Archive - May 2015

Beyond the Veil?
Remembering Martyrs – of Yesterday
Obama Cold to Middle East Christians
Too much state
Christianity’s Failure in India? Think Again
Be Afraid! No John Paul II for France
Remember Solidarity?
That Bull About Mercy

Beyond the Veil?

Here at ArcU, I have been tracking the fate of Muslims in France amidst the resurgence of laïcité over the past few months in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings.  A recent article in the New York Times by Suzanne Daley and Alissa J. Rubin reports insightfully on the atmosphere created by France’s famous law banning veils passed over ten years ago.

More than 10 years after France passed its first anti-veil law restricting young girls from wearing veils in public schools, the head coverings of observant Muslim women, from colorful silk scarves to black chadors, have become one of the most potent flash points in the nation’s tense relations with its vibrant and growing Muslim population.

Mainstream politicians continue to push for new measures to deny veiled women access to jobs, educational institutions and community life. They often say they are doing so for the benefit of public order or in the name of laïcité, the French term for the separation of church and state . . ..

So far, France has passed two laws, one in 2004 banning veils in public elementary and secondary schools, and another, enacted in 2011, banning full face veils, which are worn by only a tiny portion of the population.

Lift the ban, not the veil.

Remembering Martyrs – of Yesterday

I have just returned from Rome, where I, along with my colleague Zahra Vieneuve, spent the week laying the groundwork for a conference on December 10-12, 2015, Under Caesar’s Sword: Christians in Response to Persecution.

Co-sponsoring the conference is the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay community known for its work in peacemaking and a litany of other causes of justice, all centered upon its “methodology” of personal friendship, especially for the poor.

One of the community’s most striking ventures is its maintenance of the Church of San Bartolomeo as a shrine to contemporary Christian martyrs.  This 10th century basilica stands on the Tiber Island astride the district of Trastevere, where the Community is headquartered.  In the shadowy, candelit side chapels can be found the relics of Christians who lost their lives due to their faith or their faith-based stand for justice.  Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero’s missal; a tiny piece of the beard of Maxmilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who exchanged his life for that of a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz; and objects from the lives of Rwandans, Russians under the Soviet Union, and many other Christians from around the the world over the past century can be found here.

Like the martyrs themselves, the shrine is little known and deserves to be better known — a stop on every Rome tour bus’s itinerary.


Obama Cold to Middle East Christians

Several pieces have been posted recently on the unabated persecution of Christians and other religious minorities like Yazidis and Mandeans in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East — and of the relative indifference of the State Department and the Obama administration to it.  Last month, journalist Kirsten Powers wrote in USA Today that President Obama “just can’t seem to find any passion for the mass persecution of Middle Eastern Christians.”  Reporting on a joint press conference that Obama held with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, she writes:

As Renzi was questioned about the incident, Obama was mute on the killings. He failed to interject any sense of outrage or even tepid concern for the targeting of Christians for their faith. If a Christian mob on a ship bound for Italy threw 12 Muslims to their death for praying to Allah, does anyone think the president would have been so disinterested? When three North Carolina Muslims were gunned down by a virulent atheist, Obama rightly spoke out against the horrifying killings. But he just can’t seem to find any passion for the mass persecution of Middle Eastern Christians or the eradication of Christianity from its birthplace.

Religious persecution of Christians is rampant worldwide, as Pew has noted, but nowhere is it more prevalent than in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where followers of Jesus are the targets of religious cleansing. Pope Francis has repeatedly decried the persecution and begged the world for help, but it has had little impact. Western leaders — including Obama — will be remembered for their near silence as this human rights tragedy unfolded. The president’s mumblings about the atrocities visited upon Christians (usually extracted after public outcry over his silence) are few and far between. And it will be hard to forget his lecturing of Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast about the centuries-old Crusades while Middle Eastern Christianswere at that moment being harassed, driven from their homes, tortured and murdered for their faith.

Writing in a similar vein is Faith J.H. McDonnell of the Philos Project.

Evidence suggests that within the administration not only is there no passion for persecuted Christians under threat of genocide from the Islamic State, there is no room for them, period. In fact, despite ISIS’ targeting of Iraqi Christians specifically because they are Christians, and, as such, stand in the way of a pure, Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East (and beyond), the U.S. State Department has made it clear that “there is no way that Christians will be supported because of their religious affiliation.”

