Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Religious symbols and reminders of religious freedom: My purchase of a menorah

I announced to my family a few weeks ago that I was going to purchase a menorah. They looked at me kind of funny, wondering why I, being a Christian, would do such a thing. But as I was reading about Hanukkah (or Chanukah), I was struck by the symbolism of the menorah and its relationship to religious freedom. Although it is not a part of my religion, it still bears some sacredness for me.

The story goes like this: In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV, the Syrian king of the Seleucid Empire, invaded Jerusalem and recaptured Jerusalem. His soldiers plundered and looted the temple, putting a stop to further temple worship. The practice of Judaism was outlawed, which prompted the successful Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE and the subsequent rededication of the temple.

According to wikipedia: "The festival of Hanukkah was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers to celebrate this event. After recovering Jerusalem and the Temple, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. But there was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle."

The martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons is also linked to Hanukkah. Antiochus, in his demonstration of control over the Jews and their religious practices, had required her sons to eat pig or to be put to death. Each son, in turn, refused, and was, as promised, killed. Prior to the youngest son's death, Antiochus had appealed to Hannah to convince her youngest to eat pig rather than to die. But Hannah was not swayed and the son refused, and that son, as well, was put to death. Ultimately Hannah, too, suffered death in connection with these events. Her and her sons' courage and strength are commemorated to this day.

I wanted to purchase the menorah so that I would have this symbol as a reminder of these important events and of the strength and courage of these Jews nearly 2200 years ago and so that I could teach my children about these things. The principles that the menorah represent are universal and bear meaning to this non-Jew. And so today I finally received my "traditional pewter menorah" in the mail, having ordered it from Judaica.com, and was pleased to bring this symbol into my home.

By the way, I decided not to purchase the "Multi-color Puzzle Menorah," the "Inflatable Festival Menorah Decoration," the "Clef Note Menorah," the "Woven Garden Wall Menorah," or the "Giant Lawn Decoration Inflatable Menorah." The "traditional pewter menorah" works just fine for me.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Changing Demographics and Its Impact on World Affairs: The New Population Bomb

In his article, The New Population Bomb: The Four Megatrends That Will Change the World (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010 (registration required)), Jack Goldstone offers this stark information:

"In 1950, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey had a combined population of 242 million. By 2009, those six countries were the world's most populous Muslim-majority countries and had a combined population of 886 million. Their populations are continuing to grow and indeed are expected to increase by 475 million between now and 2050--during which time, by comparison, the six most populous developed countries are projected to gain only 44 million inhabitants. Worldwide, of the 48 fastest-growing countries today--those with annual population growth of two percent or more--28 are majority Muslim or have Muslim minorities of 33 percent or more."

That ought to get your attention. These population changes will require significant adjustment to foreign policy thinking, international trade, education, immigration, and economic policies. And as to religious freedom and other basic human rights...

Western societies cannot change these population trends, and so they'd better gain a better understanding of how to meet the challenges that will arise. Will the substantial increases in Muslims in these countries result in even less religious freedom? Or will that growth mean that Muslim governments will have a lesser ability to control the people and limit their rights? How does this impact radical Islamists? Will the increasing population of young people have a desire for Western things and ideals? Or will they move along more radical paths? The world is changing quickly, and we'd better be ready for it.

Make sure to read the entire article here.

Quote of the Week: A bit of the Chaplain's day

A U.S. Marine Corps chaplain, describing his day, includes this little snippet:

Get to the places where worship services are needed and try to utilize the power of the altar to bring a word to the people. One of the 1st Sergeants "gently" suggests to the troops desiring worship services that: "The *#$%&?! chaplain is here. (Excuse me chaplain.)... Get your *#$%&?! in motion and get your *#$%&?! to the *#$%&?! meeting." Surprisingly, the attendance is rather high.

-From An Overview of the U.S. Military Chaplaincy: A Ministry of Presence and Practice, by Pauletta Otis, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Winter 2009.

Brought a smile to my face.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peace on earth, goodwill toward men--Bless the Iraqi Christians

This is the season for peace and goodwill. A time for Christians to celebrate the birth of the Savior. A time for family and friends. A time to reflect and remember the things that matter most.

