FaithWorld

Turkey’s Alevis fight back against Sunni religion lessons

An Alevi girl dance during a prayer service in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, has preached a message of religious freedom as a way to expand liberties for believers in the officially secular country. It has assured the European Union it would respect freedoms for religious minorities. There has been some progress for minorities, but it is halting. The government’s focus seems to be more on assuring religious rights for pious Sunni Muslims, as in ending of the university headscarf ban. Religious minorities still face an uphill struggle to practice as they see fit.

Turkey’s Alevis, some 15-25 million whose faith is rooted in Islam but mixed with other traditions including ….shamanism, form the country’s leargest religious minority but they have never been recognised as a formal religion. This means they can be lumped together with Sunni Muslims, as a recent court case about the mandatory religion classes in state schools showed. The classes, taught in all primary schools, serve as an instruction guide to being Muslim, with topics ranging from how to pray in a mosque to fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Alevis dance during a prayer in a Cem house in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Alevi Hatice Kose took the education ministry to court to win permission to pull her son out of the classes and change the curriculum to include information about Alevis. She won the case, but the government has said it has no power to change the classes, which it says are protected in Turkey’s constitution.

For more on this, see our feature here. And here’s the full slideshow from the Alevi prayer service pictured above.

Can China and the Vatican make beautiful music together?

World Team Table Tennis Championships in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, 2 March 2008/Bobby YipRemember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.

But the Vatican does not have a ping-pong team, as far as we know. So, the next best thing appears to be music. This week, Vatican Radio made a surprise announcement on its daily 2 p.m. bulletin. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem for Pope Benedict on May 7 in the Vatican’s audience hall, adding a stop to its already scheduled European tour.

Pope Benedict at a recent concert in his honor in the Vatian audience hallAs one diplomat said, “this could not have happened without the Beijing government approving it.” Given the fact that relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been scratchy to say the least, one can only wonder if this is the start of a mating game. It could lead to diplomatic relations and China’s recognition of the pope as leader of all Catholics in the world, including Chinese Catholics, many of whom have been forced to join the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.

Vatican baptism raises questions about Catholic-Muslim dialogue

Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliJust when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.

That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Afghan convert Abdul Rahman during his trial in Kabul for apostasy, 23 March 2006/Reuters TVAbdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.

France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.

Pope breaks “silence” on Tibet with carefully worded appeal

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessings at the end of his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the VaticanAs readers of this blog will have noticed, I posted a note yesterday about calls by Italian intellectuals for Pope Benedict to break his supposed silence over Tibet. On Wednesday he did so at his weekly general audience, making a carefully worded appeal (here in Italian) for an end to the suffering of the people there.

Given the delicate nature of relations between the Vatican and China, the appeal seemed to strike a balance between his concern for the people and Vatican diplomacy. He mentioned the violence without mentioning China.

In fairness to the Pope, the accusations of “silence” made by some in Italy were perhaps, as was noted by his defenders in yesterday’s blog, a bit premature. Unless he is saying a Mass on a Church holy day or a similar occasion, the Pope only has set days in which he can make a public appeal that the Vatican believes is most effective — Sunday at the Angelus prayer from his window and Wednesday at the general audience.

Pressure rises on Christians in Jordan, Algeria

Evangelical Christians at a baptism in the Jordan River, 1 Oct. 2007/Yonathan WeitzmanRising tension between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world have come out in the open with the expulsion of foreign Christian charity workers from Jordan and the conviction of a Catholic priest in Algeria. Although the cases seem different, the background is similar. Evangelical Christians have been increasingly active in the Islamic world, doing charity and development work and also seeking to convert Muslims. The missionary part is usually a crime in Islamic countries and local authorities — rightly or wrongly — often suspect the charity part is a cover for this proselytism. This sets the stage for clashes over religious freedom, national laws, Christianity, Islam and modernity — an increasingly frequent mix in a globalised world. It also has serious effects on the long-established but fragile Christian communities living in those Muslim countries.

In Jordan, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said this week that Christians had come to Jordan under the “pretext of charitable and voluntary activities, but they had violated the law by undertaking preaching activities and were expelled”. This followed a long report by Compass Direct News, an agency that focuses on persecution of Christians around the world, that Jordan had “deported or refused residence permits to at least 27 expatriate Christian families and individuals in 2007, a number of them working with local churches or studying at a Christian seminary“.

