FaithWorld

Jewish leaders speak of tensions before meeting Pope Benedict

Two Jewish leaders due to meet Pope Benedict on Thursday say he has to ensure the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) changes some of its core views before current Catholic-Jewish strains can ease. We’ve run a news story on my interviews with them and a timeline on Catholic-Jewish relations. To give a fuller picture of what they’re saying, here are the transcripts of our talks.

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Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Photo: Conference of Presidents)

What do you hope to get from the meeting with the pope tomorrow? Can steps be taken to put this behind you?

Yes, I do believe that steps can be taken for us to turn this very negative experience into something positive and that is to use this as an opportunity, a pervasive opportunity in the Church, to root out those who engage in Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism of any form, for the Church to declare that there is no place within the Church for people who espouse such abhorrent views, that they renounce them and say that they will not countenance their presence. It is not just Bishop Williamson but members of that group, the organisation of which he is part, who have espoused anti-Semitic views over the years. I think it is important that before there can be an reconciliation with them, that not only there has to be a complete renunciation of those views and the Church establishing this as a standard and that the message will go out, especially at a time when we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, that the Church can play a critical role in helping to stem it and to declare it morally objectionable and religiously unacceptable.

What do want to hear from the pope tomorrow and what do you think he must say to start putting this behind us?

GUESTVIEW: Canada and the niqab: How to go public in the public square

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Sarah Sayeed is Program Associate and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.

By Sarah Sayeed and Matthew Weiner

A Canadian judge recently ruled that a Toronto Muslim woman must take off her face veil while giving testimony in a sexual assault trial. This tension between public space and private religion comes up repeatedly in western urban centers where Muslim women increasingly occupy the pubic square.  This time it happened in Toronto, but the issue arises regularly in western countries in the schools, workplaces and courtrooms that Muslims increasingly share with the majority population. At stake is whether a Muslim woman’s choice to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs infringes upon “our way of life.” (Photo: Sultaana Freeman testifies in court for right to wear a niqab on her Florida driver’s license, 27 May 2003/pool)

While all can agree that identity, tolerance and religious freedom are important, advocates for the face veil emphasize the upholding of freedom while opponents focus on the face veil, or niqab, as a challenge to collective identity.  Such tension between public expression of religion and collective identity is not new.  It has even gone on for centuries in Muslim countries, where religious minorities feel the tension between acceptance and their need to adapt, in varying degrees, to a Muslim majority worldview.  There is also a debate within Muslim communities about whether wearing the niqab is a religious requirement.

Policy adrift over Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim boat people

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority fleeing oppression and hardship in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, have been called one of the most persecuted people on earth. But they have seldom hit the headlines — until recently, that is. More than 500 Rohingyas are feared to have drowned since early December after being towed out to sea by the Thai military and abandoned in rickety boats. The army has admitted cutting them loose, but said they had food and water and denied sabotaging the engines of the boats. (Photo: Rohingyas in immigration area in soutwestern Thailand, 31 Jan 2009/Sukree Sukplang)

The Rohingyas are becoming a headache for Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia where they have washed up. Indonesian authorities this week rescued 198 Rohingya boat people off the coast of Aceh, after three weeks at sea. Buddhist Thailand and mostly Muslim Indonesia call them economic migrants looking for work at a time when countries in the region, like everywhere else, are in an economic downturn. But human rights groups such as Amnesty International are calling on governments in the region to provide assistance to the Rohingyas and let the UNHCR  have access to them.

Myanmar’s generals have a shabby enough record with their Buddhist majority. The brutal suppression of monk-led protests that killed at least 31 people in September 2007 and the continued detention of opposition icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi bear witness to that. But their treatment of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingyas and the Christian Chin people in the mountainous Northwest — where insurgents have been fighting for autonomy — have been especially brutal. They are not oppressed because of their faith alone, but their faith and ethnicity make them targets. The military government does not recognise them as one of the country’s 130-odd ethnic minorities. They are forbidden from marrying or traveling without permission and have no legal right to own land.

Pope clarifies Vatican stand four days after lifting SSPX bans

(Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly Vatican audience, 28 Jan 2009/Tony Gentile)

Pope Benedict clarified a crucial point in the Vatican’s dispute with the rebel traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) during his regular weekly audience today. Apart from the issue of Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust, which has angered Jewish leaders and caught most of the headlines, the decision to lift the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops raised serious concerns among many Catholics because it seemed to signal a departure from reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council. Specifically, by lifting the bans without demanding the SSPX bishops first recognise all Council reforms, it looked like Benedict was not trying to defend these Church teachings against their most implacable critics. Benedict has long been a champion of a conservative re-interpretation of the Council so any concessions he makes to the SSPX go beyond the narrow issue involved.

The Second Vatican Council was a major and complex event (well explained in the new book What Happened At Vatican II by Georgetown University Professor John W. O’Malley pictured at right). Its reforms include the opening to Jews, Muslims and other religions and a commitment to religious freedom. They replaced earlier teachings that Jews were Christ-killers, that all other faiths were deeply in error and that democracy and the separation of church and state were modernist aberrations. Many Catholics would not be able to recognise their own Church if it went back to those notions. Some would even leave if it did.  But the SSPX officially rejects these reforms as grave errors and it refused to agree to them as a pre-condition for having the excommunications lifted.