And then there is this:

Amid the carols and decorations, Iraq Christians fear extinction, by Alice Fordham, The Times.

"It could be a scene from a Victorian Christmas card. The young people gather in the church, decorating a tree, while in the background the choir rehearses for Christmas Day — the tune of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen playing out. In the theatre next to the church two clowns are playing musical chairs with hundreds of children, while a bishop and an inflatable Father Christmas look on.

"The words to the carol are in Iraqi-accented Arabic — Feltestereh qolubikum, ya ayuha al jumoor — “may your hearts take comfort, you who are gathered here”. The church is Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad, and outside is the more familiar Iraqi scene of barbed wire and armed guards. Behind the tinsel and carols lies a fear that Christians in Iraq are a community under threat of extinction. Proportionally more Christians are leaving Iraq than any other group.

"Last week 100 Christian leaders and politicians of all religions held an emergency meeting just before fresh violence broke out in the northern city of Mosul, with attacks on churches and Christian schools. On Tuesday a baby was killed and 40 people, including schoolchildren, were injured in three simultaneous bombings. Two days ago a Christian man was shot dead as he travelled to work."

Iraqi Christians Face Bombs, Attacks in Run-Up to Christmas, Fox News.

""Instead of performing Christmas Mass in this church, we will be busy removing rubble and debris," said Hazim Ragheed, a priest at the Mar Toma Church."

Iraq Christians Face More Bloodshed As Bombings Kill 118 (Dec. 8, 2009) by Worthy News Middle East Service.

"Archbishop Basile Casmoussa of Mosul said that the bombings were clearly part of an intimidation campaign against the Christian minority. Iraqi Christians reportedly described the attacks as "a Mafia warning," and said they were being warned "to get out of the city."

Tuesday's bombings in Baghdad, were another reminder of growing tensions in Iraq."

New Violence Flares in Iraq, With Christians and Shiites as Targets, by John Leland, The New York Times.

"As Muslims in Iraq observe the 10-day holiday of Muharram, and Christians warily prepare for a subdued Christmas, episodes of violence erupted around the country on Wednesday, some of them aimed at worshipers of each faith.

"There were four separate bomb attacks in Baghdad on Shiite pilgrims marching toward Karbala in observance of Muharram, and a fifth attack on people giving food and drinks to the marchers."

"In the northern city of Mosul, where sectarian violence has continued to run high, a bomb placed in a handcart opposite the Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Thomas killed two people, both Muslim, and damaged the church, which was built in 770. The attack followed threats to blow up churches at Christmas, and was the sixth attack on Christians in Mosul in less than a month. Threats and attacks against Iraqi Christians typically rise during the Christmas season."

I will never understand.

Monday, December 14, 2009

State Department Training on International Religious Freedom?

Each year when the State Department issues its International Religious Freedom Report, it includes an appendix in which it lists the training that is provided at the Foreign Service Institute related to the International Religious Freedom Act. I'm not sure how many people actually pulled up Appendix E to the Report this year, but I decided to check it out. I wonder if anyone else bothered.

The Appendix lists a number of courses that are offered, some of which include aspects related to international religious freedom. There are some presentations that cover human rights policy and happen to mention international religious freedom. There are courses on area studies that may include elements associated with religion. And then there is a list at the end of the three-page Appendix that includes a handful of links to pertinent documents.

I haven't taken the courses, so I would be interested in hearing an insider's perspective on the efficacy of the program. As an outsider, it didn't look very impressive. In fact, the Appendix looks to me like the result of an assignment given one afternoon to a clerk who was tasked to come up with a list of things that make it look like the State Department is making a greater effort to train foreign service personnel in international religious freedom as required under the International Religious Freedom Act. And ever since that person came up with this list in 1999, it looks like someone takes about 30 minutes each year to update the Appendix with a few little odds and ends. In other words, it doesn't look like a serious attempt was made to design thorough, specific, and fundamental training on international religious freedom or religion as it impacts international affairs. It doesn't appear to me like this is something that is treated very seriously.

