News section Spring 2006

Iraq: “If you see them as humans, how are you gonna kill them?”

An ever-growing number of veterans of the Iraq conflict are campaigning against the war. To mark the third anniversary of the invasion in March, a group of them marched on Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.

At a press conference in New Orleans, former soldiers active with Iraq Veterans Against the War spoke about the anguish they live with each and every day.

Michael Blake, a 22-year-old from New York state, served in Iraq from April 2003 to March 2004, part of that time as a Humvee driver. Deeply disturbed by his experience in Iraq, he filed for conscientious objector status and has been campaigning against the war ever since.

He said that the soldiers he trained with were told little about Iraq, Iraqis or Islam before serving there. Other than a book of Arabic phrases, “the message was always: ‘Islam is evil’ and ‘They hate us.’ Most of the guys I was with believed it.”

Blake said that the turning point for him came one day when his unit spent eight hours guarding a group of Iraqi women and children whose men were being questioned. He recalls: “The men were taken away and the women were screaming and crying, and I just remember thinking: this was exactly what Saddam used to do — and now we’re doing it.”

He witnessed civilian Iraqis being killed indiscriminately. “I’ll never be normal again. I’ll always have a sense of guilt.” Becoming a peace activist, he said, has been a “cleansing” experience.

“When IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] would go off by the side of the road, the instructions were — or the practice was — to basically shoot up the landscape, anything that moved. And that kind of thing would happen a lot.” Many innocent people were killed.

Blake was angry that American people seem so unaware of the abuses committed by American soldiers. “The media doesn’t cover it and they don’t care. The American people aren’t seeing the real war — what’s really happening there.”

Alan Shackleton, a 24-year-old from Iowa, told how he and his comrades in Iraq suffered multiple casualties, including a close friend who died of his injuries. Then he pauses for a moment, swallows hard and says: “And I ran over a little kid and killed him … and that’s about it.” He has been suffering from severe insomnia. “We are very, very sorry for what we did to the Iraqi people,” he said while holding a poster declaring, “Thou shall not kill.”

Jody Casey, 29, stressed that he is no pacifist; he still backs the military. His hope is that protest will help correct mistakes being made. He served as a scout sniper for a year until last February, based in the Sunni triangle. The turning point for him, he said, came after he returned from Iraq and watched videos that he and other soldiers in his unit shot while out on raids, including hour after hour of Iraqi soldiers beating up Iraqi civilians. While reviewing them back home he decided “it was not right.”

What upset him the most about the war was “the total disregard for human life.” “I mean, you do what you do at the time because you feel like you need to, then watch it get covered up, shoved under a rug.”

From the top down, said Casey, there is little regard for the Iraqis. They were routinely called “hajjis,” the Iraq equivalent of “gook.” “They basically jam into your head: ‘This is hajji! This is hajji!’ You totally take the human being out of it and make killing them into a video game.”

He saw dehumanizing the Iraqis as a prerequisite to targeting them. “I mean, yeah — if you start looking at them as humans, then how are you going to kill them?” [The Guardian / UK]

Current warming period longest in 1,200 years, study says

When Montana’s Glacier National Park was created in 1910, it had 150 glaciers. That number has now dwindled to 30 due to warming temperatures, according to a study released by Science Magazine in February.

Researchers analyzed tree rings, ice cores, fossils and other climate records and found that the present warming phase has lasted longer and affected a broader area than any other such period in the last 1,200 years. The researchers behind the study — Timothy Osborn and Keith Briffa from the University of East Anglia in England — reached their conclusion after studying records from 14 sites around the globe. Each of these records shows how its local environment changed over time.

The researchers set out to identify extended periods of warming and cooling that occurred during the past several centuries and affected different regions of the planet at roughly the same time.

“We found that between 890 and 1170 A.D., there was statistically significant widespread warmth corresponding approximately to the so-called Medieval Warm Period,” Osborn said. “The 20th century stands out as the only period in the past 1,200 years when the records all indicate warmth at the same time.”

The most widespread warmth was found not in the Middle Ages but during the 20th century. Proxy records indicate warm conditions in the mid- and late 20th century. But the thermometer measurements clearly show that the expanding area of warmer-than-normal conditions continued through to the present day. Almost the entire Northern Hemisphere is now warmer than normal.

Similar findings were announced in March by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Two studies on changes to Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, NASA reported, confirm “climate warming is changing how much water remains locked in Earth’s largest storehouses of ice and snow.”

