News section – Fall 2005

Republican senator: Iraq looking like Vietnam

A Republican senator and prospective presidential candidate said in August that the war in Iraq has destabilized the Middle East and is looking more and more like the Vietnam conflict of a generation ago.

Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who received two Purple Hearts and other military honors while serving in Vietnam, reiterated his position that the U.S. needs to develop a strategy to leave Iraq. He scoffed at the idea that U.S. troops could be in Iraq four years from now at levels above 100,000, a contingency for which the Pentagon is preparing.

“We should start figuring out how we get out of there,” Hagel said. “The longer we stay there, the further destabilization will occur…. To’ stay the course’ is not a policy. By any standard, when you analyze 2 years in Iraq … we’re not winning.”

Hagel said a stronger military presence is not the solution today. “We’re past that stage now because now we are locked into a bogged-down problem not unsimilar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam. The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.”

“What I think the White House does not yet understand [is that] the dam has broken on this policy,” Hagel said. “The longer we stay there, the more similarities [to Vietnam] are going to come together.”

Australia ex-army chief urges Iraq pullout by 2006

Foreign troops must aim to withdraw from Iraq by the end of next year to remove one of the biggest focal points for militant groups, former Australian defense force chief Gen. Peter Cosgrove said in August.

“I think we’ve got to train the Iraqis as quickly as we can and to a point where we take one of the focal points of terrorist motivation away, and that is foreign troops,” said Cosgrove, who retired from the top military post in July.

“When there is an adequate Iraqi security force, foreign troops leave Iraq,” said Cosgrove in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Asked how quickly Australian troops should leave, he said: “Well, I figure that if we could get that done by the end of 2006 that would be really good.”

A poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper found that two-thirds of Australians believed the country’s involvement in Iraq had made it more vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Iraqi Christians fear prospect of Islamic law

Rampant violence across Iraq is threatening the rebuilding of the country as it moves towards the drafting of its first post-Saddam constitution, which religious minorities are concerned may leave out any meaningful provisions for religious freedom.

Article 7 of the draft constitution declares: “Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam … may be enacted during the transitional period.”

In July Iraq’s Christian leaders petitioned the UN and their country’s interim officials to urge a constitutional separation of religion from politics. Nine Christian leaders, including the Roman Catholic Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad, the Syrian Archbishop Athanase Matoka, the Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni and Msgr. Andon Atamian, administrator for Armenian Catholics, made the plea in a letter delivered to Mr Talabani and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The Christian leaders said they feared discrimination if the draft constitution enshrines sharia, or Islamic law. Iraq’s minorities are concerned that if the constitution names sharia as the main source of civil law, non-Muslims will be relegated to second-class status at best and, at worst, be driven out of the country, slain or forced to convert.

Painting a grim picture of life for minorities in Iraq, Christian leaders say that religious persecution has worsened since the Americans arrived in the spring of 2003 and that tens of thousands of Christians have fled to neighboring countries. They are worried that things could get worse still, and that the discrimination experienced by other Christians under sharia, in Sudan and Nigeria for example, could also arise in Iraq if such a constitution is ratified.

Macedonia: archbishop jailed

The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, Archbishop Jovan Vranisskovski of Ohrid and Skopje, was imprisoned in Macedonia’s capital Skopje on July 26, to begin an 18 month jail sentence for “inciting national, racial and religious hatred, schism and intolerance.”

“The archbishop was not permitted to take his prayer book, the Gospels, an icon or any of the insignia of his rank with him,” his colleague Bishop Marko told the Oslo-based Forum 18 News Service.

Jovan is not being allowed visits from anyone, apart from his lawyer and his immediate family. His family have only been permitted five-minute visits.

Jovan has been labeled a “traitor”, a “Serbian servant” and a “fool” by the Macedonian media and clergy, and was also threatened with lynching.

He has been adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Jovan was previously been jailed in 2003, when he was given five days’ solitary confinement for baptizing his sister’s grandchild. Subsequently, in October 2003, he was given a 12-month sentence, suspended for two years, for performing the baptism in a church building belonging to the rival Macedonian Orthodox Church, which was deemed to be violent entry into Macedonian Church property.

Archbishop Jovan told Forum 18: “I did not offend against the law in any way. But, the government can also activate the suspended sentence if facts not previously known to judges are found. They activated the sentence because they claim that they did not know that I was the Serbian Orthodox Exarch (protector) of the Ohrid Archbishopric! This is absurd, since the previous sentence is accusing me of exactly that on two pages. They sentenced me twice for the same act.”

The roots of the dispute between the Serbian and Macedonian Churches lie in the creation of the Macedonian Church in 1958 under heavy pressure from the then-communist government of Marshal Tito. In 1968 the Macedonian Church proclaimed its independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church, but no other canonical Orthodox Church in the world recognizes this autocephaly.

