Christians fear regime change in Syria


Mosques, churches in Damascus

The Scottish writer William Dalrymple says that Syria has been a kind of oasis for Christians in the  Middle East.  But Syrian Christians are now faced with a painful choice. They can offer support to a brutal dictatorship that, generally, has protected them but has killed 5,000 of its citizens since calls for change and demonstrations began in the spring of 2011. Or Christians can participate in the opposition, which, if it topples the regime, may bring to power a Sunni-led government that could be ultra-conservative and anti-Christian. Continue reading Christians fear regime change in Syria

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

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Canada celebrates Israel: Christian Zionism and the election

By Dennis Gruending

Stockwell DayOn day 12 of the federal election campaign Stephen Harper was in Markham, Ontario wooing immigrant voters. That same evening in Ottawa several hundred people gathered at a church called the Peace Tower on Bronson Avenue not far from Parliament Hill. There they pledged fealty to the state of Israel and praised Stephen Harper as that country’s Canadian benefactor. The event, called Canada Celebrates Israel, was one of four that occurred in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver within a few days in early April. The rallies featured three Israeli politicians who are members of the Israeli Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, as well as a cast of fundamentalist Christians from Canada. The four events received virtually no coverage in the mainstream media but an Ottawa-based student newspaper did a look-ahead piece in March. In that story one of the tour’s organizers said it was an outreach effort to Jewish and Christian communities to show support for Israel, but it certainly was not political.

Perhaps. But the Conservatives happened to be well represented. Jim Abbott brought greetings on behalf of the federal government. Abbott was the longtime Reform, Canadian Alliance and later Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia but has chosen not to run again in the 2011 election. Stockwell Day, the recently retired minister of the Treasury Board, had been billed as a guest speaker at the Ottawa event, but instead he provided a message on videotape. Day was available in person at the Canada Celebrates Israel event in Montreal on the previous evening. The Canadian Jewish News reported on it and described Day as giving “a strongly pro-Israel speech” which earned him a standing ovation. The newspaper described part of his speech as follows: “Day earned wide applause when he said Israel, as a Jewish state, has ‘an aboriginal right to exist’ and that the Hebrew scriptures, written as far back as 1,000 years BCE, provide historically accurate evidence of the Jewish presence in what is now Israel.” Continue reading Canada celebrates Israel: Christian Zionism and the election

Coptic Christians, al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower

By Dennis Gruending

Sayyid QutbEarly on the morning of January 1 Coptic Christians were leaving Saints Church in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria after celebrating midnight mass. A suicide bomber waiting outside set off explosives that killed 21 people and injured almost 100 others. The attack also led to concern in Canada as Eastern Rite Christians prepared to celebrate their Christmas on January 7. More than 100 Canadian-Arab Coptic Christians had been named and threatened on an al-Qaeda affiliated website, allegedly for “defaming” Islam and attempting to convert Muslims. Despite the threats, most churches went ahead with services, although there was talk of added security by the RCMP and private firms. Back in Alexandria, Egyptian authorities were uncertain if foreign al-Qaeda operatives had slipped into the country or if the suicide bombing was the work of homegrown Islamic extremists.

Killing enemy combatants in wars is bad enough but killing unsuspecting civilians as they worship, ride buses or subways, travel on airplanes or eat restaurant meals is unspeakable. How can anyone or any ideology – religious or secular – justify these acts? The Quran does contain numerous exhortations to violence, and the same can be said of the Old Testament. But the general thrust of both books is that killing another human being is a great crime and that killing yourself (suicide) is also a crime. The Quran says that Muslims shall not kill anyone except as a punishment for murder.
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Blair, Hitchens and the Munk debate about religion

By Dennis Gruending

update_aa.jpgThe much-anticipated Munk Centre debate in Toronto between former Prime Minister Tony Blair and writer Christopher Hitchens has come and gone. A sell out crowd of about 2600 people paid up to $500 each to sit in plush seats at Roy Thomson Hall and hear the two debate whether religion is a force for good in the world. The adversaries were civil to one another inside the hall, while out in the streets about 60 protesters braved the cold to criticize Blair’s support, while he was prime minister, of an American led invasion of Iraq. “Don’t fete him, arrest him,” one woman was quoted as saying about Blair. The event was widely covered, especially by the British media, including the BBC and The New Statesman, which also provides a full video and print transcript on its website.

“Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well,” Hitchens began. “And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea … Salvation is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties.” That got a laugh. Blair later responded, “I do not consider the leader of North Korea a religious icon.”

