25 June 2007

Catholic film festival held in Belarusian countryside

The Hlybokaje (Hlybokaye) District, located in Belarus's Viciebsk (Vitsebsk) Region, has played host to the third edition of Magnificat, an international Catholic film festival, held from 21 to 24 June. Forty-four movies from 14 countries were presented at the festival.

The film festival is funded by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Belarus. According to Aliaksandr Amielčenia (Amel'chenia), a Catholic priest who directs the festival, the organisers aim not only to proselytise, but also highlight the common human values that arose within Christianity. Amielčenia praised the Hlybokaje District Executive Committee (that is, the local reprsentatives of President Aliaksandr Lukašenka) for their support for the festival (BelaPAN).

Quite a different picture from Orša, I must say.

Orša holds an "Orthodox" birthday

The Belarusian city of Orša (Orsha) is currently celebrating the 940th anniversary of its founding. The celebration is entitled "An Orthodox Christian Orša" a "spiritual and educational" fair called "An Orthodox Christian Belarus". Several Orthodox parish choirs were due to perform at the Orša Centre of Culture.

The festivities, which stretch over several days, also include art exhibitions, a conference entitled "Orša in the Historico-Cultural and Religious Development of Belarus", an air show, horse rides, a Medieval reenactment, and a concert (BELTA).

The question is: why are the celebrations emphasising only one aspect of Orša's diverse religious heritage, and creating the impression that the city has been entirely Orthodox for the 940 years of its existence? What about the fact that Orša became a centre of Calvinism in the 16th century? What about the city's rich Catholic and Jewish history?

I don't know if Aliaksandr Lukašenka (Lukashenka) is personally responsible for the decision to marginalise non-Orthodox groups from Orša's celebrations, but he has certainly set the tone of the official promotion of Orthodoxy in the country, a position only a third of Belarusians agreed with in a 2002 poll (while 67% of the population is Orthodox). Interestingly enough, the President describes himself as an "Orthodox Christian atheist".

22 June 2007

Bosnian War death toll revised downwards

A study entitled "The Bosnian Book of Dead", conducted over the course of three years by the Research and Documentation Centre located in Sarajevo, has concluded that 97,207 people were killed in the Bosnian War (1992-1995).

According to the Centre, about 65% of those killed were Muslims (Bosniaks), 25% were Serbs, and 8% were Croats (BBC).

I'm glad that this number is only half the original estimate of 200,000. But it is still shocking that this many people were killed in a Europe that had supposedly learned the lessons of the two World Wars.

Muslims suffered disproportionately in the war: although 65% of those killed in the war were Muslims, the community represented only 41% of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991.

21 June 2007

Conflict at Jerusalem gay pride march

About 2,000 have joined in a gay pride march through Jerusalem. They were being guarded by 7,000 Israeli policemen. The reason for such a high security presence was a counter-demonstration by several hundred Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, who denounced the gay pride march, set dustbins on fire and held banners with "Shame" written on them.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew was arrested by Israeli police for allegedly planning to set off a bomb on the route of the gay pride march (BBC).

Taliban turn to suicide bombing

The Taliban seem to be deploying increasing numbers of suicide bombers in their war against NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan. The movement is copying tactics used by insurgents in Iraq.

Arsala Jamal, the Governor of Khost Province, sees the use of this tactic by the Taliban as a sign of desperation. Most of the volunteers for suicide bombing operations are teenage boys lured by the Taliban by promises of paradise; this fact might indicate a shortage of adult recruits ready to engage in conventional combat.

Nevertheless, suicide bombing has so far proved an effective tactic for the Taliban (BBC).

The question is: do the Taliban also tell their recruits that suicide is forbidden in Islam, or do they conveniently forget to do so?

Lebanon reportedly defeats Fatah al-Islam

Lebanon has declared victory over the Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam, which it had been fighting for about a month. According to Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr, the Lebanese army had "crushed those terrorists". Over 150 people, including 20 civilians, were killed in the conflict between the army and Fatah al-Islam.

According to Murr, the leaders of the Palestinian group are on the run, and are being pursued by the Lebanese army (BBC).

A much-needed victory for Lebanon, as long as it sticks.

20 June 2007

Muslim chaplain represents Islam to the Marines

US Navy LCDR Abuhena Saifulislam serves with the US Marine Corps as its only Muslim chaplain, and one of two Muslim chaplains in the Navy.

Growing up in Bangladesh, Saifulislam was fascinated with US Navy uniforms that he saw in World War II movies. After immigrating into the US in the 1980s, he decided to join the Navy instead of working in the world of finance in New York, which had been his original plan.

Saifulislam is often interviewed by the media, and tries to point out that there is nothing incompatible between being Islam and the US Armed Forces.

While working as a Muslim chaplain, he has obtained prayer space for Muslims at Marine Corps Base Quantico (located in Virginia), and started regular Muslim calls to prayer at the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay.

Saifulislam also teaches non-Muslim Marines about Islam.

On relations between the US and the Arab world, Saifulislam says, "Don't see the entire religion, or judge it, through one set of eyes. The Arabs shouldn't generalise (either)...The majority of Americans may not approve of many things that we do outside, but it doesn't mean that we don't love the country (BBC).

