Monthly Archives: October 2012

UK: Sharia courts about as “consensual as rape”, Lords told

One study estimated that there are around 85 Sharia bodies operating in Britain Photo: Paul Grover

Rulings by informal religious “councils” and tribunals are sometimes no more “consensual” than rape, peers were told.
The warnings came in the first ever full Parliamentary debate on the subject in the UK.
Baroness Cox, the independent peer and Third World campaigner, last year tabled a private member’s bill in the Lords setting out plans to rein in a network of unofficial self-styled “courts” which apply Islamic principles.
One study estimated that there are around 85 Sharia bodies operating in Britain, although there is no official estimate.
They include legally recognised arbitration tribunals, set up primarily to resolve financial disputes using Islamic legal principles but which have taken on a wider range of cases.
There is also a network of informal Sharia “councils”, often operating out of mosques, dealing with religious divorces and even child custody matters in line with Islamic teaching.
The bill, which had its first full debate yesterday, would make it a criminal offence for such bodies to style themselves as courts or those chairing them to pose as judges.
It would also limit the activities of arbitration tribunals and explicitly require them to uphold equality laws including women’s rights.
Baroness Cox told the House of cases she had encountered including a woman who had been admitted to hospital by her violent husband who had left her for another woman but still denied her a religious divorce so she could remarry.
Another woman was forced to travel to Jordan to seek permission to remarry from a seven-year-old boy whom she had never met because she had no other male relatives, she said.
A third who came to see her was so scared of being seen going in that she hid behind a tree whole another told her: “I feel betrayed by Britain, I came to this country to get away from all this but the situation is worse here than in my country of origin.”
Baroness Cox said: “These examples are just the tip of an iceberg as many women live in fear, so intimidated by family and community that they dare not speak out or ask for help.”
Meanwhile Baroness Donaghy added: “The definition of mutuality is sometimes being stretched to such limits that a women is said to consent to a process when in practice, because of a language barrier, huge cultural or family pressure, ignorance of the law, a misplaced faith in the system or a threat of complete isolation, that mutuality is as consensual as rape.”
Lord Carlile, the legal expert, was among those backing the bill but the Bishop of Manchester urged caution arguing that it could end up “stigmatising those individuals in communities it is aiming to help”.
And Baroness Uddin, the first female Muslim peer, said it would be viewed as “another assault on Muslims”.
Lord Kalms, the businessman, claimed that self-styled Sharia courts had already reached far beyond mediation to areas such as criminal law.
“To my knowledge, none of these cases has ever received police attention or investigation, and this is a scandal for which the police, among other authorities, must be held responsible,” he said.

The Telegraph | John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor | 20th October 2012

Vatican: Pope says Russian church was right to get Pussy Riot jailed

The members of Pussy Riot were jailed for their protest

The Pope has backed the Russian Orthodox Church’s tough stance against the punk band Pussy Riot who were controversially jailed for two years after staging an anti-Vladimir Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral, it was reported last night.

Notice of the Pontiff’s support appeared on the website of Patriarch Kirill – the leader of the Russian Church – following a meeting yesterday at the Vatican between Pope Benedict and the Patriarch’s external affairs representative.

“Pope Benedict XVI expressed his solidarity with the position of the Russian Orthodox Church and his surprise with respect to the reaction of some of the media on these events,” said the press notice.

Patriarch Kirill has accused the three female members of the punk group of blasphemy after their expletive-laden performance in February.

The women said they were protesting against the Patriarch’s support for Mr Putin, who was elected for a third term as president two weeks later.

All three members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, who has since been freed, were convicted of hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred.

Despite the international outrage at their treatment and reports in Italy last night of the Pontiff’s sympathy with the musicians’ accusers rather than the young women, the Holy See appeared unconcerned.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told The Independent: “I have nothing to say. This was reported on the site of the Russian Patriarch and it was about a meeting I was not privy to. I have no intention of disturbing the Pope to ask him about it.”

The Independent | 18th October 2012

UK: Gay marriage ‘Nazis’ and the disgrace of Lord Carey

Lord Carey has asked us to "remember the Jews in Nazi Germany," while claiming persecution in the debate over marriage equality. Let's also remember what happened to gay people.

(Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence and murder)

Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, doesn’t like being called a bigot by supporters of gay marriage like Nick Clegg: “Remember the Jews in Nazi Germany,” he told a Conservative rally, “What started against them was when they were called names. And that was the first stage towards that totalitarian state. We have to resist them. We treasure democracy. We treasure our Christian inheritance and we want to debate this in a fair way.”

