Monthly Archives: August 2011

Germany: Anti-pope protests banned

German groups planning to protest against Pope Benedict when he visits Berlin next month said on Monday they will challenge a decision by local authorities banning them from holding rallies anywhere near where he will speak.

The German-born pontiff will begin his Sept. 22-25 German tour in Berlin before continuing to Erfurt and Freiburg. Anti-Pope rallies are expected in all three cities, where many are unhappy about his conservative views on birth control, abortion and the rights of homosexuals.

A Berlin alliance of 54 groups, led by the German Gay and Lesbian Association (LSVD), wants to stage its rally in front of the Brandenburg Gate — about 300 meters from the parliament building where the Pope will speak. The organisers expect about 20,000 demonstrators to take to the streets.

“It must be possible to hold a peaceful demonstration within ear-shot of the Bundestag,” said LSVD director Joerg Steinert. The association has spoken out against the decision to allow the Pope to speak in the Bundestag.

Whereas thousands of demonstrators marched in Madrid earlier this month against the cost of the Pope’s visit, the German protests are chiefly aimed at the Vatican’s conservative views, organisers said.

Local officials rejected their application but offered two alternative sites further away from the government quarter.

“We’re going to fight to be able to hold the rally there,” said Pascal Ferro, a spokesman for the LSVD. He said they had not given up hope of holding the rally at the Brandenburg Gate, which has become a symbol of German unity after being surrounded by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War.

The protesters are not the first to be banned from holding an event at the site. As a U.S. presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama had his request to speak at the Brandenburg Gate rejected by the German government, which deemed it inappropriate to use the monument for a campaign rally. Obama ended up speaking 2 km away before a crowd of 200,000.

The protesters want to rally at the Brandenburg Gate at the same time Pope Benedict is due to address parliament.

Officials gave no explanation for the ban. When Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul, visited Berlin in 1996 he faced hecklers who hurled abuse and made obscene gestures as he made his way by Popemobile to the Brandenburg Gate for a farewell ceremony.

Some shouted “Go to hell” and “Get lost” while a naked woman protester streaked in front of the glass-sided Popemobile. Some media reports said the vehicle was also hit by eggs or tomatoes.

Hans Langendoerfer, a German Jesuit and the secretary of the German conference of Catholic Bishops, said there were concerns that the demonstrations could turn violent this time round too.

“I’m worried that there are some violent people out there who will attempt to take advantage of the peaceful demonstration and thus counter the purpose,” he told Focus magazine. But he added: “Free speech is an important concern for the Church.”

Reuters | Natalia Drozdiak | BERLIN, Aug 29 

 

 

UK: Politicisation of abortion would be a disaster for women

For a government that wants to increase the role of charities and non-profit organisations in social provision, it is ironic for it to be intervening in an area where charities have long worked to excellent effect. But this is what will happen if the Department of Health changes the rules so that women seeking an abortion must be offered counselling independently of charities, such as Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which have offered such advice until now.

The move appears designed to pre-empt an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill that would enshrine such a change in law. But, as so often where abortion is concerned, another agenda can be divined – one that has to do less with offering good advice and more to do with discouragement.

So far, mercifully, Britain has avoided the extreme politicisation of abortion that afflicts the US. But the official climate here could be hardening. In February, the High Court ruled that women having an early medical abortion should not be able to take the second, of two, pills at home. All those who support the right to legal abortion must be alert to changes that restrict access by the back door.

The Independent | Leading article | 30th August 2011

Italy’s financial crisis turns up heat on the Vatican

With Italy facing the prospect of drastic cuts to balance its budget in the years to come, a growing number of ordinary Italians are criticising massive tax breaks given to the Roman Catholic Church.

A Facebook page set up by leftist campaigners in recent weeks asking the Vatican to help ease austerity in Italy has already collected 130,000 supporters. It asks for numerous exemptions given to the Church to be revised.

The Internet mobilisation is all the more striking since the subject is considered absolutely taboo for Italy’s ruling class — both conservative and liberal — which is traditionally wary of criticising the Vatican directly.

One of the proposals being made by campaigners is that the thousands of properties owned by the Church — including vast tracts of prime real estate in the centre of Rome — should no longer be exempt from local housing tax.

Critics say that the properties covered by the exemption include highly profitable enterprises such as hotels and sports complexes.

Weekly news magazine L’Espresso reflected some of the bubbling anger with a headline in its latest issue reading: “Holy Tax Evasion”.

“The law is not the same for everyone,” the magazine said in its piece, accusing successive Italian governments of bowing to the bishops.

The Church also benefits from a yearly share of income tax that Italians can pay to it instead of to the state — the result of an agreement between former prime minister Bettino Craxi and the Vatican dating back to 1984.

Supporters say that the tax breaks are not as extensive as sometimes reported and are justified because the Catholic Church plays an important role in social welfare, complementing the role of the state.

Italian bishops have struck out against the criticism, with the religious daily Avvenire pointing to “an impressive political-mediatic campaign”.

Avvenire said the scathing attacks were in fact a reaction against criticism from Catholic leaders about extensive tax evasion in Italy.

Angelino Alfano, the head of Berlusconi’s ruling centre-right People of Freedom party, has also defended the Church saying “trying to penalise the Church is like harming the people who have the least defence.”

The Vatican says the criticism is “disinformation” and has cautioned against confusing the assets of the Italian Catholic Church and the property of the Vatican, which is a sovereign state separate from Italy.

“Religious orders could claim that the exemptions allow them to carry out charity activities,” commented Bruno Bartoloni, a Vatican expert.

But he added that eventually “the whole system has to be cleared up and the Church should show more solidarity with the tax contributors.”

