Central Europe, walks, talks and Mozart

Train station in Berlin

My wife Martha and I spent four weeks recently in Central Europe, focused on Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. We also paid brief visits to Leipzig and Dresden in Germany and to a small city called Debrecen in Hungary. We were tourists of course and can claim no specialized knowledge of these cities or of European countries, but there are certain immediate observations that one can make. Here are a few:

Public transit

The public transit is great, at least in the cities that we visited, especially Berlin but also the others. In each of these cities there are subways, surface trains and street cars. In every major city we visited we were able to use public transit to get from the airport or train station to our downtown apartment or hotel.

When we flew into Berlin we caught a bus from the airport to a stop for the U-Bahn subway. We took it to a downtown station and there we could easily have transferred to a street car to within a block of the apartment we rented. We choose instead to walk from the station. Continue reading Central Europe, walks, talks and Mozart

Vic Toews, code words on prison chaplains

Vic Toews, talking in code

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews decided recently to cancel the contracts of all 49 part-time chaplains in Canada’s federal prisons. Eighteen of those chaplains are non-Christians. Another 80 full-time chaplains remain; 79 of them are Christians. That leaves only one non-Christian chaplain, an imam, in the entire federal prison system. The public reaction, at least as expressed in the media, has been almost entirely opposed. Even the Conservative-friendly Calgary Herald was mildly negative.

Toews may (or not) care about negative public comment – he has had plenty of that in the past few years. But he has also won five federal elections in a socially and religiously conservative area of Manitoba and he knows well how to play to his political base. He also speaks in a code that they understand and he is doing that in the narrative of dissed prison chaplains. Continue reading Vic Toews, code words on prison chaplains

Canadian immigration, Hungary and thin ice

Parliament in Budapest

I spent four weeks recently in Central Europe and while in Hungary I spoke to a university audience about how Canadians view immigrants, refugees and multiculturalism. One is always on thin ice, to use a Canadian metaphor, when speaking in a country where you are a tourist and may offend sensibilities. But I believe that Canada’s experience with managing ethnic diversity might be of use to other countries.  I took as my point of departure the 1950s in rural Saskatchewan. I grew up in a farming community that had been created as part of a great human migration late in the 19th and early in the 20th century when the Canadian government settled the West with farmers. My small village was diverse for its time. There were Germans, Ukrainians, French, Hungarians and others. In fact, I discovered upon rereading our local community history book that when it was created one of the names being considered for my village was Budapest. The village was eventually called St. Benedict, to recognize a religious community of Benedictine monks that had been established nearby – but Hungarians were significant in our population. Continue reading Canadian immigration, Hungary and thin ice

Jason Kenney at CCCB plenary

Joe Gunn on Jason Kenney and CCCB

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is scheduled to speak to the annual plenary meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in October. Joe Gunn, a former director of the CCCB’s Social Affairs Commission, says the appearance of a cabinet minister at a  plenary is unprecedented in recent memory. Gunn is now the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,  an ecumenical organization that promotes justice, peace and the integrity of creation. His article appeared in the August 29 edition of the Prairie Messenger and is reproduced here with Gun’s and the paper’s permission. Continue reading Jason Kenney at CCCB plenary

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician
circa 1979

I took the photo that you see here of Nicaragua’s Father Ernesto Cardenal in the Mexican city of Puebla in February, 1979. Catholic bishops from all over Latin America were meeting there and the new pope, John Paul II, was on hand to inaugurate the gathering. I was there as a freelance reporter for Maclean’s magazine. The Vatican had already begun the process of reeling in its priests, theologians and some bishops from pronouncements that had been made at a similar meeting in Medellin, Columbia in 1968. There the bishops had promulgated a “preferential option for the poor” — not a popular thing to do in a continent where the division of wealth was scandalous and dictators sat in many of the palaces. Continue reading Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish falsely criticized

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish has some critics

I was interested to read a recent Toronto Star column by Haroon Siddiqui about the Palestinian medical doctor and peace activist Izzeldin Abuelaish. Dr. Abuelaish was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Siddiqui says that in spite of those credentials (or perhaps because of them) some Palestinians in Canada think that Abuelaish is being used by Israelis and the West in a propaganda war against Muslims, and that he is selling out. Continue reading Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish falsely criticized

Mar Musa cleric Paolo Dall’Oglio tours Canada

Frescoes at Mar Musa monastery, Syria

Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who spent decades restoring the ancient Mar Musa monastery in Syria, has taken the unusual step of touring Canada to call for action that would prevent the Assad regime from killing even more of its own people.  While in Ottawa recently, he was quoted as saying, “The international community cannot turn its back on the Syrian people, who are being tortured, jailed and killed for the simple act of demanding freedom of expression.” His tour also takes him to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York. While in Ottawa, he met with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Restoring Mar Musa

Dall’Oglio has spent most of the past 30 years at the Christian monastery of Mar Musa, which is perched high up on a cliff in the sun-baked desert hills about 80 kilometres north of Damascus. Mar Musa was built in the 6th century when Syria was at the centre of Byzantine Christianity and when monasticism was flourishing. Mar Musa gradually fell into decline and was abandoned in the 1830s.

