FaithWorld

from India Insight:

Is caste behind the killing in Vienna and riots in Punjab?

Why did the murder of a preacher in a Sikh temple in Vienna spark riots in the faraway Indian state of Punjab, in which thousands took to the streets to torch cars, trains and battle security forces?

The root cause may lie in India's caste system that Sikhism officially rejects, but that still grips swathes of India's billion-plus people, including in Sikh-dominated Punjab state in northwestern India.

"Via Vienna, Sikh caste war returns, sets Punjab aflame" ran the headline of the Hindustan Times.

The preacher, Guru Sant Rama Nand, 57, was killed in a gurdwara in the Austrian capital in an attack by six men armed with knives and a gun.

He was from the Dera Sach Khand, a religious sect separate from mainstream Sikhism that has a large support base of Indian Dalits, or "untouchables", and other lower castes.

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.

GUESTVIEW: Finding and defining the religious pluralism within

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. Rev. Bud Heckman is Director for External Relations at Religions for Peace and editor of InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook (SkyLight, 2008).

By Matthew Weiner and Rev. Bud Heckman

Mary Rosenblatt grew up Jewish, she married a Catholic and her children are “exposed to both faiths.” In her adult life, she has become particularly drawn to meditation as practiced by a local Buddhist circle. If she participated in a survey about religious identity, how might she be portrayed?  And what about her kids?

pew-logoThe Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released a survey entitled “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” that attempts to map changes in religious affiliation in the U.S.  It follows on the coattails of the important “U.S Religious Landscape Survey” conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007.  If read in cross-tension with the “American Religious Identification Survey 2008″ released by Trinity College in Hartford, one can begin to see a complex and diverse picture of faith affiliation for Americans, as well as some patterns of change.

An “Indian Bible” or a “Bible for India”?

flight-to-egyptAnnotated Bibles come in all shapes, sizes and standpoints. One of the most interesting recent examples is The New Community Bible in India. The novelty is not the text itself but the extensive footnotes comparing and contrasting Christian teachings with those of India’s main religions. Christians make up only 2.3% of India’s 1.1 billion population compared to 80% for Hindus and 13% for Muslims. The illustrations are also clearly Indian — in the drawing for the Flight to Egypt (at right), Mary wears a sari and a bindi on her forehead while Joseph sports a turban.

The New Community Bible (NCB) stirred up some controversy when it was published, with official Church approval, by a Roman Catholic group in Mumbai last summer. A Protestant pastor called it “a complete turn back from the real Bible.” Hindu natiotionalists denounced it as a bid to convert Hindus to Christianity. A blog named after Hindu guru (CORRECTED: see comment below) Sathya Sai Baba warned that Christian missionaries were “taking aim at India” with a “deceptive Bible and other questionable tactics.” . There was also criticism from Catholic laity, enough to prompt the bishops to order a study of the issue and have the publisher hold off with a second edition. That’s too bad because the first edition quickly sold out.

During my recent visit to India, I got a look at a friend’s copy of the NCB and found it fascinating. Following are a few points that stood out while I paged through it (and a few not very professional photos I took of its illustrations):

A religion board game – satire or scandal?

How much fun — really — can you make of religion?  A U.S. marketer of board games may find out with ”Playing Gods” which it calls “the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare.” It had its European premier this week at the London Toy Fair and will make a U.S. debut at the New York Toy Fair in February.

Ben Radford, head of the company that put the game together, said in a news release it is designed for two to five players who act as “gods” and …

“Try try to take over the world and make everyone on Earth worship him or her. As a god, you can try to convert other gods’ followers, promising them things like Afterlife, Prosperity, and Miracles. Or you can kill them off with plagues, locusts, earthquakes, floods, and other Acts of Gods.

Collateral damage from French headscarf law continues

When French President Jacques Chirac ‘s government wanted to ban Muslim headscarves in state schools back in 2004, it had to find a way to (1) make the ban look fair and (2) avoid a backlash from the majority Catholic electorate.  A ban had to target all religions, but couldn’t be absolute because that could violate international rights norms. It also risked alienating some Catholic voters because because many Catholic girls wore necklaces with small gold crosses. So Paris came up with a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” that would bar  Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses. That only bishops actually wore large crosses did not seem to matter. (Photo: Sikhs in France protest against turban ban, 31 Jan 2004/Charles Platiau)

In the haste to pass and apply the law, the government overlooked a religious group that would also be hit by the new restrictions — the Sikhs. There are about 10,000 of them, mostly living in the Paris area, easily identifiable by the distinctive turbans the men wear. When local Sikh community leaders and Sikh activists from London protested that a turban is not a religious symbol, they were given a polite hearing and ignored. The Sikhs said the turban was simply a practical way of covering the real religious symbol, their uncut hair, so taking it off would expose the religious symbol the ban was meant to bar from state schools. It was a clever argument — one that, as the cynical French quip puts it, had the additional merit of being true — but the government was not going to allow any exceptions that could leave a back door open for Muslim girls to squeeze some kind of  headscarf through.