Agence France-Presse, Updated: 8/30/2011

UK: Extremist Christians ramp up their bid for power and influence

An anti-abortionist protest in 2007. Today, a new health bill is likely to give churches a bigger voice in abortion counselling. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Cliff Richard was a supporter while other luminaries included Mary Whitehouse, Salvation Army leaders and senior clergy. Even Prince Charles sent his “good wishes”.

But despite tens of thousands of Christians taking part in September 1971′s Nationwide Festival of Light, a month-long campaign against Britain’s “moral breakdown” and the permissiveness ushered in by the previous decade, it eventually ran out of steam. After torches and hilltop bonfires were lit around the country, the culmination was a spectacular Trafalgar Square rally.

Exactly 40 years on, however, the Christian network it evolved into is quietly wielding political influence alongside other social conservatives, while gearing up to play an increasingly significant role in the provision of public services under the umbrella of David Cameron’s big society agenda.

What’s more, the possibility of the first major change to abortion rules for more than 20 years now means it is on the brink of chalking up its most significant victory to date.

An amendment that Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries and Labour’s Frank Field have put forward to the health bill would strip abortion providers such as Marie Stopes of their pregnancy counselling roles, opening them up to tenders from “independent” organisations. And now the government has confirmed it will change this key area of the rules anyway.

Bids will almost certainly come from the network of pregnancy counselling centres (CPCs) linked to churches and run by CareConfidential, which became an independent entity in July after spinning off from Christian Action Research and Education (Care). A charity tracing its roots back to the Nationwide Festival of Light, it funds MPs, provides them with interns and has lobbied hard on issues including gay rights, abortion and embryology research.

Other bids could come from the anti-abortion charity Life, which runs its own CPCs and, separately, was appointed by the public health minister, Anne Milton, in May to an expert forum advising the government on sexual health.

Supporters of existing abortion rights and those eager to preserve secularism in public services are, to say the least, rattled, while Labour’s frontbench spokeswoman on public health, Diane Abbott, suggests a more profound trend.

“I think that the myriad of encroachment on a women’s right to choose that we are currently seeing is best understood in the context of the American phenomenon of so-called ‘culture wars’,” she said.

“The point for the British politicians pursuing the abortion issue is not just the amendments themselves but that they see it as part of a general approach to politics which has worked so well for the right in America.”

As Abbott and others see it, social conservatives in the UK have been borrowing from the tactical playbook of the US Christian right, establishing a network of organisations across a range of fronts and rebranding their traditional “pro-life” language (Dorries and Field’s campaign to change the law on abortion is called “right to know”).

Certainly, many often-interconnected individuals and organisations pursing a Christian agenda dot the political and legal landscape. Crucially, the Tories now have a strong socially conservative current. David Cameron himself has expressed support for a review of the legal time limit on abortion, as have rising stars of the party such as Louise Mensch.

Of the new crop of Tory MPs elected last year, 12 are members of the Christian Conservative Fellowship (CCF), an influential grouping inside the party. The CCF was founded by MP David Burrowes and the influential blogger and activist Tim Montgomerie, who edits the powerful grassroots Conservative platform ConservativeHome.

MPs from a range of parties also unite on the All-Party Pro-Life Group (APPG). It receives monthly funding from Care, which also (according the most recent register) provides interns for Burrowes and other five other MPs: Sharon Hodgson, Fiona Bruce, Andrew Selous, Gavin Shuker and Gary Streeter.

Beyond parliament, a energetic lobby on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and others exists in the form of groups such as the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) and Lawyers Christian Fellowship (LCF).

The latter backed high-profile legal actions taken by Christians such as Lydia Playfoot, the teenager who (unsuccessfully) took a case to the high court alleging that she had been discriminated against when a school banned her from wearing a ring symbolising chastity, associated with the UK offshoot of the US Christian Silver Ring Thing movement. Her case was funded through donations gathered through the LCF’s sister group, Christian Concern for our Nation, whose members created Nadine Dorries’s website for her 2008 campaign to restrict abortion.

The Silver Ring Thing is also one of the groups on a new umbrella body, the Sex and Relationships Education Council, along with Lovewise, Life, Right to Life and Evaluate (an off-shoot of Care).

Nine parliamentarians attended its launch in May in parliament while the education minister, Michael Gove, sent a message saying he was looking forward to working with the group.

Gove, whose support for faith schools has already endeared him to the Christian right, reminded the launch that the Tories had ensured the Labour government “were stopped when they wanted to remove parents’ right to remove children from inappropriate lessons”.

Secularist concerns that the big society idea could lead to faith-based groups playing a direct role in provision of sex education were already heightened in April. The Tory-controlled Richmond council awarded a contract for counselling of school-age children to the Catholic Children’s Society, which requires its counsellors to “uphold and promote the Catholic ethos of the agency”.

Another hub is the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) thinktank, founded by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and Tim Montgomerie. Although not necessarily faith-based – David Blunkett joined last year – its advisory council includes Field and a key social conservative, Philippa Stroud, who was also involved in its founding.

Formerly the CSJ’s executive director, she was appointed as a special adviser to Duncan Smith after he became secretary of state for work and pensions. She was a director at CareConfidential while her husband, David Stroud, is a leading figure in Newfrontiers, an evangelical church network that has played a key role in supporting the Christian charity’s network of crisis pregnancy centres.

Montgomerie admits to nervousness at how easily the network of politically engaged Christians could be portrayed as a conspiracy, adding relationships owe more to the “two or three degrees of separation” in politics.

“There isn’t a secret meeting where we all plot,” he adds, stressing differences between the UK Christian right and its US equivalent.