Dall’Oglio visited in the 1980s and has since devoted himself to Mar Musa’s restoration.  With the help of the local community and foreign money, the monastery and its small 11th century church were refurbished. Mar Musa has become a centre of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims and a destination for others who arrive and stay awhile, provided they are prepared to help with cooking and cleaning.

Visiting Mar Musa

We visited Mar Musa in 2010, travelling in a small van from Damascus. Our young driver had been recommended by a friend who knew and trusted him. He pulled into a parking lot from where we would ascend hundreds of stone steps along the side of a gorge to get to the monastery. He told us that the secret police regularly wait in the same parking lot and question drivers about what their passengers had talked about on the trip out from Damascus.

After a steep climb we arrived at the high stone bench on which the monastery is built. There we ducked through a low doorway into the small, dimly-lit church with its priceless restored frescoes depicting the Last Supper and other Christian events. A priest was saying mass for a small group of French tourists so we sat quietly on the mats, participating in the ritual and looking at the frescoes.

Brutal crackdown

We did not see Dall’Oglio that day but his name has become synonymous with Mar Musa over the past 30 years. He is in anguish over the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on what began as peaceful dissent and calls for reform in Syria. The situation has now escalated into a civil war that is drawing in outside players, including the Iranians and Russians on the side of the regime, and the Americans, Saudis and Qataris on the side of the opposition. Each passing day also provides more evidence that al-Qaeda fighters have been arriving in the country to carry out jihad against a regime that they despise.

The Toronto Star reports that the Assad regime has killed at least 17,000 Syrians in 17 months, with twice that many missing — either in jails or dead. At least 125,000 refugees have escaped into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Between 2 million and 4 million Syrians are internally displaced.

Alawite minority

President Bashar al-Hassad is an Alawite, a Muslim minority group in Syria that comprises about 12% of the population and is considered heretical by the majority Sunni population. Bashar’s late father, Hafez al-Hassad, ruled with the country with ruthless determination, creating an informal coalition of religious minority groups including Christians, who comprise another 10%. More than 70% of the Syrian population is Sunni, but they are largely excluded from regime’s ranks and its patronage.

Christians in Syria

There are Christians on both sides of the current struggle. Some are represented among the opposition to the Assad regime while others support it. The New York Times has reported that their support “is often driven more by fear than fervor.” The newspaper continues: “For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in post-revolutionary Egypt.”

In anguish

Dall’Oglio is in anguish. In May 2012, he sent a letter to special UN envoy Kofi Annan calling for the deployment of 30,000 UN troops to protect Syrian civilians from harm. That got him kicked out of the country and he now lives in Beirut. His call sounds much like the “responsibility to protect” doctrine promoted by former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and others.

Dall’Oglio is critical of the Maronite Catholic church establishment in Syria, backed by the Russian Orthodox Church and some in the West. They believe that the Christian minority in Syria is better off under Assad than it is likely to be under any replacement.

That is a lie, says Dall’Oglio. He is quoted in the Toronto Star as saying, “Canada is full of Syrian Christians who escaped from there. Christians in Syria have faced one crisis after another, yet the church establishment thought Assad was protecting them.” He adds that many rank-and-file Christians have joined the struggle against the regime.

Selfish and self-serving

In any event, he says, it is selfish and self-serving for Christians to think only of themselves. “Are we only taking care of ourselves as a tribe? If we are Christians, we should be for the dignity and human rights of all the people of Syria.”

The irony, he says, is that the longer the Assad regime lasts, the greater the prospects of hard-line Islamists playing a bigger role, in the struggle, increasing the very danger that Christians are worrying about. “The things that happened in Iraq against Christians may happen in Syria as well,” he adds.

Pressure and aid

Dall’Oglio called in his meeting with John Baird for Canada to put diplomatic pressure on China and Russia, countries that continue to use their veto to block any action by the UN. He is also calling for more humanitarian aid for displaced people within Syria and for those who have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries.

Photos of Mar Musa

To see more photos of Mar Musa, please click here.

Bill McKibben on global warming catastrophe

Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone magazine
on global catastrophe

The American teacher and environmentalist Bill McKibben is one of the most convincing writers around on the topic of global warming. He has just published an article in Rolling Stone magazine in which he talks about “three numbers that add up to global catastrophe.” Let’s follow him through those numbers but a couple of preliminary points before we do.

Global warming occurs when carbon dioxide and other gases pumped into the atmosphere heat up the planet as a by-product of our burning fossil fuels. There is by now a growing and near overwhelming scientific consensus about this reality. There are to be sure those who continue to deny the science, much as some people still deny that the handling of asbestos causes cancer.  Some of them are sincere but frequently the claims are made by or on behalf of industries that profit from business as usual. Continue reading Bill McKibben on global warming catastrophe