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Friday, December 28, 2012

Religion In The News 2012

10. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Pat Robertson.
Back in January 2012, after his annual new year’s powwow with the heavenly father, the televangelist Pat Robertson was certain God had told him who the winner of the presidential election would be—and it wouldn’t be the candidate he clearly disliked, Barack Obama. Robertson went on to endorse Mormon GOP nominee Mitt Romney—despite his past snarking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints being more cult than Christian. And so the preacher was clearly flummoxed on TV on Election Night when Obama was declared the winner. A few weeks later, he would reflect on his ability to know God’s will when a viewer called in to talk about disappointments. “So many of us miss God,” he said, “I won’t get into great detail about elections but I sure did miss it, I thought I heard from God, I thought I had heard clearly from God. What happened? You ask God, how did I miss it? Well, we all do and I have a lot of practice.” Robertson’s error would have fit right into an old adage pastors like to tell. It involves a person with so intimate and personal a relationship with his god that he ponders Romans 12:19 and thinks it refers to himself. The verse begins, “Vengeance is mine.” Psst, Pat… That’s God speaking.

9. The War on (the Date of) Christmas: The Pope Weighs InBenedict XVI is a scholar and a traditionalist, as well as being Pope — which can cause a ruckus when the pontiff decides to weigh in on some of the more tendentious aspects of Catholic scholarship. Benedict wasn’t saying anything new when he asserted in a new book that Jesus was not born exactly 2,012 years ago, but in fact four to six years earlier. Nor was it a surprise to Christian scholars that his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, blamed the error on a 6th century monk named Exiguus, who probably miscalculated the year in a document that was taken as — well — gospel. (Benedict also noted that it was unlikely that oxen and sheep attended the birth of Christianity’s savior.) Issued by a pope, however, the assertions were a book publicist’s dream. Benedict insisted he wasn’t against tradition; he was simply pressing the real human life and historicity of Jesus against those who would mythologize him. However, there were tenets that Benedict said remained sacrosanct. Christians must believe that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit—and not sexually—and born of the Virgin Mary. That, the pontiff stated, isn’t open for argument.
8. Who Do Burma’s Buddhist Monks Hate? Muslim Migrants
Many of the foot soldiers during the long push for democracy in Burma were Buddhist monks, who proved virtually fearless in the face of repression by the country’s former junta. Now that the worst of those days are over—and the rule of the generals have given way to the presidency of Thein Sein, a reformist from their midst—the monks have come out again to give voice to another sentiment popular in the land: the expulsion of the Rohingya. Thein Sein, a former military man, has said that he wants the Muslim migrants, who hail from neighboring Bangladesh, forced out of the country—and the monks agree. Unfortunately, that has led to the deaths of nearly 100 Rohingya, the flight to an unwelcoming Bangladesh by thousands of others and nearly 800,000 living in limbo and fearful of their lives and future. The U.N. has criticized the Burmese government’s declarations but the country—itself divided among several bellicose ethnic groups—seems united in its animosity toward the Rohingya. Even acclaimed Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has issued only ambiguous statements on the subject. Democracy and human rights are fine demands for the Burmese; but don’t ask them to hand out the same to the Rohingya.
7. The Conquest of Jerusalem by Ultra-Orthodox Jew
With its distinct ethnic and religious quarters outlined in ancient stone, the walled Old City of Jerusalem symbolizes the continuing controversy over who its rightful inhabitants should be. Both Jews and Palestinians claim old Jerusalem as their capital, even as the Israeli government (and Jewish settlers) sets up shop in the modern city that’s sprung up around it. Now, one substantial community, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, is making a move to transform the face of the city and its real estate. Their fecundity and growing preponderance has driven more secular Jews out of Jerusalem—and may be a harbinger of what the rest of Israel will look like in the future. In Jerusalem, as Karl Vick wrote in TIME in August, “the children of the very religious account for 65% of elementary-school pupils. Across Israel, where ultra-Orthodox now account for 10% of the population, they make up 21% of elementary-school enrollment. Demographers calculate that with a birthrate three to four times that of seculars, they will account for 1 in 5 Israelis in 20 years.” The zealotry of the ultra-Orthodox is beginning to affect everyday life, even for the less devout. As Vick writes,  ”downtown billboards in Israel’s capital no longer feature women; advertisers fear defacement or, worse, boycotts. On public buses, ultra-Orthodox women sit in the back–a situation Hillary Clinton likened to the pre-segregation South… In Bet Shemesh, a half-hour outside Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl who was on her way to school, calling her a ‘whore’ for her long-sleeved clothes, which were not conservative enough for their standards.” It is a different face of Israel from the beach-and-bikini scenes of Tel Aviv—and one that will be increasingly contentious in years to come.