Faith-communities in the UK, for example, are at a different stage in terms of acceptance of homosexuality, he says, although opposition remains “an article of faith” to many. He emphasises the value UK Christian activists attach to causes such as social justice and international development, rather than focusing entirely on thornier “conscience” issues such as abortion. That said, he casts the “significant” Christian impact on the Tory party as “natural, organic and very real” and a product of 13 years of opposition. He counts Duncan Smith, “a very serious Catholic”, as the third most important figure in government.

Montgomerie agrees that a moderation of language and positions by Christian civil society groups has led to the point where they are in position to make the most of the opportunity presented by the big society, or “the opening up of a monopoly”.

In some ways, Care and Life exemplify this eschewing of past confrontational tactics for a more discreet approach to influencing public policy.

In other ways they do not. For example, in correspondence between Life and Anne Milton, released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act, Life used language at odds with the conciliatory public words it later used to describe its engagement with pro-choice groups on the sexual health forum.

“We are reducing the amount of abortion. Abortion providers are not. On the contrary, they promote abortion. It is obviously much in their interests to do so. And yet they receive hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money every year,” wrote Jack Scarisbrick, Life’s chairman.

A former employee at Care meanwhile insists that this “politically savvy” group relentlessly lobbies behind the scenes, drawing up lists of sympathetic MPs and briefings. It views the network of crisis pregnancy centres as being able to give it “the authority” to campaign on abortion.

“People support Care to the tune of a couple of million quid a year and there are individuals who see Care make a difference primarily in parliament. That is their big appeal.”

“Their latest tactics are a new development. The have obviously seen an opportunity in the big society.”

He adds that while the charity has visibly softened its hardline language over the years, its grassroots are still hugely suspicious of secularism.

“They look back wistfully to a bygone age when the nation was supposedly more Christian and we did have criminalisation of homosexuality, abortion was much more restricted. They do want to turn back the clock.”

The Guardian | Ben Quinn | 28th August 2011

After Berlusconi, the Vatican seeks new ways to control Italy

Silently and cautiously, the Vatican is trying to distance itself from Silvio Berlusconi. It won’t be easy. For more than 15 years, the current Italian prime minister was an inevitable partner of the Catholic church: the leader of a strong parliamentary majority, and a public defender of moral values, although his private behaviour has been, to put it fairly, a contradictory one. But now that the economic crisis is biting Italian society, the Holy See is trying to look elsewhere to find new politicians – and to show that its ties with Berlusconi are not as strong as many observers have supposed.

But why did the Vatican support, or anyway fail to oppose Berlusconi in the past? There are a number of political and historic reasons. First of all: the “Cavaliere“, as he is nicknamed, did not owe anything to the Vatican. In 1994, he won his first elections despite the Vatican and Italian bishops, who supported the Popular party. The Catholic church undervalued his strength, and then assumed that he was just a meteor on the Italian horizon. And eventually tried, with quite a controversial result, to “convert” him.

Berlusconi was about to become the new hinge of the political system, in a country emancipated from the ghosts of the cold war – and from the Vatican’s electoral influence. Secularised voters no longer felt they had to reward Christian Democrats to avoid the victory of communism. But they didn’t shift to the left: they turned right, towards Berlusconi, surprising the Italian bishops as well. They confirmed an unwritten principle: the ideological adversary of Christian Democracy was the left but the real competitor was a “silent majority” of conservative voters, now keen to express freely their true preferences.

Since then, the problem for the Vatican has been to find a new pro-church coalition at least to resist a secular transformation of the country, as happened in José Zapatero’s Spain. Berlusconi posed as a defender of Christian values. His private behaviour was definitely considered by the Holy See as a bagatelle, compared with the attitude of the left, which was viewed as a hyper-secularised adversary. True or not, this perception allowed Berlusconi to define himself as the “Christian leader” of Italy and of moderate voters. That explains why, when later scandals emerged about his alleged relations with young women and suspected prostitutes, the Vatican was surprisingly silent.

Italian bishops spoke out, using cautious words to criticise Berlusconi’s way of life. The assumption – and for some Catholic circles the alibi – was that there was and is no political alternative to his coalition. Quite true: in the last few years, the weakness of the Italian left has been the major ally to the “Cavaliere”. But now his star is burning out. In May he lost regional elections. And the economic crisis, poorly undervalued and dismissed by his government for a long time, shatters his credibility and, worse, risks to tear Italian society apart. That’s why Italian bishops are trying to distance themselves from him, although not from the centre-right majority.

They still expect a transition to a post-Berlusconi era; and a new political class due to emerge from a “Catholic civil society” of sorts. But the Cavaliere is a master of survival. Although his decline is obvious and palpable, he will fight. He knows that anyone betting on his political end, including portions of the Catholic church, has no alternative solution at hand. Berlusconi shaped not only his coalition, but the whole Italian political system.

Today’s Vatican is, if not an associate to his power network, an institution unready to offer a new model for Italy’s recovery; and, furthermore, internally split. So far the Catholic church has proved to be part of the Italian crisis. Its valuable and strong defence of national unity and its tireless calls to restore moral values don’t suffice to reverse this impression. So, the search for new political leaders is destined to expose the Catholic hierarchy to growing inner tensions. Getting rid of Berlusconi will not be easy even for the Vatican.

The Guardian | Massimo Franco | 29th August 2011

Ireland: It is the truly faithful who are aghast at the church

Bishop Philip Boyce of Raphoe sees the Catholic Church “attacked from the outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture: rocked from the inside by the sins and crimes of priests and consecrated people”.

Missing from his blame equation last week were non-criminal acts and omissions of the hierarchy and other Church authorities. These have contributed mightily to the decline of the Irish Catholic Church and to the despair of its faithful.

Bishop Boyce was speaking at Knock, Ireland’s major shrine for the traditionally devout. It is a place where the truly afflicted go for comfort. Yet Bishop Boyce seemed to equate their personal problems with those of the institutional Church that is itself largely to blame for its own current troubles.