And why would anyone take it seriously? After all, the president cannot find the time nor can he make the effort to even appoint the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, as required by law, to head up the efforts. The office has been vacant for nearly a year already. If it is not important enough to appoint the Ambassador-at-Large, then the function of encouraging or even attempting to understand international religious freedom and the role of religion in international affairs must not be important either. It seems that only lip service is being made, and very little at that, to comply with the International Religious Freedom Act by the State Department.

How about this: How about a thorough evaluation of the State Department's training efforts in this field? What are the training materials? Are they any good? Who are the qualified experts who provide the training? What level of importance is the subject accorded in the training? Is there a career path for those who are experts in international religious freedom and religion as it relates to international affairs? How effective is the training? Is there ongoing training? Who is accountable for ensuring the highest level of quality training in the subject matter? Does anyone care? I would love to see a thorough evaluation of this, because I'm not convinced that those in power really care. And I think that is a huge mistake.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

International Religious Freedom Quote of the Week

"We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should constrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.

"We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy.

"We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied."

-Joseph Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 134:4, 7, and 9; August 17, 1835.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Well said.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ridiculously 'funny' articles about the Swiss minaret vote

The debate about what the Swiss minaret vote means isn't particularly funny, but these articles struck me as pretty darn funny:

Iran slams European states anti-Islamic moves, Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that "Bern’s decision to halt building new minarets was “against the prestige of a country which claims to be an advocate of democracy and human rights.”

"Mottaki added that the act “will damage Switzerland’s image as a pioneer of respecting human rights among Muslims' public opinion.”

"“Values such as tolerance, dialogue and respecting others' religious should never be put to referendum,” Mottaki told his Swiss counterpart."

And this:

Saudi scholars slam Swiss minaret ban, gulfnews.com.

"Shaikh Abdul Mohsen Al Shahri, an eminent scholar in Islamic jurisprudence, said that the Swiss referendum was part of a new hostile campaign unleashed against Islam and Muslims in the West. “This is a clear evidence of the racial and religious segregation still prevails in the West, especially in a country, which boasts of an exemplary model of democratic ideals,” he said adding that this serves as a severe blow to the so called secular image of Switzerland.

"Meanwhile, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Prof. Ekmeliddin Ihsanoglu voiced disappointment and concern over the Swiss public referendum to ban building of minarets in the mosques in Switzerland.

"The Secretary General of OIC, which groups 57 Muslim countries, qualified the ban as an unfortunate development that would tarnish the image of Switzerland as a country upholding respect for diversity, freedom of religion and human rights.

"He described this as the latest example of growing anti-Islamic incitements in Europe by the extremist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, racist, scare-mongering ultra-right politicians who reign over common sense, wisdom and universal values.

"The Chief of OIC, which represents about 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, expressed his deep regret that at a time when the Muslim world and Muslim societies around the world have been engaged in a struggle to fight extremism, the Western societies are being hostage to extremists who exploit Islam as a scapegoat and a springboard to develop their own political agenda which in turn contributes to polarization and fragmentation in the societies."

And this from that freedom-loving Kadhafi:

Swiss minaret ban invitation for attacks, Maktoob News.

"Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi said the Swiss referendum banning the building of new minarets was an invitation for Al-Qaeda to launch attacks in Europe, the official news agency JANA reported on Sunday.

""They pretend they are 'fighting Al-Qaeda and terrorism' whereas in fact they have just rendered it the greatest service," he said, referring to Switzerland with disdain as "the mafia of the world."

""Al-Qaeda militants are now saying: 'We warned you that they were our enemies... Look at what they are doing in Europe. Come and join us for a jihad (holy war) against Europe,'" Kadhafi said."

It is interesting, isn't it, that the Iranian foreign minister, Saudi scholars, the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Conference, and Kadhafi are supporting the cause for freedom of religion, human rights, tolerance, democratic rights, respect for diversity, and universal values.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mormons in India

India's vast population of over 1.15 billion people claims a rich religious heritage, having been the birthplace of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism and having a long history with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. And now, within the Christian population, there is a growing segment of Mormons or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). O.K., so the numbers are small--7,500. If they add another 1,142,500 members, they'll have 1/10th of 1% of the population, so it's not much of a threat to the established religions. Indians are generally unwelcoming of proselyting, thus making it a challenge for those churches that are not firmly established in India. (As for why the picture of the butterfly is here, you'll have to read down to the end.)