Definitely not the most typical place for a Bangladeshi to end up in. Saifulislam is doing good work, and the US Armed Forces need more people like him, both to combat an image of their being an anti-Islamic force, and to teach American soldiers to be respectful to Islam and Muslims.

Hindu activists protest vibrating condom in India

Right-wing Hindus in Madhya Pradesh have protested publicly against the sale of Crezendo condoms, which contain a battery-operated vibrating ring. The presence of this device in the condoms has led many in Madhya Pradesh, including the state's minister for roads and energy, to condemn them as sex toys, which are banned in India.

Asked to comment on the issue, Kunal Singh, who lives in Bhopal the state's capital, said "It is wrong to protest against the move. It is a matter of personal choice" (BBC).

It's hard not to agree with Singh.

UK anapologetic over Rushdie knighthood

In the face of criticism by Iran and Pakistan, and concerns expressed by Iraq, Britain has defended its decision to bestow a knighthood upon Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, among other novels.

As British Home Secretary, John Reed, put it, "We have a right to express opinions and a tolerance of other people's point of view, and we don't apologise for that."

He also defended Britain's record in protecting the feelings of minorities, saying "We have to be sensitive, but I think that we take the approach that in the long-run the protection of the right to express opinions in literature, argument and politics is of over-riding value to our society" (BBC).

I agree that free expression is extremely valuable, and is one of the things that makes countries that guarantee it pleasant to live in. However, there is, of course, the question of balance: at what point does one person's freedom of expression cause unnecessary pain to another? All in all, I think Britain has got the balance right, unlike some other Western European countries.

Evangelical becomes LA anti-gang head

Rev. Jeff Carr, an Evangelical minister, has been appointed Director of Gang Reduction and Youth Development Programmes in Los Angeles.

It is estimated that there are 40,000 gang members in the city.

Upon his appointment, Rev. Carr said, "We can't arrest our way out of this problem. We have got to figure out how to provide opportunities to communities who have been bypassed for years" (BBC).

Carr seems like the right man for the job. Religion, when properly presented, often gives people the kind of hope they need in order to move away from self-destructive behaviour.

The question is, though: how much religious influence will Carr be able to bring to bear in his new position, given the separation of church and state in the US?

16 June 2007

Visitor profile, 15 May to 14 June 2007

Welcome to the third installment of Notes on Religion visitor profiles!

This month (15 May to 14 June 2007):

This month, Notes on Religion received 130 visits, that is, 16% less than the previous month. The average number of visitors during this period was four a day.

Visitors came to Notes on Religion from every inhabited continent except Africa. The largest number of visitors (33%) came from Canada, and the second-highest number came from the United States (31%). The UK came a distant third with 5%.

Within Canada, 72% of the visits this month came from Quebec.

The biggest proportion of visitors this month (42%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. As for those who were referred by Google, their most common search term was 'Ishaq Nizami'.

The most popular browser this month was Internet Explorer (56%). 91% of the visitors were Windows users.

Since the founding of the blog (15 March to 14 June 2007):

The total number of visitors during these three months was 492. The average number of visitors was five per day.

The largest number of visitors (42%) came from Canada. The second-highest number (30%) came from the United States. The United Kingdom came third with 6%.

Quebec accounted for over two-thirds (68%) of visitors from Canada.

The biggest proportion of visitors (39%) was referred to the blog by Blogger. The most common search term entered by visitors who were referred to Notes on Religion by Google was 'Ishaq Nizami'.

The most popular browser was Internet Explorer (50%). 93% of the visitors were Windows users.

09 June 2007

Court abolishes AUC niqab ban

Iman al-Zainy, who sued the American University of Cairo (AUC) in 2001 after not being allowed to enter its campus while wearing a niqab, has won her case against the university. The High Administrative Court has ruled that the AUC had no right to stop people wearing the niqab from entering its grounds, as such a policy was a violation of the religious freedom of the people involved.

AUC had claimed that its ban on the niqab stemmed from security concerns. The court's decision leaves the door open for the university to require women wearing the niqab to show their face to a female security officer.

One of Zainy's lawyers, Hossam Bahgat, said the decision affirmed "women's autonomy over their body and dress code" (BBC).

It seems that reason has won the day.

[This post was written in Toronto.]

Former Taliban media head defects

Ishaq Nizami, who served as head of the radio and TV directorate under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, has left the movement, and may join the current Afghan government. In response, the Taliban have claimed that Nizami was brainwashed.

While Nizami held his position under the Taliban, there were no TV broadcasts in the country, as the radical Islamist movement had banned the medium entirely.

According to other ex-Taliban media workers, Nizami helped preserve Afghanistan's art and film archives from destruction by his fellow Taliban members (BBC).

I hope this defection encourages others to follow suit, so that the various political currents of Afghanistan can cooperate in building the country's future, instead of continuing the fratricidal war currently underway.

[This post was written in Toronto.]

Bush meets Pope

In a visit to the Vatican, George W. Bush has met Pope Benedict XVI for the first time. The Pope expressed concern about the plight of Christians in Iraq, and called for a "regional and negotiated solution to the conflicts that afflict" the region.