NASA linked the changes to global warming and described the survey as “the most comprehensive” ever in both regions.

“If the trends we’re seeing continue and climate warming continues as predicted, the polar ice sheets could change dramatically,” said lead author Jay Zwally, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The Greenland ice sheet could be facing an irreversible decline by the end of the century.” [MSNBC]

Christian appeal to fight global warming

In a text released in February, 86 American Evangelical leaders backed a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

Among signers of the statement were the presidents of 39 Evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, and well-known pastors of “megachurches.”

“For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority,” the statement said. “Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough.”

The statement calls for federal legislation that would require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through “cost-effective, market-based mechanisms.” The statement is the first stage of an “Evangelical Climate Initiative” that will include TV and radio ads, informational campaigns in churches, and educational events. [New York Times]

WCC must leave behind “ossified” ecumenism

A growing gap between ecumenical institutions and the churches they were created to serve is deepening the threat to survival faced by groups such as the World Council of Churches, said that body’s moderator, Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church, at the WCC Assembly held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in February.

“We are at a critical point,” said Catholicos Aram. “I see a growing gap between ecumenical institutions and new forms of ecumenism that are appearing.” Aram warned that the group needed to leave behind a “frozen, ossified, petrified form of ecumenism.”

Aram said that the ecumenical agenda was “to a large degree, outdated and incompatible with present needs and concerns. Institutional ecumenism has been preoccupied with its own problems and has, therefore, lost touch with the issues facing the churches.”

The ecumenical vision is also in crisis, he warned. “The real problem is twofold: the ecumenical institutions have started to lose contact with the vision; and the vision appears to be vague and ambiguous.”

Aram noted that the ecumenical movement had become an arena for “new tensions and alienations.” This was seen as a reference to controversies within churches on issues such as homosexuality.

“Many churches misinterpret ecumenism; they equate it with the forces of liberalism and secularism. They fear that it threatens the church’s moral teachings and will lead to proselytism and syncretism.”

Aram said ecumenism needed to go through a process of transformation. “We’re just starting to examine the role, form and priorities of the WCC,” Aram said, “but we must be thinking of not simply a structural reconfiguration but a renewal, a transformation of our life together.” [ENI]

Holy Land Christians fear extinction

A delegation of Israeli-Arab Christians visited the Vatican in February to discuss urgent aid for the struggling Christian communities of the Holy Land.

The delegation submitted a plan to help revive Christian communities in the Holy Land, whose numbers are dwindling. The plan includes obtaining more support from Christians abroad, particularly pilgrims visiting holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as this could alleviate the sense of neglect and isolation felt by the local Christians. The plan appeals for increased support for Christian hospitals and schools as well as the establishment of a cultural center for local Christians and community television and radio stations.

“Projects of this sort ensure a better future not only for Christians but for the entire Israeli Arab population,” said Dr Raed Mualem, head of the Mar Elias University in the Galilee town of Ibillin.

“It was time for churches abroad to take a more active role to revitalize Christian communities in the Holy Land. We are a dying congregation,” said Dr. Mualem.

Mualem told Israel’s daily Ha’aretz that soon Galilee Christians would be almost “extinct” because the migration rate is 35 percent. Christians currently comprise about 1.7 per cent of Israel’s six million population — or about 110,000 people. But Mualem said that if the high rate of migration continues then the number of Christians living in Israel will drop to less than half of one per cent of the population by 2020.

Around 40,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories; they are migrating at a rate of about 2,000 people a year. Christians who have often been wealthier and more educated then their neighbors have increasingly sought to make a better life for their families abroad rather than live as a small minority caught between the mostly Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Muslim populations. [ENI]

Eritreans seek support for patriarch

At the World Council of Churches Assembly in Brazil in February, a group of Eritreans issued an appeal to intervene in the government removal and detention of Patriarch Abune Antonios, head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

“We are deeply concerned about the well-being of Patriarch Abune Antonios, who was unlawfully removed from his office by the government controlled Synod of the Church,” said a statement issued by Concerned Eritreans.

The letter reported that the 78-year-old patriarch was removed from office on 13 January and put under house arrest at his residence in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.

The Eritrean church has 2 million believers in 1500 local congregations. The church’s statutes say a patriarch can be removed only if he has a grave moral failure, falls into heresy or becomes insane. None of these have been the case for Antonios say those questioning his detention.

