both have infringed upon the rights of minority groups within their respective contexts.Governments and political movements worldwide, from Turkey to Afghanistan, from France to the U.K, from Sudan to Saudi Arabia, all are inappropriately focused on controlling Muslim women’s dress. It is surprising that even within nations that uphold individual freedom, democracy and the separation of religion and state, governments seem to be anxious about Muslim women’s attire. Would governments ever legislate that men who wear beards may not become citizens and those who wear fitted pants should be whipped?  I say to these governments: get out of our hair, and stay away from our pants! Instead, what government must do is to protect the freedom of Muslim women to choose our dress.  Protecting choice guarantees human dignity and maintains fairness.  Ultimately, the preservation of democracy as well as the practice of Islam depends on it.———————The burkini (aka “burqini”), which first appeared in Australia, has also been banned in at least one Dutch swimming pool.Following is a Reuters video report on the recent “burkini ban” in France –

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Paris court to rule if Scientology should be shut down in France

scientologyHow far does the principle of religious freedom go? How much can be accepted in the name of respect for a faith? A Paris court is debating these questions in a fraud case against the Church of Scientology. If the public prosecutor wins the case, Scientology will be convicted of extorting hundreds of thousands of euros from followers on personality tests, vitamin cures, “auditing” sessions and counselling with an “e-metre.” It will be disbanded and could also face heavy fines. The French arm of the U.S.-based Scientology denies the charges and says the case violates its freedom of religion.

Scientology is registered as a religion with tax-exempt status in the United States, but enjoys no such position in France and has faced repeated accusations of being a money-making cult. It also does not have French celebrities defending its case, in contrast to the United States. where movie star members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta publicly defend it as a valid religion. “This is not the place to debate whether Scientology is truly a religion or not,”prosecutor Maud Coujard told the court when she summed up her case on Monday.  “The point is that … a religious motivation is no justification under criminal law.”

Scientology’s lawyer, Patrick Maisonneuve, will call for an acquittal when he makes his closing remarks to the court. “What the prosecutor has asked for is a death sentence for Scientology (in France),” he told reporters. The court is expected to issue its ruling later in the year.

GUESTVIEW: Obama speech not historic, but could become so

obama-speaks1 (Photo: President Obama speaks at Cairo University, 4 June 2009/Larry Downing)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, where he co-teaches a course on faith and globalization with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A native of Croatia and member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., he has been involved in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, most recently in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

By Miroslav Volf

I am tempted to say that in Cairo President Obama delivered an historic speech on relations between “the United States and Muslims around the world.” Speeches aren’t historic when they are delivered, however; they become historic after they’ve shaped history. What is certain even now, mere few hours after the speech, is that it was brilliant — visionary and practical, deeply human and political, moral and pragmatic, all at the same time. These wise words, beautifully crafted and compellingly delivered, have the potential of becoming seeds from which a new future will sprout and flourish.

The perspective that pervades the whole speech was signaled when the President recognized his own Christian faith, while at the same time noting that his father came from a family that includes generations of Muslims. Thus, in his own biography, the President embodies what his speech was ultimately about: relations between the United States and Muslims around the world should not be defined simply by “our differences” but by “overlaps” and “common principles” as well. This point is crucial. In encounter with others, if we see only differences, the result is exclusion; if we see only commonalities, the result is distortion. Only when we see both-undeniable differences that give others a peculiar character and commonalities that bind us together-are we able to honor both others and ourselves.

PAPA DIXIT:Pope’s words at mosque, Moses mount, Madaba

pope-ghaziPope Benedict’s long-awaited address to Muslims at the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque topped the day’s list of speeches. It dominated our news coverage today. He also spoke at Mount Nebo, where the Bible says Moses glimpsed the Promised Land before dying, and at a ceremony to bless the cornerstone of a Catholic university being built in Madaba. The mosque and Madaba speeches were classic Ratzinger, with some of his trademark theological and philosophical arguments. If he had delivered the mosque speech at Regensburg, there might never have been a “Regensburg.” Benedict ended the day with a short sermon at vespers in the Greek-Melkite Cathedral of Saint George. (Photo: Pope Benedict and Prince Ghazi tour the mosque, 9 May 2009/Tony Gentile)

Here are excerpts from today’s speeches.

THE MOSQUE SPEECH

UNITE TO DEFEND RELIGION: “We cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better. Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society? In the face of this situation, where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly. Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.”

PAPA DIXIT: Pope Benedict’s quotes on plane, in Amman

pope-plane-romePope Benedict plans to speak publicly at least 29 times during his May 8-15 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Apart from covering the main points in our news reports, we also plan to post excerpts from his speeches in a FathWorld series called “Papa dixit” (“the pope said”). (Photo: Pope Benedict leaves Rome for Amman, 8 May 2009/Max Rossi)

Following are comments from the first day, on the plane and in Amman. The pope spoke Italian on the plane but will deliver all his speeches here in English.

COMMENTS ON THE PLANE (Reuters translation from Italian):

MIDEAST PEACE: “Certainly I will try to make a contribution to peace, not as an individual but in the name of the Catholic Church , of the Holy See. We are not a political power but a spiritual force and this spiritual force is a reality which can contribute to progress in the peace process … As believers we are convinced that that prayer is a real force, it opens the world to God. We are convinced that God listens and can affect history and I think that if millions of believers pray it really is a force that has influence and can make a contribution to moving ahead with peace.”

Malaysia trying to find its religious equilibrium

MALAYSIA/ Multicultural Malaysia, whose official religion is Islam but which has sizeable numbers of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, has been struggling of late to ensure religious freedoms for its minorities, without offending the sensibilities of majority Muslims.

In the latest case, a Malaysian court granted permission to a Christian to challenge the authorities for seizing religious materials that used the word “Allah”. The government has banned the use of the Arabic word to describe God by all except for Muslims, saying it might confuse Muslims or offend their sensisibilities. (Photo: A Hindu pilgrim outside Kuala Lumpur, 8 Feb 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)

The Catholic Herald, Malaysia’s main Catholic newspaper, has been fighting the government for months over the right to use the word “Allah”. Herald Editor Rev. Lawrence Andrew argues that Malaysian Christians have used “Allah” as their term for God for centuries. In a recent edition, the Herald slammed a new locally produced Bible, which further muddied these troubled waters by using the Hebrew word “Elohim” instead of “Allah” (or God for that matter) for the Almighty.

U.S. High Court lets city block religious monument

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a Utah city can refuse to put a religious group’s monument in a public park near a similar Ten Commandments display. You can see our story here.

The justices unanimously sided with the city of Pleasant Grove, which had said a ruling for the religious group would mean public parks across the country would have to allow privately donated monuments that express different views from those already on display.

The Summum religious group, founded in Salt Lake City in 1975, sought in 2003 to erect a monument to the tenets of its faith, called the “Seven Aphorisms,” in a park where there are other monuments, including a Ten Commandments display.