As ISIS is now seizing the Iraqi city of Ramadi, let us hope that the Obama administration will acknowledge the particularly of ISIS’s victims.






Too much state

The state’s tendency to over manage religion and suppress religious minorities cuts across all religions.  A story in today’s New York Times documents the suppression of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s Buddhist-controlled state.  A passage:

The refugees fleeing Myanmar, from the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, have been persecuted for decades. They have been evicted from their homes and kicked off their land, and attacked by the military and by Buddhist extremists in Rakhine, the western coastal state where they live. Their voting rights were effectively revoked in February. Their government insists that they are in the country illegally, and most neighboring countries refuse to accept them.

In effect, they are stateless.

President Thein Sein denies that the Rohingya, with a population estimated at 800,000 or more, exist as an ethnic group, and he refers to them as Bengalis, suggesting that they are from Bangladesh and therefore subject to deportation.

Then comes an impassioned plea from Zambia for the state not to declare Zambia a Christian country.  Lessons learned in the West (though not adequately enough) come into play:

It is important for national leaders to guard against the imposition of any particular religion on the entire society. The Republican constitution particularly should be a neutral document that should not discriminate against atheists, agnostics or pagans, or those who believe in Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Jainism, or the Baha’i faith.

In the long run, the Declaration is likely to make non-Christian citizens to feel that they are second-class citizens. And, as Prof. Venkatesh Seshamani has argued, a feeling of religious superiority is likely to develop among Christians by virtue of their religion having been accorded constitutional status, which may lead to bigotry that would prompt them to view non-Christians as lost souls.

Christianity’s Failure in India? Think Again

Historian Philip Jenkins has a post at Aleteia in which he takes on a piece in an Indian magazine by Tony Joseph claiming that Christianity has failed in India, evidenced by its small and declining numbers.  Jenkins voices strong cautions about Joseph’s arguments, including ones about the Indian census:

Nobody can claim that Christianity has claimed major shares of the Indian population, or that it is likely to do so in the near future. But some counter-arguments do need to be stressed, especially about the overall numbers. No sane person believes the religious content of the Indian national census, which is one of the world’s great works of creative fiction. At all levels, there is enormous pressure of all kinds – cultural, political and bureaucratic – to minimize the presence of all non-Hindu religions, including Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. That pressure becomes overwhelming when dealing with people of low and no caste, those who are most tempted to defect to one of the alternative faiths. Bureaucrats are especially hard to convince in matters of religious conversion from Hinduism.

He claims even more strongly that Christianity is not populous in India because others want it that way:

Also, Joseph is wrong to suggest any deep-laid cultural reasons why Christianity is incompatible with Indian culture. As recently as the 1940s, Chinese Christian numbers were just as tiny as those in India, and they have ballooned. The reason the same thing has not happened in India is because of systematic and widespread persecution by Hindu extremist sects, often operating in alliance with local governments and police authorities — violence that receives virtually no publicity in the West. If and when conversion became easier and less dangerous, we would presumably see a Christian boom in India comparable to that in China or Korea.

Jenkins reminds us that in a country that is intensely religious and one of whose greatest challenges is managing religious pluralism, religious freedom is not all that it is cracked up to be.




Be Afraid! No John Paul II for France

The enthusiasm for Pope John Paul II that I have expressed in the last two blog posts is apparently not shared by a French court, which has ordered the town of Ploëmel, France to take down its statue of John Paul II under France’s 1905 law establishing laïcité.  The statue quotes the former pope’s motto, “Be not afraid.”  The court, it seems, would have the good citizens of Ploëmel be afraid — of its jurisdiction.

Remember Solidarity?

More on mercy in politics emerges from an international seminar that I attended in Brussels today, “The Treasure of Solidarity: Lessons for Europe.” Sponsored by the Centre for the Thought of John Paul II in Warsaw, the seminar assembled a fascinating group of mostly Polish politicians and intellectuals, many of whom were active in the Solidarity movement of the 1970s and 1980s that overthrew Poland’s Communist government in 1989, leading, in turn, to the end of the Soviet empire and to the end of the Cold War.