"I was talking to a very smart, loving man," Bush observed (BBC).

Now if only Bush could learn something from him.

[This post was written in Toronto.]

08 June 2007

Psychic town in Florida

Cassadaga, a small, unincorporated town in Florida, is home to 40 psychics. The town thrives on allegedly helping visitors make contact with their dead loved ones. Some psychics working in Cassadaga claim that everyone is guided by a spirit that once belonged to a living person. Visitors are asked to take pictures of a lake so that they may capture images of the spirits that allegedly hover over it, and, the BBC reporter visiting the town met a fellow visitor who did take a picture of the lake with mysterious markings on it.

While some of the tourists who flock to the town remain sceptical, others derive a sense of comfort from their experiences there (BBC).

[This post was written in Toronto.]

06 June 2007

Israeli rabbi calls for massive bombing of Gaza

In a letter he sent to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in late May, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Mordechai Eliyahu, has declared all the resident of Gaza collectively guilty for the firing of rockets at Israel by some of their number. The letter was later distributed in synagogues across Israel. Eliyahu used texts from the Bible, and from Moses Maimonides's Biblical commentary, as proof for his statement.

Commenting on Eliyahu's statement, his son Shmuel Eliyahu, who is the chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Sefed, said that Mordechai Eliyahu advocated bombing the area from which the rockets were fired, no matter how many Palestinian lives were lost as a result.

According to Shmuel Eliyahu, "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand. And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop" (Jerusalem Post).

I should mention that Qassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants have killed 12 Israelis since 2001. Just so that we are clear about the enormity of what the Eliyahus are saying, it seems that they would not mind seeing a million Palestinians killed to avenge these 12 people.

These statements demonstrate in a rather chilling fashion that extremism and the perversion of religious teachings are not the sole preserve of any one group.

Iran encourages temporary marriages

The Interior Minister of Iran, Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi, who is a Shi'ite cleric, is encouraging Iranians to contract temporary marriages, which are seen as a legitimate form of marriage in Shi'ite Islam. Pour-Mohammadi has called for greater social acceptance of termporary marriages, which many Iranians (about 90% of whom are Shi'ites) see as being little better than prostitution. The minister is also urging Iranians to get married at an earlier age.

Pour-Mohammadi was challenged by a female MP, who asked the minister if he would reveal the number of temporary marriages his daughter had been in to a man seeking to become her permanent husband.

There are currently tens of thousands of children born of such unions in Iran who are stuck in a legal limbo: as products of a marriage recognised by Shi'ite fiqh (understanding of the Shari'a), they are legitimate in law, but their fathers often tend to deny ever having married their mothers, which makes them illegitimate de facto (BBC).

04 June 2007

UK govt. promises funding for Islamic studies

The British government has promised to spend £1 million (Canadian $2.1 million) in support of the teaching of Islamic studies at British universities. The announcement came while Tony Blair was attending a University of Cambridge conference on Islam, which has also drawn figures such as the grand muftis of Egypt and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Blair has called on "people in the country and wider to listen to" the participants of the conference, as "they are the authentic voices of Islam" (BBC).

A good initiative on the part of the British government, but how far can £1 million go?

Fatah al-Islam promises escalation

The Lebanon-based Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam (Islamic Conquest), which is fighting the Lebanese army in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, has promised to spread the conflict to the Ain el-Hilweh camp in the south of the country. At the same time, Fatah al-Islam has denied having any connection to the militant group Jund al-Sham, which recently attacked Lebanese soldiers at the southern camp (BBC).

Psychiatrists recommend Buddhist meditation

In a report published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, psychiatrists Diane Gehart and Eric McCollum, who work at the California State University, Fresno and Virginia Tech, argue that people need to realise that a certain degree of suffering will occur in every marriage. To cope with this suffering, the authors suggest employing mindfulness, which is a meditation technique drawn from the Buddhist tradition.

Mindfulness involves focusing on one's current actions and thoughts. Some British psychiatrists already use this technique for therapeutic purposes (BBC).

03 June 2007

Fighting at another Palestinian refugee camp

An apparently minor Islamist Palestinian militant group named Jund al-Sham (The Army of Greater Syria) clashed with the Lebanese army on 3 June at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. Two people, including one civilian, were injured when a Jund al-Sham militant attacked a Lebanese army post.

According to the mayor of Sidon, Abdul Rahman Bizri, the fighting has been stopped, with the help of other Palestinian groups

Meanwhile, over 100 people have so far been killed in the fighting between another Palestinian Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, and the Lebanese army in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, located near Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon (BBC).

How ridiculous is it when groups that claim to be fighting for Islam attack the army of a Muslim country that has given their people refuge since 1948?

Somali PM assassination fails

A suicide bomber trying to kill Ali Mohamed Ghedi, the interim prime minister of Somalia, was shot by Ghedi's bodyguards before he could reach the prime minister's residence. Nevertheless, he succeeded in blowing his car up, killing six people.

Ghedi is blaming Al-Qaeda for the attack (BBC).

Something Even More Magical

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