During a long-running campaign against the Serbian Orthodox Church the government has refused to give state registration to the Serbian Orthodox Church, staged police raids with priests of the rival Macedonian Orthodox Church to “persuade” members of the Serbian Church in Macedonia to join the Macedonian Church and demolished a monastery after a paramilitary “state security unit” attacked it with machine guns.

Macedonian Helsinki Committee president Mirjana Najcevska said, “We are opposing the way Vraniskovski and his group were treated just because they decided to have a different belief. We oppose the protective approach of the government towards a specific religion because it represents a tradition, a cultural heritage, and is linked to a particular ethnicity.”

Ivica Bocevski, an international relations expert in Macedonia, said the verdict meant “the suspension of civil rights and freedoms in Macedonia.”

US Islamic leaders issue fatwa against terrorism

US Islamic leaders have issued a fatwa – an Islamic religious ruling – against violence and acts of political extremism. The ruling, made public July 28 at a news conference in Washington, DC, has been endorsed by more than 250 Muslim organizations and leaders and was issued by the 18-member Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA), an Islamic jurisprudence body.

“Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives,” the Council said. “There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism. Targeting civilians’ life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram – or forbidden – and those who commit these barbaric acts are criminals, not martyrs.”

The council said it was “following the guidance of our scripture, the Quran, and the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad”.

Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said Muslim leaders were united in opposing the terrorists’ “goal of sparking an apocalyptic war between faiths and civilizations.”

CAIR, which has produced public service announcements that dissociate Islamic religious practice from acts of violence, urged that the fatwa against violence be read by Imams at US Islamic prayer services.

“We can’t afford to be bystanders anymore,” said Mr. al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “So we’re doing it collectively, speaking out with one voice and now telling our children that they have to get it right, they can’t be confused and can’t give any credence to anybody who comes to them and says there is room for violence.”

Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said described a new campaign against terrorism and extremism, with posters and pamphlets designed for use in mosques and Islamic schools. The materials, he said, will provide a theological rebuttal to Muslim extremists who cite the Koran and Islamic texts to justify violence. “It has become very critical that these things need to be spelled out thoroughly and become part of our day-to-day discussion.”

In a sermon at the Islamic Center of Southern California, Dr. Maher Hathout said: “It is our responsibility – young and old, parents, sons and daughters, teachers and students, leaders and activists, to rally together to plug the holes through which the distorting predators pass through and push the substances that kill brain cells and fill hearts with despair and hate.”

Jerusalem has new patriarch

The Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem named a new patriarch in August to replace Irineos I, who was sacked following accusations that he had authorized the sale of land to Jews in Arab East Jerusalem, an event which enraged Palestinians and sparked a church crisis.

A 14-member church synod unanimously elected Metropolitan Theophilos, a Greek national who has served in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher and represented the Greek church in Moscow and Qatar.

“Our aim was to elect a patriarch who will be worthy and capable to help the patriarchate restore its prestige,” said Archbishop Aristarchos, chief secretary of the patriarchate. “We feel that we are stronger now to face and overcome more effectively the crisis which we passed.”

Upon his election, Theophilus said, “In the last few months we have had a lot of problems but with the help of God we will overcome them.”

Palestinians object to the lease or sale of any property in Jerusalem to Jews because they fear such moves would cement Israel’s grip on the eastern sector of the city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The Greek Orthodox Church is a major landowner with title to thousands of acres of property in Jerusalem. Israel captured East Jerusalem along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 and later annexed it in a move not recognized internationally.

The appointment of Theophilos must still be approved, under church law, by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Jordan gave its recognition in September, as did the Palestinian Authority. An Israeli official said Israel had made no decision but a ministerial committee was looking into the matter.

Theophilus is regarded as having been more favorable to his deposed predecessor, which may assist him in bringing stability to the troubled patriarchate.

Theophilos is originally from Messinia, Greece. In 1964, he went to Jerusalem. He served as archdeacon for then patriarch Benediktos. From 1991 to 1996, he was a priest in Cana in Galilee, which had a predominantly Israeli Arab flock.

In 1996, he was one of the first Christian clergymen in centuries to make an opening into the closed Wahhabi Islamic society of Qatar. He subsequently served as Exarch of the Holy Sepulchre in Qatar. From 2000 to 2003, he was church envoy to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Before becoming patriarch, Theophilus served for a short time as the Archbishop of Tabor.

Theophilus studied theology at the University of Athens and went on to complete a master’s degree in London. Besides his native Greek, he also speaks English and Arabic.

Russian bishop urges Catholic-Orthodox alliance

A Russian Orthodox bishop has appealed for a European Roman Catholic-Orthodox alliance to combat what he described as secularism, liberalism and relativism.