The uproar over the ban has long since calmed down, but the Sikhs continue to campaign to overturn it. A group called United Sikhs asked a U.N. human rights committee on Monday to declare that France had violated a student’s rights by expelling him for wearing a turban and to recommend repealing the law that led to it.

GUESTVIEW: Mumbai violence brings New York faith groups together

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Matthew Weiner, the author, is the Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.

When terror attacks like those in Mumbai occur, many people of faith want to stand together despite their differences to condemn them with one voice. Faith leaders in New York, having seen their own city targetted in 2001, quickly responded with a show of support for their sister city in India. Their news conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall on Monday was an example of how faith communities in the world’s most religiously diverse metropolis can join hands to speak out against such violence. (Photo: New York interfaith meeting, 1 Dec 2008/Edwin E. Bobrow)

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, senior vice-president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Mo Razvi, a Pakistani-American Muslim and community organizer, and the Interfaith Center of New York organized the meeting while Councilman John Liu got the green light to use City Hall as the venue. Potasnick worked through Thanksgiving weekend to make it happen and insisted on having representatives from every faith. “It is very important to condemn the attacks…but it is imperative we stand together with one voice,” he said.

British Muslim TV channel to air inter-faith game show

Islam Channel logoThis could be very interesting … or maybe a flop. Islam Channel, a British Muslim TV channel broadcast on satellite and webcasts, plans to host a weekly religion quiz show called “Faith Off” from mid-June. It’s meant to promote better understanding among religions by pitting teams from different faiths against each other. As the Guardian‘s religion correspondent Riazat Butt put it, the show will pit “Jews against Muslims, Sikhs against Christians and Hindus against Buddhists, with contestants competing for cash prizes.” Sounds like an interesting idea, but I don’t know if it will make great TV.

Like all quiz shows, its success will depend on how well it’s presented, how interesting the questions are and how knowledgable the contestants are. But one of the recurring religion stories you see is the survey about how little many people know about their own religion. In fact, they’re hardly news anymore.

So I wonder how well contestants will do even with questions about their own faith, let alone anything dealing with another religion. And what about issues where there are differences of opinion within one religion? If the producers weed out all the difficult and contentious questions, is there enough left to make a lively and challenging show?

Inter-faith outreach in the Hindu heartland

Nashik religious leaders join Archbishop Machado at ordination, 8 March 2008/Tom Heneghan

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Posting vacation photos is not what this blog is about, but this one has a religion angle. I just spent a week in India and attended the ordination of the new Roman Catholic bishop of Nashik, a city near Mumbai in an area where Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) is a potent political force.

Archbishop Felix Machado (standing at top of stairs) was under-secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in Rome before his appointment. So he invited leaders of all the religions in the city to join him and give a novel touch to his episcopal ordination. In the picture, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist leaders stand behind him as Acharya Swami Sanvindanand Saraswati, who heads a Hindu monastery in the city known across India as a Hindu pilgrimage centre, welcomes him to Nashik.

Michael Gonsalves, Special Correspondent for UCA News (Union of Catholic Asian News Agencies), wasn’t on vacation and he wrote this report on the event.

Kashmiri Hindus hold festival for first time in 18 years

Kashmir policeman guards Hindu religious festival in SrinagarSome international crises drag on so long that outsiders can forget what life in the area was like before the unrest began. Look at Kashmir, the beautiful mountain region split by war between India and Pakistan at Partition in 1947. The Muslim separatist unrest in Indian Kashmir flared up again in 1989 and led to clashes 10 years later that threatened to spark a full war between the two nuclear states. These years of unrest have fanned tension and suspicion between the majority Muslim population and the minority Hindus and Sikhs. But peace efforts in recent years have brought the violence down to the point where the Hindus could revive a religious tradition they dared not celebrate publicly for 18 years. The violence is not over, as our photo of the police protection for the ceremony vividly shows, but progress is being made.

As our Srinagar correspondent Sheikh Mushtaq wrote,

Hundreds of chanting Hindus burnt a huge effigy of a demon king to mark one of their biggest festivals for the first time in Kashmir since Muslim militants launched a revolt 18 years ago.

The celebrations late on Sunday came at the end of the nine-day Dusshera festival, which celebrates god-king Ram’s victory over the mythological king Ravana, symbolising the triumph of good over evil.