“It appears [the Patriarch] has been systematically victimized for his overt criticism of the government’s interference in the church’s affairs,” the statement said, urging the reinstatement of the leader.

Copies of the letter were sent to the All Africa Conference of Churches, Pope Benedict and to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Christian Solidarity International, a Swiss-based group that campaigns for religious liberty, said that the Eritrean government had appointed a lay person to assume control of the patriarchate, usurping a responsibility reserved for bishops.

Since assuming his position in 2004, the patriarch has challenged Eritrean government interference in church matters. Last year he challenged President Isaias Afworki over the arrest of three priests.

The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice is the only legal political party in Eritrea. Its ideology is Marxist. [ENI]

Greeks offered “velvet separation”

Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Orthodox Church in Greece, said in February that he would be ready to accept a “velvet separation” between Church and State. His statement responds to growing pressure for constitutional reform after a series of church scandals.

Speaking at a conference at the University of Athens, Archbishop Christodoulos conceded a peaceful split between Church and State when he said: “We wouldn’t bring tanks to the Greek parliament building, nor will we shoot those whose opinions on Church-State relations differ from ours.”

In an obvious reference to the peaceful transition from Communism to democracy in the Czechoslovakia of 1989, he said: “If it’s necessary for us to make a Church-State separation, why not do it in the form of a velvet separation? In this framework, the Church would eventually no longer be present at oath-taking by heads of state and government.”

There have been increasing calls for a review of the status of the Orthodox Church, which claims the loyalty of 97 per cent of Greece’s population of 10.4 million.

The archbishop added that most Orthodox bishops would oppose a program of secularization in Greece, and would defend the presence of icons in public buildings, as well as religious classes in schools.

About 60 percent of Greeks said they favored Church-State separation, according to a survey by the Institute for Greek Public Opinion. [The Tablet / UK]

Macedonia: Archbishop Jovan released

By the decision of the Macedonian Supreme Court, the Archbishop of Ochrid and Metropolitan of Skoplje Jovan, head of the Autonomous Orthodox Archdiocese of Ochrid, was released in March after spending 220 days in the central prison of Idrizovo in Skoplje.

Upon leaving prison, Archbishop Jovan thanked “all heads of local Orthodox churches, bishops and Christian faithful for their prayers before God, as well as all persons who contributed to his release by their institutional engagement in respect for elementary human rights and religious freedoms,” the Archdiocese of Ochrid communicated. He also thanked “all those who worked against him and against the Orthodox Archdiocese of Ochrid,” reminding that “ancient Orthodox tradition teaches us to pray for those who love us and those who hate us.”

Archbishop Jovan was sentenced to 18 months in prison in August 2004 for “causing and spreading racial, religious and national hatred and divisions.” The sentence was upheld in 2005 after the Serbian Orthodox Church issued a decree of autocephaly of the Archdiocese of Ochrid, appointing Jovan its head. The Macedonian government claims that these two events are unrelated, and that the sentencing is unconnected with decades of canonical dispute between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the so-called Macedonian Orthodox Church, which is canonically not recognized by the Orthodox world.

Archbishop Jovan went to prison on July 26 of last year, and the sentence of 18 months was extended by a year for violating a suspended sentence for “self-will and violence” for attempting to baptize the grandchild of his sister.

His imprisonment provoked protests from Orthodox churches worldwide. The case was brought before the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and was to have been presented before the International Court of Justice in Strasbourg.

Asked how he felt following his release, Archbishop Jovan said, “After all, freedom is freedom. But, a man can be free even in a prison. Freedom is not only physical, but mental and spiritual. I am glad that justice has finally been served.” [KIM-Info]

Briton wins prize for exploring science-spirituality link

John Barrow, a University of Cambridge cosmologist and mathematician whose work explores the relationship between life and the universe, as well as the nature and the limits of human understanding, was awarded the Templeton Prize in March. The prize is awarded yearly to a person advancing knowledge of spiritual matters.

Barrow’s win recognizes a scholar in the prime of a career exploring what 1978 Templeton laureate Thomas Torrance said are “those aspects of the structure of the universe and its laws that make life possible and which shape the views that we take of that universe when we examine it.”