“Europe has so rapidly de-Christianized that urgent action is needed to save it from losing its centuries-old Christian identity,” said Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, the Russian church’s representative to the European Union.

“We need a strategic alliance, and we need it here and now. In 20, 30 or 40 years, it may simply be too late,” Hilarion said at a September ecumenical meeting in Gniezno, Poland on the role of Christians in contemporary Europe.

“The proposed alliance would enable European Catholics and Orthodox to fight together against the secularism, liberalism and relativism prevailing in modern Europe, and to speak with one voice in addressing secular society,” he noted.

He said the alliance should bring together representatives of Europe’s Roman Catholic bishops’ conferences and self-governing Orthodox churches, and seek a “common position on all major social and ethical issues,” including the family, sex and bioethics.

Orthodox churches were looking for a “breakthrough” in ties with Roman Catholics under Pope Benedict XVI, he said. They were counting on him to oppose “progressive groups that demand the ordination of women, approval of so-called same-sex marriages, abortion, contraception [and] euthanasia”.

Bishop Hilarion noted that Orthodox, Protestant and Old Catholic churches met under the umbrella of the Conference of European Churches. “But where is a common Catholic-Orthodox forum?” the bishop asked.

He suggested the Catholic-Orthodox alliance could act as a partner for dialogue with bodies such as the European Union, and “represent traditional Christianity in dialogue with Judaism, Islam and other world religions”.

The congress, hosted by the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, brought together 900 delegates from churches and religious movements.

Kazan icon returns home

After a 101-year absence, the icon of the Kazan Mother of God, which Pope John Paul II sent to Patriarch Alexis in Moscow in 2004, was returned in July to the Orthodox diocese of Kazan on the feast of the icon’s apparition.

Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, is a republic in the Middle Volga region. The population is chiefly Muslim.

“It’s just a joy to see it, a great joy,” onlooker Tatyana Kuvshinova, tears in her eyes, told a Russian television reporter.

According to tradition, the small wonder-working icon appeared miraculously in the city of Kazan, some 800 kilometers east of Moscow, in the 16th century. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the icon had come to the west. In recent years John Paul kept the icon in his apartment at the Vatican.

Alexis presided at the solemn Liturgy in the restored Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan, the first religious ceremony in the church for more than eight decades. During the Soviet period the cathedral served as the headquarters of a university.

Thousands of people followed the ceremony on giant television screens installed in the streets.

After the liturgy, the icon was taken in procession to the monastery of the Mother of God, the icon’s original home. The monastery was turned into a tobacco factory during the Soviet period. However, until completion of the restoration of the monastery, the icon will be kept in the Zilantov convent for women.

Among participants in the reception of the icon in Kazan was Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, who chairs the Russian Mufti Council, who congratulated all Orthodox believers on the reopening of the Annunciation Cathedral.

In his sermon in the cathedral, Alexis said that fostering a Christian-Muslim dialogue is one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s highest priorities. “Our cooperation with followers of Islam is carried out within [the framework] of Russia’s interfaith council and also at the level of individual communities. Thanks to this, we are able to sustain peace in society, to cooperate in preventing moral foundations from being ruined, and to uphold traditional cultural values.”

“Kazan has always been regarded, and deservedly so, as the center of spiritual life for all Russian Muslims,” he said. “Followers of Islam and Christianity have lived in that land together in peace and harmony for centuries, trying to help each other; there has been no religious strife between them.”

‘Ecological destruction is sin’

A group of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant theologians, including Fr. John Chryssavgis of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, issued a statement on the environment last February that in July received the endorsement of the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA).

The statement – “God’s Earth is Sacred” – calls all Christians to reject teachings that suggest humans are “called” to exploit the Earth without care for how our behavior impacts the rest of God’s creation.

“God’s creation delivers unsettling news,” the text begins. “Earth’s climate is warming to dangerous levels; 90 percent of the world’s fisheries have been depleted; coastal development and pollution are causing a sharp decline in ocean health; shrinking habitat threatens to extinguish thousands of species; over 95 percent of the contiguous U.S. forests have been lost; and almost half of the population in the U.S. lives in areas that do not meet national air quality standards. In recent years, the profound danger has grown, requiring us as theologians, pastors, and religious leaders to speak out and act with new urgency.

“We are obliged to relate to Earth as God’s creation in ways that sustain life on the planet, provide for the [basic] needs of all humankind, and increase justice….

“To continue to walk the current path of ecological destruction is not only folly; it is sin. As voiced by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has taken the lead among senior religious leaders in his concern for creation: to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation … for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forest, or destroying its wetlands… for humans to injure other humans with disease … for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances…these are sins.” We have become un-Creators. Earth is in jeopardy at our hands.

“Ours is a theological crisis as well. We have listened to a false gospel that we continue to live out in our daily habits – a gospel that proclaims that God cares for the salvation of humans only and that our human calling is to exploit Earth for our own ends alone. This false gospel still finds its proud preachers and continues to capture its adherents among emboldened political leaders and policy makers.