Last week too, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dermot Clifford, tried again to distance himself from the handling of child abuse complaints in Cloyne. But mere words will not redress the harm done for decades by a hierarchy that was unable or unwilling to change its Church’s thinking and structures to meet modern needs.

Bishop Boyce did not identify those who are firing arrows at his Church. Is it the thoughtful people who want integrated education? Feminists who are exercised by the role of women? A few gay activists who disagree with the Pope on homosexuality? Lazy comedians who find easy targets in Maynooth or the Vatican?

And how does Bishop Boyce know who is godless? In fact, Irish Catholic bishops face indifference and contempt more than active secular hostility. Their Church no longer seems relevant to many, except as a barrier to reform, and their words sound hollow even to those in their dwindling congregations.

Irish people are stunned. Betrayed by leaders of Church and State, they have been left to pick up the pieces as best they can and to pay for years of arrogance, abuse and neglect. Those in power made a mockery of the political and religious principles on which this independent Irish State was founded. The consequences of that social and economic collapse will blight our future.

In the past, the Catholic Church was a source of strength in trouble, both at home and among emigrants. But the Eucharistic Congress planned for Ireland next year looks like the response of someone in denial. It simply does not connect with where most people now are.

If there is some kind of a threat to Christian values from “a secular and godless culture”, it is not this that brought the Irish Catholic Church low. Some of the sharpest critics were internal reformers and the spiritually alive, people lay and cleric who were sometimes cruelly driven out. They left the institution in the hands of men who did not get, or did not want to get, the need for radical reform.

“In some ways,” said Bishop Boyce at Knock last week, “the worse our condition, the nearer is God’s help.” Such words can bring comfort to the ill when they evidently come from Christ. But one could be forgiven for reading Bishop Boyce’s whole speech, and other utterances of his fellow bishops, as self-pitying efforts to place their institutional troubles on the same level as that of victims of illness or other eternal woes.

Knock can be a very moving place. I was there on the day in 1979 when Pope John Paul II eventually visited. Many thousands waited patiently as Bishop Eamonn Casey and Fr Micheal Cleary delayed the pontiff at Galway racecourse. The duo were (in the words of the current Galway Races website) “a terrific double act, entertaining the huge crowd” of unsuspecting young people that turned out to see the pontiff.

As RTE’s only live television commentator at Knock, I was expected to go with the flow as I found things to say to fill airtime. RTE had advised me not to refer to the apparition of Mary at Knock as “alleged” or as otherwise doubtful, and I was scolded for being “morbid” when I spoke about ill pilgrims whom I had earlier met in the basilica and who could be seen in panning shots of its interior.

Bishop Boyce proclaimed last week, “When we enter into any kind of suffering and distress, it is the Lord who allows us to experience our own weakness and inadequacy.”

Is he suggesting that God or Jesus somehow want people like those at Knock to suffer, perhaps even cause things

like cancer or the child abuse scandal in order to teach us a lesson? This sounds to some believing ears to be closer to blasphemy than to theology, yet it is a mode of absorbing criticism that is not new within the Irish hierarchy. But it was Church authorities, and not Jesus, that left Irish children and young women exposed to experience their “weakness and inadequacy”.

Those who subscribe to entirely “secular and godless” cultural values are not the most disappointed by current Church scandals, for they expected no more from the Catholic Church. It is the truly faithful who are aghast. The truly faithful include not only those who are most unquestioning and conservative. They also include some whose living faith does not fit comfortably into outmoded structures and rigid ways of thinking.

It is startling now to read what Mark in his Gospel wrote of Jesus, because Christ’s action then seems so far removed from what any Irish bishop could do at present and is a terrible reminder of what Irish bishops have failed to do: “And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whosoever shall receive one such child in my name, receives me: and whosoever shall receive me, receives not me, but him that sent me.’”

Without humble reform, without changes in the power structures of their Church, the bishops’ Eucharistic Congress next year threatens to be a pastiche of the famous Eucharistic Congress of 1932. It will be no real communion of people, not even of Catholics, but an assertion of authority dressed up in ceremony.

Penance has long been regarded as a prerequisite for communion. What the Irish Church needs before any Eucharistic Congress is a long period of penance, evidenced by real actions such as the stepping down of bishops en masse before Rome imposes a shameful reform on the Irish hierarchy.

Not all of the bishops are responsible for what happened, even if most have personally benefited from the sort of Catholic Church that we have today. But such a sign of repentance would at least indicate that they had begun to grasp the gravity of their collective failures. And it would be an admission that all of the secular arrows in the world cannot hurt Christians as much as their own sins do.

Irish Independent | Coulm Kenny | 28th August 2011

UK: Government to start its attack on abortion rights

The Department of Health is to announce plans for a new system of independent counselling for women before they finally commit to terminating a pregnancy. The move is designed to give women more “breathing space”.

Pro-life campaigners suggest the change could result in up to 60,000 fewer abortions each year in Britain. Last year, 202,400 were carried out.

The plan would introduce a mandatory obligation on abortion clinics to offer women access to independent counselling, to be run on separate premises by a group which does not itself carry out abortions.

Critics of abortion clinics claim that the counselling they offer is biased because they are run as businesses — a claim denied by the clinics.

But abortion charities said they feared the proposals would prolong the period before an abortion took place, and that the motive was simply to reduce the number of terminations and was not in the best interests of women.

The proposed change comes ahead of a Commons vote, due to take place next week, on amendments to a public health Bill put forward by Nadine Dorries, a backbench Conservative MP.

The amendments would prevent private organisations which carry out terminations — such as Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) — from offering pre-abortion counselling. Women would instead be offered free access to independent counsellors.