Responding to the award, Barrow expressed his debt to the “ancient writers who celebrated the heavens’ declaration of the glory of the Lord.’ Unbeknown to them and countless others who followed them, the universe has revealed itself by the instruments that modern science has made possible to be far bigger, more spectacular, and more humbling than we ever imagined it to be.”

Barrow said religion can learn from science’s view that knowledge builds upon itself, while science can benefit from religion’s insights about ethics and meaning. “It can be a reciprocal exchange,” he said.

His books include Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation.

Prince Philip will present the award at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London on 3 May. [ENI]

Rabbis and imams call for religious coexistence

Jewish and Muslim leaders found common ground in March by appealing for religious tolerance at a conference for rabbis and imams in Spain.

“There is no inherent conflict between Islam and Judaism,” they said in a joint statement. “While modern politics has impacted negatively upon the relationship, our two religions share the most fundamental values of faith in the One Almighty whose name is Peace.”

140 rabbis and imams from 34 countries attended the second international conference of Jewish and Muslim clerics held in Seville. The conference was sponsored by the foundation Hommes de Parole.

Israeli newspapers reported there was tension between Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders when accusations flew from both groups that the other was attempting to drag politics into the discussions. But they finally found a formulation they all supported.

The leaders said that they deplored “any incitement against a faith or people, let alone a call for their elimination.”

Jewish leaders attending the conference interpreted the reference as a rebuke to the militant Islamist group Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Reports said goodwill was sowed when rabbis took the side of imams in demanding a halt to the construction of a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Human remains from an adjacent, ancient Muslim cemetery were discovered during digging of the museum’s foundations. The chief rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shear Hacohen, was among Israelis who signed a petition calling for construction of the museum to be halted.

“That the rabbis understand us on this issue gives hope we can reach agreement on other issues,” said Imad al-Fallouji, a Palestinian imam from the Gaza Strip. [ENI]

Russian Orthodox Church to set up human rights center

The Russian Orthodox Church plans to set up a center to deal with issues relating to human rights in the context of Russian national and church traditions.

“The main mistake of human rights organizations today is that their activities do not incorporate the views and values of a majority of our people. The inconsistencies in the current activities of human rights groups must be dealt with,” Metropolitan Kirill told a news conference in Moscow in March.

The problem of human rights, he said, “must remain in the focus of attention of civil society and the Russian Orthodox Church.” [Interfax]

First Russian Orthodox church in Rome

The cross and cupola of the Russian Orthodox church under construction in Rome were consecrated and elevated in March. The church is dedicated to the Holy Protomartyr Catherine.

The ceremony was led by Bishop Mark, vice-chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations. “The Russian church stands near St. Peter’s,” he said, “and this symbolizes the common witness of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches before the challenges of our time, as our Churches through their temples in the Eternal City assert the eternal values of Christianity.”

The need to build a first ever Orthodox church in the Eternal City, where many suffered martyrdom, was dictated first of all by the strength of the Russian Orthodox flock in Rome.

The church is being built on the Janiculum in the immediate vicinity of St. Peter’s. St. Catherine, to whom the church is dedicated, is equally venerated by Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians.

An attempt to build an Orthodox church in Rome was made as far back as the late 19th century on the initiative of the rector of the Russian embassy church and with the support of the imperial family. [Interfax]

Greek Church backs Athens mosque

The Orthodox Church of Greece has expressed support for the creation of a mosque in Athens so that the city’s Muslims would have a place of worship. Support has been growing for the idea recently but the Greek Orthodox Church had remained silent on the issue until after the meeting in March of the Holy Synod.

“Nobody can deny the faithful of a well-known religion like Islam the right to exercise their religious duties freely,” said Bishop Chrysostomos of Patras. “We live in a democratic country which should display respect and tolerance.”

A mosque in Monastiraki Square in central Athens is now a possibility. It was built in 1759 but is currently used as an art museum. There are no official mosques in Athens. Muslims often travel to Thrace for religious services. [Ekathimerini]

Slovakia treaty allows conscientious objection

A new treaty between the Republic of Slovakia and the Vatican recognizes the right to exercise conscientious objection. The treaty protects the right of all to exercise conscientious objection in relation to universal values. Thus a doctor would have the right to refuse to participate in such practices as abortion, assisted procreation, experimentation with human embryos, euthanasia and sterilization.

The treaty has met with opposition from European groups promoting abortion and euthanasia. They argue that the treaty would have a negative impact on “fundamental rights.” [Zenit]