Blair began his presentation in a more qualified way than Hitchens. “It is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion,” he said. “It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion. Almost half the healthcare in Africa is delivered by faith-based organisations, saving millions of lives. A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organisations. There is the fantastic work of Muslims and Jewish relief organisations . . . So the proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable. It can be destructive, it can also create a deep well of compassion, and frequently does.”

Blair, of course, shocked many by converting to Catholicism in 2007, shortly after he stepped down as prime minister in Great Britain. He has created a foundation that seeks to close rifts between the world’s dominant faiths. Hitchens, an atheist, wrote a book called, God Is Not Great, in which he elaborated on why he finds religion a superstitious and destructive force.

A post-debate vote showed either that Hitchens had won, or perhaps, in the words of a British reporter for The New Statesman that “Toronto is a rather secular place.” Sixty-eight per cent opposed the resolution that religion is a force for good in the world and 32 per cent supported it. Hitchens probably had the easier task because, as the same British reporter wrote: “It is just much easier to highlight all the bad things humans have done in the name of religion – and even get some laughs – than it is to explain the good faith can do, to individual souls as well as the world.”

Tony Blair: My Political Life

By Dennis Gruending

Former British Prime Minister Tony BlairFormer British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to debate acerbic writer Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on whether religion is a force for good or evil. Blair, of course, is the former three-term Labour prime minister who stunned most everyone by converting to Roman Catholicism just after he left office in 2007. He will argue that religious faith has a major part to play in shaping the values that guide the modern world, and can and should be a force for progress. Hitchens, also British, is a former leftist who now lives in the United States and is ill with cancer. He has become a fervent supporter of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and finds himself on the lecture circuits and at dinner tables of those on the political right. He is a harsh critic of what he calls “fascism with an Islamic face” — but his scorn embraces all world religions. He published a book in 2007 called, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Continue reading Tony Blair: My Political Life

Mark Juergensmeyer on global rebellion and religion

By Dennis Gruending

Mark Juergensmeyer, Globlal RebellionThe American sociologist and professor of religious studies, Mark Juergensmeyer is known and respected for his investigations into global religion. His latest contribution is a book called Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Queda. Juergensmeyer believes that the contemporary world is experiencing what he calls a “religious rebellion” and by studying it he hopes to offer proposals that will lead to an accommodation between radical religion and the secular world.

This matters to us in Canada where we cherish our reputation as a peaceable kingdom and the vast majority of religious adherents live out their faith in peace. But there are no tranquil islands in an increasingly globalized world of ubiquitous jet travel and secured Internet chat rooms. It is in Canada that radical Sikhs built and placed the bomb on an Air India jet that exploded over the Atlantic in 1985. That ugly act killed 329 people, including 280 Canadian citizens, mostly of Indian birth or descent. It was the largest mass murder in Canadian history. Mohammad Momin Khawaja of Ottawa has been convicted of participating in a terrorist scheme being planned in Great Britain to build a remote-control device that could trigger bombs. In Brampton, Ontario 11 members of the so-called Toronto 18 have pleaded guilty and been sentenced for plotting, incompetently as it turns out, to mount attacks on Parliament, military bases and nuclear stations. We are not immune to religious extremism, much of it now based, at least in part, on the war that Canada and other Western countries have been waging for nine years in Afghanistan.

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Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk

By Dennis Gruending

truth_to_power_cover_275.jpgI return to Saskatchewan every summer to visit friends and relatives and usually I drop in at St. Peter’s Abbey near Humboldt. I attended boarding school there in the 1960s and I retain a respect and fondness for the Benedictine monks. I spent several hours on my 2008 visit with Father Andrew Britz, the former editor of the Prairie Messenger, a newspaper published by the monks since 1904. Andrew, ill with Parkinson’s disease, asked if I would work with him to compile an anthology of his best writing during a long tenure as editor between 1983 and 2004. Our collaboration has resulted in a book called Truth to Power: The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk, which has been released by Kingsley Publishing of Calgary.

The book delves into debates and issues that have raged in Canadian church and society for the past twenty-five years: birth control, abortion, euthanasia, priestly celibacy, ordination of women, the church’s treatment of homosexuals, fundamentalism, ecumenism, sexual abuse, economic injustice, environmental abuse, and militarism. Andrew was, and remains, deeply committed to his church but he was fearless in speaking truth to popes and prime ministers, capitalists and clerics. His efforts were often not appreciated by those in power, not to mention some of his more traditional readers. There were discreet and at times public complaints about him to his abbot but Andrew’s monastic community protected him and allowed him to speak courageously. He called the church to a new age in the service of humanity.
Continue reading Truth to Power — The Journalism of a Benedictine Monk