The vote would be the first on the laws around abortion since the Coalition took power. A previous attempt to change the law — to reduce the time limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks — was defeated in a free vote in 2008. Ministers appear keen to avoid another such vote. They believe that announcing the consultation on independent counselling will prevent it going ahead.

The plan does not mean pre-abortion counselling will be mandatory — something which is vehemently opposed by pro-choice groups and which has been a flashpoint in parts of the United States.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “We are currently developing proposals to introduce independent counselling for women seeking abortion. These proposals are focused on improving women’s health and wellbeing. Final decisions on who should provide this counselling have not yet been made.”

Proposals under discussion would involve withdrawing payments made by the taxpayer to abortion clinics for counselling women.

Mrs Dorries, a former nurse, claims abortion providers are not independent because they have a vested interest in conducting abortions. Last year, Marie Stopes and Bpas carried out about 100,000 terminations and were paid about £60?million to do so, mostly through the NHS.

Mrs Dorries said she had hoped that her proposed amendments to the health Bill would prompt the Government into taking the kind of action which it has now done.

Frank Field, a Labour MP, said: “I’m anxious that taxpayers’ money is used so that people can have a choice — we are paying for independent counselling and that’s what should be provided.”

Ann Furedi, the chief executive of Bpas, said if her organisation was prevented from advising women about terminations it could be impossible to gain informed consent, as the independent counselling was not compulsory.

The Telegraph | Robert Mendick | 27 Aug 2011

Austria: Protestant Church Said Eichmann Was Kind-Hearted

Records Reveal Warm Words for Holocaust Organizer

Protestant church officials in Austria and Germany lobbied the West German government to try to help Adolf Eichmann, one of the main organizers of the Holocaust, after his arrest by Israeli agents in 1960. One church leader described Eichmann as “fundamentally decent” and “kind-hearted.”

The German Protestant Church put in a good word for Adolf Eichmann, the chief logistics organizer of the Holocaust, after his arrest in Argentina by Israeli agents in 1960, SPIEGEL has learned.

The Superintendent of the Protestant Church for Upper Austria, Wilhelm Mensing-Braun, based in the Austrian city of Linz were Eichmann was born, wrote a letter to the foreign affairs department of the Evangelical Church in Germany in Frankfurt claiming that the mass murderer “had a fundamentally decent disposition,” was “kind-hearted,” and was characterized by “great helpfulness.”

At that time, Eichmann was about to be put on trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity.

Braun went on that he could not imagine that the former SS officer “would ever have been capable of cruelty or criminal acts.”

Eichmann’s family had enlisted Mensing-Braun’s help because they wanted Eichmann to be tried by an international court rather than an Israeli one.

Lobbying for Eichmann

Bishop Hermann Kunst, the representative of the Evangelical Church at the West German government, passed the letter on to the German foreign ministry with the note that the assessment was “at least interesting.”

That means that not only an Austrian church official, but a German one as well, effectively lobbied the German government on behalf of Eichmann.

The intervention didn’t work. Eichmann was sentenced to death in 1962 and hanged.

Before his arrest, Eichmann had been the most notorious of the Nazi war criminals still at large after World War II. He had been in charge of coordinating the deportation of Jews from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe to the concentration camps, which made him directly responsible for the murder of six million Jews.

SPIEGEL | 22nd August 2011

Ireland: Church is losing the battle to rehabilitate itself

THROUGHOUT its considerable history, many attempts have been made to challenge or dilute the power of the Catholic Church.

None have inflicted as much mayhem as the behaviour of the church itself.

In the flurry of scandals engulfing this institution in Ireland, it has been the hierarchy’s reaction to clerical sex abuse rather than the crimes themselves which have caused most havoc.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin clearly realises that. But amid the upper echelons of the church he represents, this upright and isolated man is a lone voice in the wilderness.

Meanwhile, with their scattergun public statements, often clumsily worded, senior clergyman after senior clergyman demonstrates persistent and perhaps even wilful blindness about the extent of the problem. Hardly surprising, then, that they seem incapable of offering leadership.

One after another they trot out declarations which probably do more harm than good. The latest is the Bishop of Raphoe, who has referred to the arrows of a secular and godless culture attacking the Catholic Church.

What slow learners these people are. How embedded is their sense of entitlement. Bishop Philip Boyce appears not to understand — any more than many of his fellows do — how their arrow wounds are self-inflicted. The authority of the Catholic Church is undermined because the hierarchy’s arrogance and narrow self-interest have been revealed. Not because of godlessness.

Decent Catholic priests on the ground, horrified at the destruction wreaked by their inept leaders, do grasp the extent of the harm. They are, after all, at the coal face. Though slow to act initially, some have formed themselves into an Association of Catholic Priests and to their credit make sensible suggestions, such as enhancing the role of the laity.

The association’s response to Bishop John Magee’s belated statement this week, almost six weeks after the release of the Cloyne Report, is uncompromising. It calls his remarks “inadequate” and questions whether “like many other senior clerics” he fully understands the extent of the problem. The association also suggests something more is needed to convince people of the Catholic Church’s sincerity.

That shows a better grasp of the facts than a Donegal bishop grumbling about secularisation. It recognises that the general public is far from persuaded about the Catholic Church’s bona fides — perhaps because it turns to lawyers first, and only drip-feeds admissions when there is no choice but to ‘fess up’.

Bishop Magee looked coached for that interview with RTE’s Paschal Sheehy. While he said the right things, his procrastination casts doubt on the good faith underpinning them. Apologies are most credible when immediate. By dilly-dallying he damaged himself and the church he represents.

Even after a flurry of scandals, the Catholic Church remains a sophisticated institution with influence and broad appeal, as we saw with the Pope’s visits to Britain and Spain. Yet it operates no discernible cohesive approach to addressing its scandal-ridden status.