6. The Church of England’s Woman Problem

One of the longest words in the English language is “antidisestablishmentarianism” — a political position in the 19th century that sought to defend the Church of England from those who would remove it from its privileged place as the “Established” church of the realm, supported by the government, crown and taxpayers. Well, the church had better dust off the word after its General Synod failed to pass a popular motion that would have allowed women to be ordained bishops. With Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams retiring as its spiritual head, the Church is between leaders; it’s also riven with controversies over issues such as gay ordination. Conservatives within the Church oppose turning Anglicanism into a version of the Episcopal church in America, which does ordain women as bishops (and gay men too).  But this doesn’t seem to be an opportune time to offend women, who want to help (and have been helping) a church that is seeing membership and attendance decline. And embrace of hoary tradition may also put the C of E at arms length from the government of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, who increasingly sees the “official” religion as unrepresentative of the country today.

5. The Revolt of the Nuns

American nuns were in the crosshairs of the Vatican hierarchy this year. As John Cloud wrote in TIME:
“The Vatican [on April 18] criticized the largest association of U.S. nuns — the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — for allowing ‘radical feminist themes’ to permeate its meetings. The Holy See said the leadership conference had hosted speakers whose ‘rejection of faith’ and ‘silence’ on abortion had become ‘a serious source of scandal.’ The Vatican appointed three bishops to supervise the leadership conference.”
At the same time, the Holy See also took on an American scholar—who is also a nun. Sister Margaret Farley faced censure after Vatican bureaucrats denounced her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. As Tim Padgett wrote on TIME.com:
Farley, a retired Yale divinity professor and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, condones practices that have been morally acceptable to most U.S. and European Catholics for quite a while, including divorce, homosexuality, nonprocreative intercourse and masturbation. But Rome’s doctrinal bulldogs are sternly reminding her that those acts are ‘disordered,’ ‘deviant’ and ‘depraved.’”
Farley did not buckle—nor did other nuns. Most prominent of the “rebels” was Sister Simone Campbell, who backed Obamacare because it extended benefits for poorer Americans. The Catholic church hierarchy in the U.S. mainly opposed the reform because of its provisions regarding reproductive rights. Campbell would speak at the Democratic National Convention (as well as appear as a guest on The Colbert Report), further fueling the church’s confrontation with the liberal women in its ranks.
4. Pussy Riot vs. the Russian Orthodox Church
For decades under the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church was a feeble but loyal extension of the bureaucracy, a charming antique of outdated piety. It is no longer a push-over. As TIME’s Simon Shuster recounted:
“On Feb. 8, a month before Vladimir Putin was re-elected to a third term as Russia’s President, he made the unprecedented statement that the separation between church and state is a ‘primitive notion,’ which both institutions should abandon in favor of ‘partnership, mutual help and support.’”
That announcement is what inspired the all female punk band Pussy Riot to hold a protest in Moscow’s main cathedral two weeks later, with the intention of “provoking a dialogue,” as one member later said. The Orthodox church was not amused and — already a very effective manipulator of public opinion — organized a public campaign against the group and impiety in general. In August, a judge sentenced three members of the band to two years in prison. They were found guilty of charges that add up to an antique but no longer outdated crime in today’s Russia: blasphemy.

