FaithWorld

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistani Taliban force girls’ schools to close

Taliban militants have banned female education in the northwest Pakistan valley of Swat, depriving more than 40,000 girls of schooling. Last month, the Taliban warned parents against sending their daughters to school, saying female education was "unIslamic".  The warning was reiterated by a close aide to militant leader Mullah Fazlullah in a message broadcast through an illegal FM radio station on Friday night. Government schools have been shut down and some 300 private schools due to reopen next month after the winter break will probably remain closed, a senior official said.

The development highlights the extent to which the Taliban have extended their influence from the tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan into Pakistan itself, and their willingness to challenge Pakistanis' way of life.

In the same vein, the blog All Things Pakistan, in a post headlined "Pakistan at War: No Women Allowed" runs a photo of a banner in Mingora, the main city in Swat, which it says reads: "Women are not allowed in the market."  It says the Taliban has banned the entry of women in markets and ordered the killing of women who violate the ban. "From the picture, this is clearly a textile and cloth market -- the type of market where, in Pakistan, you would expect most customers to be women," it says. It also says that most shop owners have sold or shut down their business because of falling sales.

So what's going on here? Is this only about the Taliban enforcing their religious views even at the risk of alienating the local population? Neither the parents whose daughters have been banned from school nor the shop owners appear to welcome the development.  Or is it more about them showing their power to intimidate as part of a longer-term strategy?

Other conservative Muslim countries do not have bans on female education -- for example in Saudi Arabia female students make up a little over half of those enrolled in schools and universities, although they are strictly segregated. 

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.

Time for trains to help pilgrims perform the haj

(Photo: Pilgrims on the plains of Arafat, 7 Dec 2008/Saudi Press Agency)

Muslims taking part in the annual haj pilgrimage often say they have no words to describe the spiritual experience they have. Their practical struggles with the logistics are another thing altogether.

Many multi-billion-dollar improvements have been carried out over the past few years to improve safety for  pilgrims, expand the Grand Mosque and build tent cities in several areas where pilgrims have to stay for a day or more. The logistics of the haj are the main challenge that both pilgrims and the organizers face during the few days in which pilgrims are required to travel back and forth to several places to perform the rituals. There have been stampedes, fires and other accidents in the past as Muslims from around the world answered the call made by the Prophet Mohammad more than 1,400 years ago.

The benefits were clear at this year’s haj, in which over two million pilgrims have taken part without any major incident. There is still room for improvement, though, and my preference is for a train system to help pilgrims get around to perform the rituals tracking the Prophet’s steps.

Saudi offer for Moscow mosque, Orthodox call for church in Arabia

A Saudi offer to build a large mosque in Moscow has prompted Russian Orthodox organisations to ask for permission to build an Orthodox church in Saudi Arabia. Several western Christian churches have asked for or suggested such reciprocity with Saudi Arabia, which funds mosques abroad but bans any religion but Islam at home. It’s an issue that can only become more pressing if King Abdullah continues to preach interfaith dialogue and tolerance around the globe while not practicing it at home.

The Russian Muftis Council announced the Saudi offer to fund a mosque last week, promting an open letter to King Abdullah a few days later by what Interfax news agency called Orthodox public organisations. It didn’t come from the Russian Orthodox Church itself, but watch this space. The Russians have become increasingly active on the world religious scene as they emerge from the communist era and it would not be surprising to see them take a position on this question as well. There is probably also a domestic angle to this. Islam is the second largest religion in Russia and growing, so the Orthodox Church might feel a bit of competition. (Photo: St. Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square, 27 Jan 2007/Denis Sinyakov)

“You often say that Islam is a religion of justice. However, if Saudi Arabia builds mosques in dozens of Christian countries, isn’t it just to build a church for Christians living in Your Kingdom!” says the letter quoted by Interfax. “It would be just to create the same conditions for Saudi Christians as Muslims have in Russia … It is the only way to make interreligious dialogue honest and just.”

from Global News Journal:

Saudi king basks in praise at UN interfaith forum

The price of oil may have dropped by more than half in recent weeks but the Saudi petrodollar appears to have lost none of its allure, judging by the procession of very important visitors to the New York Palace Hotel this week and to the U.N. General Assembly. With President George W. Bush in the lead, they have all come to present their compliments to King Abdullah, the Saudi ruler, who has turned the Manhattan hotel and the world body into an extension of his court, complete, it would seem, with a Majlis to receive petitioners.

Naturally, all the VIPs visiting him are eager to congratulate his majesty on his interfaith initiative, a gathering of religious and political leaders which took place  this week under the auspices of the United Nations. The meeting has attracted extravagant praise from, among others, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister,  and Shimon Peres,  the veteran Israeli president.

It is a fact that the king's initiative is unprecedented and bold, taking place despite the displeasure of many influential religious clerics at home. It is also a fact that he is the first Saudi leader to have travelled to the Vatican, opening dialogue between the two largest religions.

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.

Pace picks up in international interfaith meetings

November will see an upswing on the interfaith dialogue front with two high-level meetings highlighting different approaches to the challenge of fostering better understanding among the world’s major religions.

The first will be the meeting of the Common Word group of Muslim scholars with Pope Benedict and top Roman Catholic experts on Islam next week (Nov. 4-6) at the Vatican. This will be the third conference initiated by the group, following sessions at Yale University in July and the University of Cambridge this month where Muslim and Christian religious leaders and theologians discussed in detail what unites and separates them. Being the supertanker of the Christian world, the Vatican has turned more slowly towards this theological dialogue than the smaller Protestant churches. But it has agreed to institutionalise the dialogue in a Catholic-Muslim Forum and give it a gesture of approval with a papal audience. Let’s see what comes out at the end of the talks next Thursday.

Here is my curtainraiser on the meeting.

The week afterwards, on Nov. 12-13, Saudi King Abdullah will be at the United Nations in New York to promote the interfaith dialogue that he launched in Madrid last July. This effort is much wider — the Madrid meeting had not only Christians and Muslims but also Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other faiths. It seems like more of an official diplomatic offensive, especially with that U.N. connection. Reflecting that, the White House has announced that President George Bush will join Abdullah at the talks. There are reports that Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni might attend. One might be tempted to write the whole thing off as another talking shop, but an international body like the United Nations may be the right forum now for Abdullah to continue one pioneering aspect of this effort — his outreach to Jews. Several rabbis attended the Madrid meeting and Abdullah has said he wants to hold an interfaith conference in Saudi Arabia. That would have to include Jews if this whole project is to be taken seriously. Watch that space.

Catholic bishops want practical results from Muslim dialogue

The synod of Roman Catholic bishops that just ended in Rome has reminded the Vatican that it wants concrete issues such as religious freedom for Christians in the Islamic world to be part of any dialogue with Muslims. It’s not as if the Vatican has forgotten this — check out a recent statement by Rev. Christian Troll S.J., a leading Church expert on Islam. All this comes as the Vatican and the Common Word group of Muslim scholars prepare for the Catholic-Islamic Forum due in Rome next week.

The full text of the bishops’ proposal (number 53 of the 55 published only in Italian) reads in English:

“The Church regards with esteem … the Muslims who worship the one God” (Nostra Aetate 3). They refer to Abraham and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. The dialogue with them permits us to know each other better and cooperate in the promotion of ethical and spiritual values.