I’d like to remember the gay people in Nazi Germany as well. The Gestapo compiled long lists of them, and the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion was set up to deal with the ‘threat’ they posed to the Aryan homeland and identity. Many were forced into sexual conformity, with hundreds ‘treated’ by castration. Up to 15,000 ended up in concentration camps, subjected to a regime of extermination by labour. There they were distinguished from the other prisoners using pink triangles or other badges, marking them out for particularly brutal treatment. Some were used for target practice, others subjected to medical experiments such as those of Dr. Carl Vaernet, who surgically implanted artificial glands into prisoners in an attempt to convert them.

The late Pierre Seel described his own experiences in the film Paragraph 175. Upon arrest by the local police (63 mins), the seventeen-year-old was tortured and raped with wooden sticks: “Outraged by our resistance, the SS began pulling out the fingernails of some of the prisoners. In their fury they broke the rulers we were kneeling on and used them to rape us. Our bowels were punctured. Blood spurted everywhere. My ears still ring with the shrieks of our pain.” What happened later was far more brutal.

Seel endured six months of forced labour at a concentration camp at Schirmeck, until one day, “the loudspeakers order us to report immediately to the roll-call. Shouts and yells urged us to get there without delay. Surrounded by SS men, we had to form a square and stand at attention, as we did for the morning roll call. The commandant appeared with his entire general staff.”

They were to witness an execution. With horror, Seel recognised the victim as his ‘loving friend’, an eighteen-year-old boy named Jo. “I froze in terror. I had prayed that he would escape their lists, their roundups, their humiliations. And there he was before my powerless eyes, which filled with tears.” Noisy music was played over the loudspeakers, as SS officers stripped him naked, placing a tin bucket over his head. Then they set the dogs on him, vicious German Shepherds. Fixed rigid with shock, Seel watched as “the guard dogs first bit into his groin and thighs, then devoured him right in front of us. His shrieks of pain were distorted and amplified by the pail in which his head was trapped.”

After the war, gay people could not easily speak out about their place in the Holocaust; homosexuality remained illegal across Europe, and homophobia widespread. It took almost forty years for governments to acknowledge the horrors inflicted on them. When Seel did eventually speak, in the early 1980s, he was encouraged to do so by, of all things, “the outpourings of the Bishop of Strasbourg against sick homosexuals.” Even after going public, he was subjected to death threats and beatings.

I have no words powerful enough to describe the disgrace, the ignorance, the self-absorbed vileness of a man who believes that being called a bigot by Nick Clegg is even remotely comparable to the experiences of men like Pierre Seel, or thousands of others who were slaughtered by the Nazi regime. And that was far from the worst of his idiotic comments.

“Same-sex relationships are not the same as heterosexual relationships and should not be put on the same level,” Carey wailed. Tell that to the man who watched his young lover being torn apart by dogs: “Since then I sometimes wake up howling in the middle of the night,” he recalled in 1995. “For fifty years now that scene has kept ceaselessly passing and re-passing though my mind.”

But perhaps Carey’s most disturbing remark was that eerily familiar question he posed: “Why does it feel to us that our cultural homeland and identity is being plundered?” The answer, Lord Carey, is that it is not your homeland, it is our homeland; and homosexuals are just as much a part of our identity as anyone else. The day we allow bigots to deny that, or to suggest that the emotions felt by certain people are somehow not on the ‘same level’ as other human beings, is the day we start heading back down a dark and dangerous path.

@mjrobbins

The Guardian | Martin Robbins | 9th October 2012

UN Human Rights Commissioner says abortion laws should not be pushed back

The UN’s human-rights commissioner has argued that governments have a responsibility to prevent “retrogressive measures” regarding abortion—in other words, efforts to restrict legal abortion in countries where the practice is legal.

Navanethem Pillay called for changes in all laws that restrict full access to “sexual and reproductive health services,” and urged governments to resist any pressure to allow any new restrictions. The UN official also said that governments should ensure that pro-life activists do not stop women from procuring abortions, saying that states must “protect against interference with sexual and reproductive health rights by third parties.”

Catholic Culture | 4th October 2012

UN accepts IHEU recommendation on preventable maternal mortality

Humanists at the UN have stressed the role of contraception in not only enabling family planning and lowering the rate of sexually transmitted infections, but also in reducing the number of women dying in childbirth or during pregnancy.

The UN Human Rights Council has now adopted our recommendations, encouraging access to health services which stand to save 100,000 lives per year.

On 27 September 2012, the 21st session of the UN Human Rights Council adopted without a vote a resolution on preventable maternal mortality which called on all States to:

“…renew their political commitment to eliminate preventable maternal mortality and morbidity … including through the allocation of necessary domestic resources to health systems and the provision of the necessary information and health services addressing the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls.

The addition of the reference to sexual and reproductive health services (or family planning) comes after intensive lobbying by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) at the UN Human Rights Council. In support, IHEU cited a report published in the Lancet in July 2012 showing that in 172 countries surveyed, the use of contraception was averting 272,000 maternal deaths per year, and that by eliminating the unmet need for contraception a further 100,000 lives could be saved per year.