The Mormons weren't much of a threat in 1885, either. According to the New York Times on October 4, 1885, two Mormon missionaries had been commissioned to India: "The Indian authorities stated that the harm done by the Mormons had been inappreciable, and that, in the opinion of the Government, no special measures were at present necessary, but that in case of unlawful recruiting of men or women the provisions of the Penal Code would apply." But, alas, they didn't need to worry: "The Mormons made no converts in Calcutta," and reportedly made only two or three converts in the country, "but finally became so much reduced in finances that they were compelled to seek help, and one or more of them left India in a state of destitution."

As an aside, I was helping an Indian friend who was visiting the U.S. find where the Mormon congregation was in Kolkata (Calcutta) near where he lived and noted that it is in the Salt Lake City district of Kolkata. Go figure.

Although it has taken a long time to progress much, the Mormon Church is experiencing some modest growth, as recent news accounts have stated. Mormons expanding in India, by Babu Thomas, Christian Today. (I see that they appear to have taken the article off the internet, so I linked to the cached version.) Church grows as two districts grow to five in India, by Elder Charles W. Kewish and Sister Carol Ann Kewish, Mormon Times. Church in New Delhi moving forward, by Jamshid Askar, LDS Church News.

This article, originally published in The Global Post, shares the conversion experience of an Indian family: Mormons in India, by Sonya Fatah. The comments are rather interesting, demonstrating the resistance that the Mormons face.

Other links: Latter-day Saints make sacrifices to relieve flood victims: Some Mormon volunteers travel four hours to help distribute supplies, by Elder Charles Kewish and Sister Carol Kewish, LDS Church News. Here is the LDS Church's country profile for India. Finally, here is a blog that includes information and experiences about the LDS Church in India, among other places: mormonworld.org.

Oh, and there this is this. I came across a reference to the Blue Mormon butterfly that is indigenous to India and wondered how on earth it got its name. From wikipedia:

The common name is an allusion to the polygamy formerly practiced by members of the Mormon sect according to Harish Gaonkar, of the Natural History Museum in London:

...the origins of giving common English names to organisms, particularly butterflies for tropical species started in India around the mid 19th century ... The naming of Mormons evolved slowly. I think the first to get such a name was the Common Mormon (Papilio polytes), because it had three different females, a fact that could only have been observed in the field, and this they did in India. The name obviously reflected the ... Mormon sect in America, which as we know, practiced polygamy." It should be noted that this butterfly is no longer affilated with the Mormon Church after the Mormon Church disavowed polygamy in the late 19th Century. The butterfly is now to be referred to as the "Blue Mormon-offshoot Butterfly That is No Longer Affiliated with the Mormon Church."

There is also the Blue Mormon Jungle Holiday Resort in Bhimashankar, Pune, India. I'll have to check it out someday.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ayaan Hirsi Ali weighs in on Swiss vote banning the construction of minarets

Swiss ban on minarets was a vote for tolerance and inclusion, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Christian Science Monitor.

Hirsi Ali considers the societal and political debate that was evident in the Swiss referendum in which the construction of minarets on Muslim mosques was banned. A couple of quotes:

"The recent Swiss referendum that bans construction of minarets has caused controversy across the world. There are two ways to interpret the vote. First, as a rejection of political Islam, not a rejection of Muslims. In this sense it was a vote for tolerance and inclusion, which political Islam rejects. Second, the vote was a revelation of the big gap between how the Swiss people and the Swiss elite judge political Islam."

"The minaret is a symbol of Islamist supremacy, a token of domination that came to symbolize Islamic conquest. It was introduced decades after the founding of Islam. "

"And this is what the Swiss vote shows us. This is a confrontation between local, working-class voters (and some middle-class feminists) and Muslim immigrant newcomers who feel that they are entitled, not only to practice their religion, but also to replace the local political order with that of their own."

Hirsi Ali highlights the current conflict and uncertainty about how the Swiss and, indeed, other Europeans, will regard the growing Muslim population in light of Muslim ideology.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Minarets, Muslims, and Religious Freedom in Switzerland

For the unschooled, a minaret is "a slender tower, typically part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. Recorded from the late 17th century, the word comes from French or Spanish and ultimately, via Turkish, from Arabic manār(a) ‘lighthouse, minaret’, based on nār ‘fire or light’." ELIZABETH KNOWLES. "minaret." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Oxford University Press. 2006. Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2009 .