One report said those involved were from the United States, South Korea, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq. “It is puzzling that certain small groups with a few hundred members and which are foreign to Christians in Jordan and to the history of Muslim-Christian relations, permit themselves to speak in the name of Christians and act as protectors of Christianity as if it were in danger,” it quoted the Council of Churches, the highest Christian body in Jordan, as saying. AsiaNews says: “According to the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, the group of eight missionaries was distributing Christian material among the Bedouins to the north and east of the capital Amman.”

Preparations under way for Vatican-Muslim meeting

St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 24 Dec. 2007/Max RossiPreparations are under way for a planned visit to the Vatican by representatives of the “Common Word” Muslim appeal for a theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam. This group of Muslim scholars and leaders got to be known as the “138″ because that was the number of initial signatories, but the total has grown to 221, so that label is a bit confusing now. Anyway, veteran vaticanista Sandro Magister informs us that five Muslim representatives were at the Vatican early this week to start preparing for the visit expected to take place in the next month or so. One interesting aspect is simply the geographical mix of people involved — they come from Turkey, Britain, Jordan, Libya and Italy.

Discussion of this initiative continues apace.

The conservative U.S. Catholic author George Weigel argues that the”Common Word” authors “seemed to be trying to change the subject ” in their statements about the planned dialogue because they did not address what Pope Benedict cited as discussion points when he addressed the Roman Curia in December 2006. In that speech, Benedict saidKing Hussein Bin Talal Mosque in Amman, 18 Sept. 2007/Muhammad Hamed Muslims and Christians had to “counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and from public organizations” and “welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognise these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.”

In his weekly column, the National Catholic Reporter‘s Vatican expert, John Allen, has a long interview with Father Thomas Michel S.J., one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam. Allen notes two interesting points Michel makes:

Turkish tempers flare as headscarf reform nears

Neslihan Akbulut of women’s rights group AKDER, 31 Jan. 2008/Fatih SaribasAnyone looking at Turkish newspapers or television these days would be forgiven for thinking Turkey was in a deep political crisis over government plans to lift a decades-old ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. The two sides — the secular Turks who long held sway here and the newly empowered pious Turks — are debating the issue in the winner-take-all way Turks like to talk politics. The liberal daily Radikal found the tension rising so much that it ran a front page headline this week reading “Republic of Fear” with a reprint of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” on the cover.

Readers abroad might ask what all the fuss is about. After all, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country with a vibrant democracy. But the headscarf goes to the very heart of Turkey’s complex identity. For a feature on the headscarf issue, I spoke to devout and secular women and heard two diametrically opposed views. The devout women, some of whom had been expelled from universities because of the headscarf, said covering their Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, 29 Jan. 2008/Umit Bektashair was all about personal and religious freedoms. “I wear the headscarf, my cousin doesn’t and we go out to family dinners. It is no big deal,” one said. Many secular women feel their rights will be curtailed if the ban is lifted since — they fear — they will eventually be forced to wear the Islamic headscarf.

Male opinion can be just as split. Secular men say that easing the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities would weaken the current separation of state and religion. The pious Muslims — including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan — say wearing the headscarf is a personal freedom and a right, just like secular women have the right not to wear it.

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.

Support for UN religious rights expert detained in Pakistan

Six international human rights groups have appealed to the U.N. Human Rights Council to press Pakistan to release Asma Jahangir, the world body’s special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief. The Pakistani lawyer, a leading human rights campaigner in her country, was put under house arrest in Lahore when President General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 3.

Asma Jahangir presents 2006 Pakistan human rights report, Feb. 8, 2007The six groups — Amnesty International, The International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, World Organisation against Torture and Pax Romana — also said Pakistan should lift a threat of detention against Hina Jilani , the U.N. special representative on the situation of human rights defenders who is currently outside of her native Pakistan but would be arrested if she returned. Jahangir and Jilani are sisters who have been active campaigners for women’s rights in Pakistan.

A group representing all 38 UN special representatives and working groups on human rights also protested against emergency rule in Pakistan and singled out the arrest of their colleague Jahangir and the detention order against Jilani. “We are concerned that placing a Special Procedures mandate holder under house arrest may adversely impact on his or her ability to carry out the activities necessary to fulfill the mandate. We are alarmed that a detention order remains in place against Hina Jilani, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders,” they said.