Instead, delay, denial and disarray are its modus operandi. It is baffling for the faithful to witness priests and bishops pulling in different directions. It is confusing for them to be on the receiving end of a patchwork quilt of personal views from high-ranking officials, rather than a coherent communication policy.

Is reform on the cards? Hard to say, when bishops concentrate on arguing with critics rather than implementing a strategy to deal with their own shortcomings.

Complaints need to be taken on board and addressed. But in the Catholic Church’s universe, criticism — even valid or constructive — is not well received. There is a distinct ‘shoot the messenger’ response — it makes a change from excommunication, the weapon of preference in previous centuries.

Attacks are increasing, not because society is more irreligious but because the Catholic Church continues with inaction or evasive action. It has lawyers to burn but is light on crisis management.

Signs of Christianity or fellow-feeling for victims are thin on the ground, too.

Condemnation does not spring entirely from anti-Catholic rhetoric, as some apologists insist. A number of observers are simply expressing the view that the law should apply equally to everyone, and be observed by everyone, irrespective of whether they wear a clerical collar or not.

That’s actually what the Catholic Church in Ireland has been missing. A groundswell of honourable members criticising from within, as Enda Kenny did so eloquently recently. Too many remain silent. They hope it is enough to do their personal best and make their individual contributions, and that this allows them to look away from the abuses. It is not enough. They prop up a flawed organisation. They legitimise it and provide it with some semblance of credibility. They give it no reason to change.

While that situation continues, ‘mea not really culpa’ apologies such as Bishop Magee’s will continue to undercut the Catholic Church. As personal secretary to three popes, he was an experienced administrator — his lapse at Cloyne is indefensible. The best to be said about him is he was oddly incompetent; the worst is that he was careless about child protection and up for his church.

The personal views of bishops, emerging piecemeal, reflect an inability to accept how their behaviour contributes to the present crisis within the Catholic Church. On the contrary, they feel unjustly frogmarched into the firing line.

Hardworking priests, regrettably tainted by association both with abuse and concealment, have always relied on the support of the people. But that backing has been weakened by the hierarchy’s attitude. They are ill-served by their leaders.

Perhaps the upper echelons regard transparency and reform as irrelevant, and consider prayer — and better still, blind obedience — to be the answer. I say there is no substitute for self help. But I see precious little evidence of it in the church.

One way forward would be women priests, another is optional celibacy. Don’t hold your breath, though. Reform is not a swear word — there is no 11th commandment preventing it. But someone forgot to tell senior Catholic churchmen.

Irish Independent | Martina Devlin | 25th August 2011

Norway: secularists should make themselves heard in the European political debate

Sophie in ‘t Veld received the International Humanist Award in the Norwegian capital Oslo during the World Humanist Congress

Dear fellow Humanists,

First of all I would like to extend my condolences to those who lost their loved ones during the terrible events that took place here in Oslo three weeks ago. I would also like to congratulate the Norwegian people and their Prime Minister Stoltenberg on their very wise and balanced response and for showing restraint. It is a good example of how to restore calm and to de-escalate. They show the world that the best response to the enemies of tolerance, openness and human rights, is more tolerance, openness and human rights.

Now I will turn to today’s theme. What role does the European Union play in conflict prevention in the world, and what place do humanist values have in Europe’s external policies?

I would first like to underline that, unlike the UN, in the previous presentation the European Union is not an international organisation, but a political entity.

Europe has always been praised for using its “soft power” in the world. Today I would like to have a look at how Europe does that and how effective it is.

Maybe I will start with a few recent quotes by the leaders of the European Union institutions, at the occasion of the 7th “summit” of religious leaders, hosted by Commission President Barroso, in the presence of Council President Van Rompuy, and President of the European Parliament Buzek. The participation of further four European Commissioners and a Vice President of the European Parliament gave this event unusual prominence. This year’s theme was the promotion of democratic rights and freedoms in Europe’s external policies, highly relevant for our debate today.

President Barroso said: “Our task and ambition is to promote democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights and social justice not only in Europe but also in our neighbourhood. I strongly believe these challenges cannot be met without the active contribution of the religious communities.

President Van Rompuy made reference to the Arab spring, and stated that “Values can not survive without spiritual, religious or ethical impetus”.

President Buzek said “Religious communities are of paramount importance for the social fabric in EU countries. This is also true for the dynamic changes in our neighbourhood”.

The words “humanist”, “humanism”, “secular” or “secularism” do not appear anywhere in the statements by the three leaders.

Why is this relevant? It is relevant because the ethical values underlying the EU’s external policies are crucial in determining the effectiveness of these policies. I argue that humanism and secularism should get much more prominence in EU policy making.

Despite all its shortcomings and weaknesses, today’s Europe can serve as a model of conflict prevention. The high degree of integration and interdependence between the people and the nations of Europe are a very powerful tool for preventing violent conflict. Although initially European integration was mainly economic in nature, the ideals behind the project may – in hindsight – be typified as humanist. From the start, the aim of European integration was to create a space where people were free and safe from conflict, and where individual rights and freedoms, and equality for all were guaranteed by the state. The period after the biggest violent conflict in the history of mankind, World War II, saw the creation of several instruments for the protection of individual human rights. As a result, nowhere else in the world does the individual enjoy the same level of freedom to live according to his own wishes and views, to express and develop himself, to make his own personal choices without interference of the state or religious authorities. This focus on the self determination of individual human beings and their rights and freedoms corresponds perfectly with the humanist ideals.

Giving such importance to the well being of the individual reduces the potential for conflict between groups. This is revolutionary for a continent that for centuries was marked by war between religions and nations, oppression and discrimination of minority groups, nationalist, religious, political and racist violence. Conflict only ended when we organised society as a community of citizens with individual equal rights, not as a tribal society, based on privileges and dominance of groups.