The resolution coincided with the publication of a joint report by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, UNFPA and WHO, on the human rights-based approach to the reduction of preventable maternal morbidity and mortality (PDF) which, in the words of UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, “brings family planning back centre stage”.

International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) President Sonja Eggerickx

IHEU President Sonja Eggerickx said, “I’m proud to say that lobbying by our IHEU delegation helped make this possible and I want to thank all in Geneva for their work on this issue. It shows that the Human Rights Council can be a place of mature debate and policy formation, and we urge Member States to listen and take action on this enlightened resolution.”

International Humanist and Ethical Union | 3rd October 2012

Greece: Austerity threatens the Orthodox Church’s lucrative arrangement with the state

A procession of Greek clergymen in Thessaloniki: "A holy bond between the Greek people and their Church". Corbis

The Greek Orthodox Church has managed to cling onto many of its economic privileges, despite austerity stinging nearly all other parts of the country’s society. But after numerous scandals have revealed corruption and embezzlement in the Church, more Greeks appear to be demanding sacrifice.

His Eminence, Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki, 78, owes the government back-taxes. A two-page letter from the finance ministry rests on his desk, next to a stack of religious texts and images of saints, informing him that he has €1,350 ($1,740) to pay. And, incidentally, his monthly net income will be cut from €2,200 to €1,930.

 

The bishop is one of the most conservative spiritual leaders in Greece, notorious for his verbal attacks on Muslims, leftists and gays. He feels threatened by creditors who are preying upon his country; illegal immigrants, whom no one can control anymore; and by those who are picking a fight with his church — intellectuals arguing that the clergy, too, can afford to make some sacrifices amid the crisis.”We’ve been doing that for a long time,” Athimos says.

For years, many Greeks have been resentful of the fact that the powerful Orthodox Church paid very little in taxes up until 2010. It receives considerable subsidies from the European Union, in addition to support from the Greek government. Salaries for priests and bishops cost taxpayers about €230 million per year. It wasn’t until a few months ago that the government started trying to whittle that number down.

Opaque Assets

The many tax benefits the Church receives have not yet been totally dismantled, though. Unleased estates are still tax-free. And only since 2010 has there been a tax on income made from real estate. Before that, the Church was allowed to make considerable money off its numerous properties without paying a thing.

The Orthodox Church is said to be the second-largest property owner in Greece, although it is not known exactly how much land it actually holds. The country has no comprehensive land register. Experts estimate the holdings at more than 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) of forest and arable land, in addition to real estate in every large Greek city.

Leftist member of parliament Grigorios Psarianos sees the real problem as the lack of a separation between church and state.

“In no other European country are the two so interconnected,” he says. “Many politicians are dependent on the blessing of the clergy, and many priests insert themselves into politics.”

History offers an insight into why that is. For centuries the Church was the guardian of the Greek identity, language and religion, particularly when the country was occupied by the Ottomans. Many landowners back then transferred their properties to the Church.

After Greek independence, the Orthodox faith became the dominant religion, with some 97 percent of all Greeks subscribing to it today. It is ubiquitous in public life: Pictures of Mary and Jesus hang in every school and parliamentarians take their oath of office in the presence of the Athens archbishop. That’s why Psarianos sees Greece’s crisis as a crisis of the Church, as well. The institution is no less vulnerable to corruption than the rest of society, he says.

Scandals Galore

Bishop Panteleimon of Attica, for example, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2008 for embezzling some €2.5 million in church assets in the 1990s. He justified it as a reserve fund for his old age. Another bishop allegedly maintained contacts to the drug-peddling mafia.

But the most spectacular scandal must be awarded to the case of the Vatopedi cloister on Mount Athos peninsula, a self-governing state in northern Greece home to 20 Orthodox monasteries. In late 2011, the then-Abbot Ephraim was arrested for fraud and embezzlement and placed under house arrest. With the help of some dubious characters, he allegedly traded a lesser-valued Vatopedi property for much more highly-valued property owned by the state.

The deal was said to have brought the cloister some €100 million. After the scandal first broke in 2008, a government spokesman and minister resigned and the conservative government of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis was forced to call new elections (which it lost).

 

The exposé on Vatopedi was a turning point, according to Psarianos, the leftist politician. An increasing number of Greeks began to see the Church as mutually responsible for the crisis. His party, the Democratic Left, which is part of the government, wants to create more separation of Church and state — even if the larger coalition parties, the Socialists and the conservative New Democracy, don’t see that as a priority.For Bishop Athimos, Psarianos’s proposition would constitute a satanic deed.

“There is a holy bond between the Greek people and their Church,” he says. “No one should disrupt it.”