The fact that Benedict agreed to lift the bans without gaining this concession from them (which the Vatican was demanding as late as last June) prompted speculation that he would fudge this condition in the negotiations due with the SSPX to regularise their status within the Church. SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay fuelled this suspicion by writing a triumphant letter to his followers clearly stating he had not made this concession (the Vatican statement was not clear on this point). Statements from the Vatican in reaction to the uproar about Williamson have been curiously defensive. Church officials have said his views were unacceptable and not related to the excommunication issue. Those statements were fine as far as they went. But they never shifted to the offensive and said, “And what’s more, we’ll demand that they sign up to all Vatican II documents.” The whole episode led Catholics to ask, as did blogger David Gibson, “Why so much for this group?”

If Catholic rebels return to Rome, who caved?

Pope Benedict is reportedly planning to lift the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist Catholic bishops who have defied the Vatican for decades by rejecting some central reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Andrea Tornielli, the well-informed vaticanista of the Italian daily Il Giornale, says the decree inviting the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) back to the Roman fold should be announced this weekend. If this is true (which, given Tornielli’s track record, it presumably is),  the unanswered question now is: who caved? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Our vaticanista Phil Pullella writes that lifting the excommunications “would be a major gesture by Benedict to resolve a crisis in the Church that surfaced in 1988, when the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of the late Pope John Paul.”

The Swiss-based SSPX has about a million followers worldwide compared to 1.1 billion for the official Church. It maintains the old Latin Mass and rejects Vatican II reforms such as dialogue with other religions.

Italy’s Muslims divided over Gaza prayer protests at cathedrals

Many Italians were shocked to find pictures in their daily newspapers recently of Muslims kneeling in prayer on the piazzas in front of the cathedrals in Milan and Bologna during demonstrations in support of Palestinians in Gaza.
Predictably, politicians in the centre-right government criticised the protests with some, including the ministers for defence and European affairs, calling them a blasphemous provocation. (Photo: Il Giornale says Milan square “transformed into a mosque”)

The government ministers noted that it would be impossible for Christians to pray in Mecca and one called on the Roman Catholic Church to take a harder stand and be less tolerant.

Critics of the demonstrations have found an unlikely ally in Yahya Pallavicini, the vice-president of CO.RE.IS, Italy’s Islamic Religiuos Community. The demonstrations were organised by another Islamic group, the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) and Pallavicini thinks they went over the top.

Exercised over yoga in Malaysia

Of all the things to get exercised about, yoga would seem to be an unlikely candidate for controversy. But such has been the case in Malaysia this week.

Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.

It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.

How credible is a Saudi initiative on interfaith dialogue?

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. State Department lists as a “country of particular concern” because of its severe restrictions on religious freedom, is sponsoring talks at the United Nations in New York today and tomorrow on improving interfaith dialogue. Is this a credible exercise? (Photo: King Abdullah with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. in New York, Nov 12, 2008)

Analysis leading up to the meeting has been full of reservations. Our Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond noted that the influential religious establishment in Saudi Arabia shows scant support for the king’s initiative. Our Middle East news editor Samia Nakhoul quotes Saudi delegation member Jamal Khajoggi as saying “The king can change positions, he can hire and fire people but he cannot change the mind-set of people or the clerical establishment quickly. It has to be gradual.”

The most brutal assessment came from Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based Shiite Muslim dissident from Saudi Arabia quoted by the New York Times: “It’s like apartheid South Africa having a conference at the U.N. on racial harmony.”

Cardinal sees possible “favoured channel” in dialogue with Islam

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has made statements in the past that made him sound quite sceptical about the value of a theological dialogue with Muslims. (Photo: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran)

That wasn’t what I found when I interviewed him last Saturday at his office on Via della Conciliazione, just down the road from St. Peter’s Basilica. The subject was the Catholic-Muslim Forum he had just hosted on Nov 4-6 between a Muslim delegation from the Common Word group and Catholic delegation of Vatican officials, Catholic Islam scholars and bishops from western and Muslim countries.

The Common Word group, he said, could become a “favoured channel” for Vatican contacts with Muslims, even while it retains other channels of dialogue. While he still had some reservations about the group’s approach because of differences he sees in ways of reading scriptures, he was quite positive about the actual dialogue itself. “In discussing the love of God, we were doing theology unintentionally,” he said. That jibed with a point that Muslim delegates made during the session itself. “I thought they didn’t want to discuss theology but we’ve been doing that from the start,” University of Cambridge Islamic studies lecturer Tim Winter remarked halfway though the conference.

Bishop sees slow progress on churches in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches on its territory is a thorny issue that loomed over the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting this week in Rome. Some Catholics say the question of religious freedom for minority faiths in Muslim countries is so important that the Vatican should insist on strict reciprocity in such interfaith talks.  (In photo: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opens in Doha on 15 March 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

However, more believe it is not a good idea to make the dialogue hostage to a single issue, so it did not become a dealbreaker here. It did get discussed in the closed-door talks, which delegates said were quite lively at times, and it was referred to in the final declaration. Cynics may say nothing was resolved, but there are interesting nuances that could lead to change.

The final declaration had this to say: “Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.” Having Muslim delegates sign up to a statement that non-Muslims should be able to worship publicly in Muslim majority countries, i.e. have their own churches, is an important step. This is clearly aimed at Saudi Arabia, where the rights of other faiths are most clearly limited. A Catholic delegate told me some Muslims did not like the final part about practising religion in private and public but their delegation head, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, reminded them that this passage could also help minority Muslims who want to build mosques in Western countries. This is an interesting example of how the globalisation of Islam is starting to influence the traditional Muslim world.