But does our own experience mean we apply those same principles in our external policies?

Conflict prevention outside the EU is a strand of Europe’s wider Foreign and Security Policy. Different aspects of conflict prevention are run by different EU agencies and departments in the area of foreign and security policies, development aid, trade, and other areas.  They tackle widely differing conflict situations, such as conflicts between nations, civil war between different population groups or rebellion against the regime.

It is important to remember that the European Union actually has few exclusive powers in most of these areas. Foreign Policy and development aid are still largely the monopoly of the Member States. A European External Action Service (Eurospeak for Foreign Affairs department) has been set up, but so far it is not very effective. Europe cannot really speak with one voice in external policies, as decisions have to be taken with unanimity, and each of the 27 Member States can block a decision with a veto.

The website of the European External Action Services says the following about conflict prevention:

The EU has strengthened its capacity to deal with tensions and insecurity, in order to prevent the outbreak or re-occurrence of violence. It employs development co-operation and external assistance, trade policy instruments, social and environmental policies, diplomatic instruments and political dialogue, co-operation with international partners and NGOs.

It addresses the root-causes of violent conflict, like poverty, degradation, exploitation and unequal distribution and access to land and natural resources, weak governance, human rights abuses and gender inequality. The EU emphasizes the strengthening of the rule of law, and democratic institutions, the development of civil society and the reform of the security sector.

In post-conflict situations, peace-building initiatives are essential for ensuring lasting peace. The Commission is every day more engaged in rehabilitation activities, de-mobilization, disarmament and reintegration programmes.

Conflict prevention is a package made up of a wide range of policies. We cannot cover everything today. As the previous presentation showed, issues like access to water and energy are key issues, as is trade and agriculture. But today I will leave those aside. Let us have a look at a few randomly chosen examples of policies that are relevant to our debate, to demonstrate how the ethical basis of Europe’s policies has an impact on the results.

One of the important aims is reducing poverty, and supporting economic development. The Millennium Development Goals are a key instrument in reducing poverty. It is telling that MDG5, Maternal health is the MDG that is most behind schedule of all MDGs. There is a direct link with ethical views here. Views on sexual and reproductive health rights and on women’s rights are in most cases determined by religious doctrine, instead of what is best for those women. Women in the countries concerned are rarely allowed any sexual and reproductive autonomy. They are not seen as individuals with the freedom to make their own choices, but they are subject to the rules and traditions of the community. Women have no control over their own bodies, they cannot freely do their own family planning, they cannot chose their own partners, or whether and when to have children, and how many. As a result, millions of women around the world suffer from debilitating diseases and injuries relating to pregnancy and giving birth. Today still, worldwide 360.000 women die in childbirth each year, almost exclusively in developing countries. That is approximately one woman dying in childbirth each minute and a half. These deaths are entirely preventable, as are most of the health problems relating to sexuality, pregnancy and giving birth. This disgraceful waste of human lives and health is an unacceptable destruction of human potential. A country needs a healthy, fit work force for economic development. Equal rights for women, and empowering women, is not only a moral imperative, but it is essential for achieving the goal of poverty reduction.

This means that in addition to providing funds and health services for women, EU policies must also explicitly promote an approach based on individual rights and freedoms, and self determination, much like the humanist principles. So far EU policies have been fairly sensible, but there have been consistent calls from the increasingly self-confident European “Moral Majority”, to introduce an EU “Global gag rule”, withholding funding from NGOs whose activities include promoting or practicing abortion. This disastrous US policy was fortunately rescinded by the Obama administration. But both in Europe and the US there is still a very vocal and well organized minority advocating sexual and reproductive health policies based on very conservative religious doctrine, even if this is demonstrably counterproductive. (I vividly remember a heated debate in the European Parliament on an amendment of mine, condemning the Pope’s ban on condoms in Africa).

Another important strand of conflict prevention strategies is the promotion and protection of human rights. I would like to look in particular at freedom of religion.

Europe attaches great importance to this. The European External Action Service has appointed a special official for freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is one of the key freedoms: the freedom of every person to hold their own thoughts and beliefs is a corner stone of any democratic society. Like other fundamental rights,freedom of religion is an individual right. However, in practice it is often interpreted as a collective right of a religious group to get certain exceptions and exemptions from the law.  People are defined as member of a (religious) group, not as an individual citizen of the state. The whole concept of the UN “Alliance of Civilizations” is based on this notion, as is the EU “Intercultural dialogue”. Society is organized as a permanent trade off of collective interests and privileges, rather than a community of individual citizens and their individual rights, protected by state institutions. But in a society built on collective, rather than individual interests, there is greater potential for conflict between groups.

Defending and promoting freedom of religion in EU external policies, most often is about protecting religious minorities against persecution, rather than promoting humanist or secular values. Protection of minorities is certainly essential, let there be no mistake. But the focus should be first and foremost on promoting a secular democracy, based on individual citizens’ rights, as the best guarantee for freedom of religion (as well as freedom fromreligion) for all.

Of course there are practical obstacles to this. Interreligious tensions may be the source of conflict, and therefore the key to conflict resolution lies with religious leaders who are the only interlocutors available. However, as the experience of European integration shows, the humanist idea of individual freedoms, as well as secular state institutions that treat all citizens equally, is a precondition for peace and stability.

The special official on freedom of religion within the European External Action Service is a welcome initiative, but more must be done. I very much support the proposals of a colleague of mine (Dutch Socialist Dennis de Jong) fellow vice chair of the Platform for Secularism in the European Parliament and doing a lot of work on the issue of freedom of religion in EU external policies, who calls for specific guidelines and reporting obligations of the External Action Service on freedom of Religion. I fully agree with him that the issue of freedom of religion must be an explicit element of the external policies agenda. Obviously that would mean freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.