3. Syria’s Alawites: A Sect Under Siege

The guerrilla war against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is on the verge of becoming a sectarian war waged primarily against the secretive sect to which Assad’s family belongs. The Alawites form only about 12% of Syria’s population but they have ruled the country since 1960, when they ascended to the highest ranks of the country’s Ba’ath Party. Before that, they had been an underserved minority — albeit with a strong martial tradition — mistreated by the country’s Sunni Arab majority, which today accounts for about 70% of the population. Assad and the former president, his father Hafez, have pursued a Sunni-fication of the Alawites, whose faith derives from a strain of Shi’a Islam that is predominant in Iran. There are strong, heterodox strains in Alawite identity: its traditions date back to the most ancient times in the region and also borrow from Christian rites, including, allegedly, the sanctification of wine—unheard of in mainstream Islam. The details of Alawite beliefs are almost impossible to confirm—divulging them to a nonbeliever is punishable by death. According to Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, the main tenets are passed on only to males born of two Alawite parents. While both Shi’a and Sunni authorities have declared contemporary Alawites to be part of the Islamic fold, they continue to be viewed by suspicion by many Muslims, perhaps due to a history of dissembling about the true nature of their faith. In any case, as the civil war drags on in Syria, the mostly Sunni rebels are focusing their ire on the Alawites and their culture—and the Alawites are hanging together and digging in.

2. The Pope’s Butler Did It

Gianluigi Nuzzi’s book Su Santità (“Your Holiness”) was a stunning expose of Vatican skullduggery. But even more stunning was the alleged source of the documents the journalist used to construct his portrait of infighting at the Holy See: Paolo Gabriele, the shy and pious butler to Pope Benedict XVI. As Stephan Faris reported in May on TIME.com:
“The documents include letters from high-profile Italian businessmen and media personalities, with bank checks attached, inquiring after favors or meetings with the pope. Others are warnings of nepotism and corruption from a high-level Vatican official in charge of financial reforms, who was later transferred. Many Vatican watchers have speculated that the drama is the fall out of a struggle for power between Pope Benedict XVI’s second-in-command, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and rival cardinals and the Vatican’s veteran diplomatic staff, which has resented him since his arrival.”
In a trial held in a secretive corner of the Vatican, Gabriele — who insisted he was only doing what he thought was best for Benedict, whom he felt was not fully informed — was sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison for stealing sensitive documents. As Faris wrote in October: “It was a trial in which the pontiff was at the same time the victim, the person in whose name the crime had been committed, the authority under which the proceedings were being held—the judgment was delivered “in the name of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning” — and the ultimate arbiter of whether the sentence will be carried out.” The Pope was expected to pardon the man who’d once been lovingly called Paoletto (Little Paul), but nearly two months after the sentencing, none was apparent.

1. Innocence of Muslims

The most controversial movie of 2012 was hardly a film. Baldly and badly produced, it had all the amateurish aura of a sexploitation film from the 1970s, but without any real titillation. Innocence of Muslims was ostensibly a bio-pic of the Prophet Muhammad that had straight-to-video (or worse) written all over it. One of its actors was a head-tattooed former porn star; its producer was a Coptic-American con man with too many aliases, out on parole following a variety of fraud and narcotics offenses. But Innocence of Muslims‘ deprecatory depiction of the founder of Islam turned out to be an epic piece of mischief. The movie was perfectly timed for a divisive U.S. presidential campaign that was all too eager for weapons of cultural warfare; clips from the film were propagated by the usual suspects, including the Florida pastor and publicity hound who burned a Koran last year. The usual suspects on the other side (firebrands in the Islamic world who despise Western influence) inflamed their constituents, leading to a siege of the U.S. embassy in Cairo and — possibly — an excuse for militants in Benghazi to overrun the U.S. diplomatic compound in that eastern Libyan city, resulting in the death of the American ambassador. As for the producer of Innocence, Nakoula Bassely Nakoula (a.k.a. Mark Bassely, a.k.a. Sam Bacile) pleaded guilty to four counts of parole violation and was sentenced to one year in jail.
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