“The secular counterpart of this gospel rests in the conviction that humans can master the Earth. Our modern way of life assumes this mastery. However, the sobering truth is that we hardly have knowledge of, much less control over, the deep and long-term consequences of our human impacts upon the Earth. We have already sown the seeds for many of those consequences. The fruit of those seeds will be reaped by future generations of human beings, together with others in the community of life.

“The imperative first step is to repent of our sins, in the presence of God and one another. This repentance of our social and ecological sins will acknowledge the special responsibility that falls to those of us [in wealthy countries]… We are a precious part of Earth’s web of life, but we do not own the planet….”

Note: full text is on the web at: www.scoba.us

His ideas dead, Russia weighs what to do with Lenin’s body

“Lenin,” mused Natasha Zakharova, 23, after seeing Lenin’s embalmed body in its resting place on Moscow’s Red Square. “Was he a Communist?”

For eight decades Lenin has been lying in state on public display, a cadaver in a succession of dark suits, encased in a glass box beside a walkway in the basement of his granite mausoleum. Many who revere him say he is at peace. Others think he just looks macabre. Meanwhile a debate over burying his body has reopened.

Revisiting a proposal that thwarted Boris Yeltsin, a senior aide to President Vladimir Putin raised the matter in October, saying it was time to bury the man.

“Our country has been shaken by strife, but only a few people were held accountable for that in our lifetime,” said Georgi Poltavchenko. “I do not think it is fair that those who initiated the strife remain … near the Kremlin.”

Poltavchenko’s suggestion has ignited fresh debate over Lenin’s place in history as well as in the grave.

First came a rush to second the idea. Nikita Mikhalkov, film director and chairman of the Russian Cultural Foundation, shares Mr. Poltavchenko’s distaste for the relic. “Vast funds are being squandered on a pagan show,” Mikhalkov told Russian journalists, noting that Lenin wished to be buried beside his mother in St. Petersburg. “If we advocate Christian ideals, we must fulfill the will of the deceased.”

Then came the backlash. Gennadi Zyuganov, leader of Russia’s remnant of the Communist Party, lashed out at proponents of moving the remains, insisting that Lenin had no wish to be buried elsewhere. “We will hold actions of civic disobedience and will not let such things happen,” said Zyuganov at a press conference. “We have enough wisdom and will to defend our history and sanctuaries.”

Barrier undermines Jerusalem, says Israeli think tank

A section of Israel’s 600 km wall

The barrier of barbed-wire fences and concrete walls that Israel has been building through Arab areas of Jerusalem is causing hardship to thousands of Arab residents as well as undermining its role as a major city, a leading Israeli think tank has found in a report released in October.

The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies made the conclusions in an in-depth study into the impact of the controversial barrier which Israel began building three years ago.

Israel says the barrier, 600 kilometers long, is needed to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating its cities. About 75 kilometers of the barrier runs through Jerusalem, cutting off outlying Arab neighborhoods from the city’s holy sites as well as severing them from municipal facilities such as schools and hospitals.

The study said that even if the barrier succeeds at preventing terror attacks, frustration and anger by members of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population “may increase hostility and undermine the fragile relationship between the Jewish and Arab communities in the city”.

The barrier has also severed large Palestinian neighborhoods from the city. Residents in these areas have to pass through checkpoints and obtain permits to access religious sites that are only a short distance from their homes, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the al-Aqsa mosque compound.

The study found that the barrier was also damaging the city’s property market as tens of thousands of Palestinians holding Israeli residency status, who found themselves caught on the wrong side of the barrier, were moving to parts of the city unaffected by the barrier. As a result, there were steep increases in property prices in these neighborhoods.

“To a large extent, Jerusalem has changed from a central city providing services to more than a million people in the surrounding area to a peripheral town,” the report noted. “It is a limited metropolitan area that serves only 20 per cent of the residents it formerly did, most of them Jews.”

The study predicts an exodus by the city’s Jewish population as a result of the negative effects of the barrier.

Russia : Ex-prisoners join monastic communities

According to statistics made public by the Interfax news agency in August, almost half of inmates of women prisons in the Nizhniy Novgorod region join monastic communities after serving their sentences.

An on-line educational program on the foundations of the Orthodox Faith, organized by the Nizhniy Novgorod diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, prompts them to take this decision. “At present the diocese takes care of 19 colonies on the Volga region territory.”

A priest is assigned to take care of every proison. He hears the inmates’ confessions and talks to them, edifying them in their faith. Almost all parishes of the diocese are involved in charity activity, providing the inmates with clothes, medicine, food and literature.

In addition, the Church helps the convicts in socialization after their release: they are offered assignments in churches and employment in parishes.