Reflecting back on Solidarity, they identified several extraordinary features. First, it brought together in a sense of community sectors of society who would not otherwise be inclined to associate with one another – workers, managers, farmers, and intellectuals. Second, it was arguably the first truly working class movement to overthrow a government – ironic, given the Communist regime’s claim to represent the working class. Third, it was a rare revolution in that it succeeded without collapsing into revenge or war. Fourth, relatedly, it was non-violent. Fifth, it was a Christian revolution, undergirded by Catholic thought and the leadership of John Paul II.

There was also a general consensus that Solidarity was quickly forgotten about soon after Communism was defeated. Speakers felt that Poland has descended into deep domestic divisions; it is now the most divided country in Europe, according to one panelist.

These cleavages include a division over the Communist past. Conservatives believe that the Roundtable negotiations of 1989 proceeded too quickly, involved too hasty a compromise with the Communist government, and that too little has been done to bring accountability and the telling of truth about the Communist period. Those on the left demur, calling for a drawing of a line across the past in order that the nation may move on with its future. Another source of intense controversy is over the Smolensk air crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and other top officials on April 10, 2010, with one side believing it was an accident and the other side that it was a conspiracy. Then, there are culture wars over life and marriage, divisions over economic policy, and a general sense that the spiritual depth of the Solidarity years has been replaced by materialism and technocracy.

Many speakers thought that Solidarity’s stress on reconciliation, faith, and forgiveness could be retrieved and brought to bear on Poland’s cleavages as well as on those of other countries and relationships between countries – Poland and Ukraine, for instance.

That Bull About Mercy

Pope Francis has issued a “Bull of Indiction” declaring the coming year, beginning December 8, 2015, a Year of Mercy.

Does mercy have meaning for global politics? There is a long tradition, including thinkers as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and John Rawls, holding that the first virtue of the political order is justice. But justice, while crucial, is “not enough,” insists Pope Francis. Alone, it descends into legalism, resulting in its own destruction. Complementary to justice and critically necessary to politics is mercy.

Pope Francis is not the first pope to espouse mercy, despite the fact that he is frequently celebrated for his novelty. Pope John Paul II made mercy a major theme of his pontificate and argued in his second encyclical of 1980, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), that mercy could be a political virtue. Mercy, he argued, is the will to restore all that is broken in human affairs.  We might see mercy, then, in policies aimed at directly alleviating suffering — for instance, humanitarian relief.  Most distinctively, though, John Paul II thought that mercy could be manifested through forgiveness.

Forgiveness in politics? The very phrase rings oxymoronic. But John Paul II thought the idea held promise and argued as much not only in Dives in Misericordia but also in two subsequent Messages for the World Day of Peace, one in 1997 and one in 2002, the latter in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Is there any evidence that forgiveness is actually practiced in politics? In the past generation, forgiveness has entered global politics in the context of a wave of tens of countries facing past crimes of dictatorship, genocide, and civil war. A discourse, and substantial evidence for the practice, of forgiveness can be found in countries ranging from South Africa to Uganda, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, and Chile. Forgiveness is often associated with religion and stands in contrast with the global practice of “transitional justice” and its stress on law, rights, and especially, judicial prosecution.

Mostly, forgiveness is practiced by individual victims, as I have documented through a recent study of victims of armed violence in Uganda, conducted in partnership with the Refugee Law Project (mentioned in this previous post). Far more rarely is it practiced by leaders, but this is not unheard of.  An outstanding example is Nelson Mandela, who forgave apartheid leaders after being released from his prison sentence of 26 years and set an example that many other South Africans followed.

Forgiveness has also taken place in the high politics of international relations. The decision in 1950 of France, Italy, and other western European states to incorporate Germany into the embryonic form of what is now the European Union can be seen as an act of forgiveness.  A recent book by political scientists Brent Nelsen and James Guth documents that Christian notions of forgiveness were much in the mind of the statesmen, mostly of Christian Democratic parties, who supported federation most strongly and helps to explain why they took a path quite different from the punitive approach towards Germany that Europe took after World War I.

Forgiveness may be rare in politics but it is not absent and has become more common in the past generation. It thus depicts one response in the political realm to Pope Francis’ call for mercy.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.