So why should we care about minarets right now? A Swiss referendum on Sunday determined that minarets could no longer be constructed in that country. I guess they thought that minarets were dangerous. According to the New York Times, there are only four minarets in Switzerland with plans for two more, and none conduct the call to prayer. About 400,000 Muslims, mostly from Kosovo and Turkey, live among the 7.5 million people. Various people and organizations are up in arms over the vote, expressing surprise and concern about the results, wondering how Switzerland, with a tradition of tolerance and religious freedom, could see such results from a popular vote.

The vote, of course, runs entirely counter to principles of religious freedom, and I can hardly see how the prohibition against building minarets benefits anyone. Nevertheless, this vote clearly indicates the anxiety of the Swiss and, likely, others in Europe, over the growing Muslim population and some of the creeping Islamization that is occurring. With the dramatic increase of Muslims in Europe, the push for Sharia law, the lack of women's rights, the treatment of women, intimidation and limitations associated with freedom of expression and freedom of religion, anti-western views of many, the failure to assimilate, and the on-going concerns about terrorism, there are many reasons for the anxiety.

This vote demonstrates to me not only that the non-Muslim population needs to come to a clearer understanding of the role and importance of religious freedom in their societies but also that the Muslim leaders and people need to do more to assuage the concerns of the non-Muslim population, which requires reform within the Muslim community.

It also does not help perceptions when non-Muslims look at majority-Muslim nations and see the lack of freedoms and basic rights. One thing that would help improve perceptions of Muslims by non-Muslims would be to see a greater recognition of freedoms and human rights in Muslim countries. But I won't be holding my breath on that one. While I am all in favor of pluralism and allowing each person to worship as he or she chooses, I also understand that there are elements of Islam that are a detriment to these freedoms and that left unchecked in non-Muslim-majority countries can creep into society in a way that hinders rather than helps religious and other freedoms.

In spite of all that, banning minarets is not the way to go. If anything good comes from this, it is that it will spark a necessary and timely debate about the growing Muslim population in Europe on both sides of the equation. How are Muslims and Islam perceived? Are these legitimate perceptions? What must be done to change these perceptions? How will the dramatic Muslim population and immigrant growth affect society? How will it affect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women's rights, the legal structure? To ignore these things now will only lead to greater conflict later.

Swiss Ban on Minaret Building Meets Widespread Criticism, by Nick Cumming-Bruce, The New York Times.

Swiss minaret ban condemned by Vatican, Telegraph.co.uk.

Swiss minaret ban reflects European fear of Islam: The Swiss vote to ban minarets comes at a time when Muslim populations are growing and Europeans worry about losing traditional Christian culture, by Isabelle de Pommereau, The Christian Science Monitor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Russian Mufti wants to send 2 million Muslim men to Far East to take Chinese and Korean women as multiple wives

Mufti Talgat Tajuddin of the Central Muslim Board of Russia figured out how to solve the problem of ensuring the security of the Russian Far East and of solving a demographic problem at the same time.

According this this article in Interfax:

""Chineses will soon captivate all Siberia... I would direct one million of Tatars, one million of Bashkirs to the Far East and would marry them to Chinese and Korean women," Mufti told in an interview published by Bashkirian issue of Komsomolskaya Pravda daily.

"According to him, the first wife of Tatars and Bashkirs, for example, must be a woman of their nation.

""And after that we would secure our country and eastern frontiers at the same time. This is the natural problem decision. And though we speak about it as for fun, it’s still necessary to solve a demographic problem. Therefore - marry, multiply and replenish," Tajuddin appealed.

". . .The more children, the better state," Mufti has declared."

I guess there are too many single Chinese and Korean women on the borders of the Russian Far East and too many Muslim Tatar and Bashkir men who can't find enough women to marry. Hmmm. Good luck with that one.

Muslim Population Worldwide Website

IslamicPopulation.com is an interesting website that links to articles and databases relating to Muslim population throughout the world. It's worth a look.