Translated from the German by Andrew Bowen

Spiegel Online | Daniel Steinvorth | 2 October 2012

UK: Pastors telling HIV-infected patients to stop medication and trust in prayer

Leaders of some West African churches in the UK are pressuring patients infected with HIV to stop taking medication and instead trust in prayer and faith healing.

The scandal has been uncovered by the charity African Health Policy Network (AHPN) in a report (pdf) that will be published later this month.

Cases where patients were told to stop taking their anti-retroviral medication have been reported in churches in London, Manchester, Leeds and across the north-west.

The AHPN, which deals with health inequalities for the African population in the UK will call on the Government to do more to prevent religious leaders from encouraging HIV patients to stop taking life-preserving drugs. The charity says that although the churches play a big role in offering support and advice to people infected with HIV, some of them put too much emphasis on faith healing which can lead to a rapid deterioration in the health – both mental and physical – of those persuaded to give up medication.

The report says: “Faith leaders and churches can play a very positive role in the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. They are often the first port of call and a source of support and hope. But in a few churches these practices exist and we want to work with faith leaders to monitor what is going on in churches around HIV…

“Whilst faith intersects positively with health as a source of spiritual guidance and hope for those living with long-term health conditions, faith and HIV can often interact negatively. Not only is the perpetuation of stigma something that must continue to be addressed by faith communities, but the issue of transactional faith ‘healing’ claims are harmful, life-threatening and should not be tolerated.”

National Secular Society | 2 October 2012

UK: Church risks harming young gay people, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has said that he expects his successor to be equally bold in his public pronouncements. Photograph: Max Nash/PA

The archbishop of Canterbury has said that making “risky and anything but infallible judgments” is a key part of the job as spiritual head of the Church of England, and that he doubts his successor will disagree.

Three months before he is due to leave Lambeth Palace after nearly 10 years in office, Rowan Williams said that although he had certain regrets he believed the role necessitated outspoken interventions. His comments on sharia law in 2008 proved particularly controversial.

“Oh, I do regrets alright,” said Williams, after a lecture organised by the thinktank Theos. “But I just don’t think that it’ll do to be too cautious in a job like this.

“You’re here to try and say what you believe you’ve been given to say … to try and share a particular picture of what the world is like, of what God is like, which of course leads you into sometimes risky and anything but infallible judgments about particular issues of the day.”

Asked if he would be disappointed if the man taking his place on the throne of St Augustine proved less combative, he replied: “Looking at the names that have been mentioned as my successor, I don’t think any of them [the candidates] is going to have that problem, frankly. I’m very glad of that.”

His remarks came amid continuing uncertainty over the selection of his successor. Despite meeting last week for what had been scheduled to be the final time, the Crown Nominations Commission appears to be divided over which two names to pick as its first-choice and back-up candidate.

Speaking in front of a packed lecture theatre, the soon-to-be outgoing archbishop appeared more relaxed than at many previous outings, quoting Edith Piaf, critiquing the BBC reality show The Apprentice and showing a willingness to mock his uber-intellectual persona for quoting liberally from “that household name” Vladimir Lossky, a 19th century Orthodox thinker not widely known outside theological circles.

He used the comedy show Father Ted to explain his exasperation with the Occupy London protesters whose encampment outside St Paul’s cathedral caused a crisis in the Church last year and whose language, he said, was “so general as to be undemanding”. He added: “Rather like that episode in Father Ted where the priests demonstrate outside the cinema with a placard saying Down With This Sort of Thing. I just feel we’ve got to do a bit better than that.”

On the single issue which has perhaps wrought more division in the worldwide Anglican community than any other over the past decade, Williams acknowledged that if the Church was failing to get its message on homosexuality across properly it could cause “a very serious mental health impact” on young gay Christians. He said: “I think that although the Church has in recent years tried quite hard to say we are not condemning a person as such for what their sexual orientation is, and that’s a very serious commitment, nonetheless there is of course a hangover, a feeling of ‘yes, you’re condemned in your entirety for what you are, not for what you do but for what you are.’ If people are getting the message that they are condemned for what they are, of course there’s a very serious mental health impact. I hope that’s not what the Church is doing; I certainly don’t think it’s what the Church should be doing.”

Williams rejected the suggestion that he had left the Church a more divided organisation than it was at the beginning of his time at Lambeth, saying, to applause: “There is no golden age in the Church’s history, we may think ‘oh, it was relatively problem-free then’ – one of the advantages in this job of being a Church historian is that you know that is not true. When I think I have got problems, I think, well, at least it is not the fourth century, at least it is not the 17th century.”

Of his 103 predecessors, Williams said, his favourite was either St Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, or Michael Ramsey who served from 1961 until 1974. Asked if BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot should be opened to atheists, he paused, before saying: “I think the case still has to be made for an atheist presence there, in that there isn’t all that much of a shortage of opportunities for secularist and atheist people to make their point.”

The Guardian | Lizzy Davies | 2nd October 2012

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