EU human rights instruments foresee funding for grass roots organizations and local NGOs. Strengthening civil society is of course essential for a healthy democracy. However, how will we make sure that EU support also benefits secular and humanist groups? How do we make sure that funding and support also benefits organizations that do not defend particular interests or promote religious privilege? We have to make sure that EU support will benefit the promotion of the idea of state institutions that protect the rights of all individual citizens.

This question is particularly topical with regard to the EU strategy on the Arab Spring (to the extent there is a strategy). Of course the situation varies widely across the region, and in several cases conflict is raging already, and we are well past the phase of conflict prevention. In other cases we are strictly speaking in the post-conflict phase, and all efforts are aiming to establish democracy and boost economic development. But this does not differ fundamentally from conflict prevention: the aim is still to prevent tensions and violence, and the instruments used are the same as well.

The reaction of Europe to the Arab Spring is like that of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car that is approaching at high speed. The rabbit seems paralysed, unsure what move to make.

Europe does not have much of a strategy. That is remarkable, given that it concerns our neighbouring countries, and we have every interest in stability and economic development in the region. Whatever actions we take seem to be driven mainly by fear, not by a sense of opportunity and hope. We approach the whole situation in terms of security, and treat it like an immigration issue. It is striking to hear people speak of the “crisis” in the region. Crisis? Since when is it a crisis when people rise up and claim democracy, freedom and economic development? That is no crisis, the decades of dictatorship – supported by our countries! -  that preceded the uprising were the real crisis!

One of the main fears of Europeans is that the Arab Spring will bring Muslim fundamentalists to power. But we should not be on the defensive. We can offer a good alternative model of society. The best protection against fundamentalists is promoting democracy, freedom and fundamental rights. The best safeguard against oppression of minorities by a dominant majority, and against tensions between these groups, is promoting a model based on individual rights and freedoms, and equality of all citizens. Therefore EU should not be favouring one group or the other, but it should be favouring democratic principles for all.

In this regard it is essential that the EU insists particularly on gender equality in the new democracies. Without full participation of all citizens, men and women, a democracy is not complete. Strengthening the position of women in society is not a luxury extra, it is fundamental. It is part and parcel of democracy and good governance.

At this point I would like to react to some of yesterday’s speakers, who stated that we should not seek to “impose” our “western values”. They considered that some sort of ethical imperialism. I disagree. First of all we do not seek to impose anything, but we do actively promote our values. And then: if we do not stand up for the values we believe in, then what dowe stand up for?!

An important question to conclude this introduction with is: who shapes EU external policiesthat are relevant for conflict prevention? Who influences the decision making process in Brussels? How do we ensure EU policies adequately reflect humanist and secularist views?

I note with some concern that conservative religious lobbies are strengthening their presence and growing more influential within the EU institutions, like a European version of the “Moral Majority” in the US. This is partly a consequence of the fact that the European Union is moving into policy areas where ethical aspects and values play a key role, and religious lobbies quickly responded to the changing agenda. For decades, European integration concerned mainly technical issues with little ethical dimension, such as coal and steel, or agriculture policies. But today the European Union makes policies on issues like asylum and immigration, fundamental rights, security or scientific research, where ethical questions do play a role.

In addition to the changing EU agenda, another reason is that the current leaders of the three main EU institutions, Barroso, Van Rompuy and Buzek, all have strong interest in establishing close working relations with church leaders, and much less with secular groups and even liberal strands of religion. All three have officials in their private offices for contacts with religions and non-confessional organisations, with a clear focus on contacts with churches. The European Parliament has charged one of its fifteen vice-presidents with the same portfolio. However, that particular vice-president is no supporter of separation of church and state, to put it mildly.

Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty provides a basis for a regular dialogue with churches and non-confessional organisations, but in practice secular voices are not treated on an equal footing with conservative religious organisations, even if the former represent a majority of Europeans. The Article 17 Dialogue only provides for organised life stances to be represented, thereby excluding all those millions of individual Europeans who are humanist or secularist, but not a registered member of an association.

Amidst the growing conservative religious presence, we have to step up efforts to ensure a much stronger humanist and secularist involvement with EU policy making. As I set out at the start of my speech, I believe the European model of peace, democracy and freedom is in essence based on humanist principles. Our notion of a state as a community of individuals with equal rights is the only guarantee for lasting stability and peace.

Of course the most important contribution to peace and freedom is for Europe to lead by example. We can only credibly tell other countries to respect fundamental rights of each citizen, if we do so in Europe. But I fear Europe’s moral authority has jaded a bit in this respect. We tell countries in North Africa to create secular democracies and protect fundamental rights for all. But at the same time, in many European countries we witness the erosion of fundamental rights and equality, as conservative Christian forces tighten their grip on politics at the expense of more liberal, humanist, secular forces. Oppression and discrimination of women, institutionalised homophobia, sexual and reproductive health and rights threatened, discrimination of religious minorities, freedom of speech restricted by new blasphemy laws, scientific research banned by law, the media gagged by a religious majority: surely this is not the model we would want countries outside the EU to follow?

This continent has had more tribal and sectarian conflict and violence than any other part of the world. But we have also learned how to make peace and avoid conflict for the future. Humanist values are key to peace and stability.

It is therefore urgent and imperative that humanists and secularists get organised and make themselves heard in the European political debate. Other forces are well organised, and not reticent to make their voice heard and to actively seek political power and influence. It is time we became less timid as humanists. It is time for more assertive, more “militant” humanism. It is crucial not only for our own European citizens, but for the effectiveness of Europe’s soft power in the world.

Thank you.

Sophie in ‘t Veld | Oslo, 13th August 2011

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