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Wait, I thought that was a Muslim thing?!

A Christian husband and wife, both wearing traditional Jordanian head scarves, after a Mass celebrated by the Latin Patriarch near the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque. 

But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam. 

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New stories on the homepage

Two new stories to highlight on our homepage. First, in "Botched Arguments," the editors comment on political gestures and the pro-life cause, in light of a recent New Yorker article that

makes the case that desperate women will seek abortions regardless of the dangers, and that restricting access to the procedure only guarantees their further victimization. This has long been the argument for keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” If the prolife movement is going to respond to it persuasively, it will have to convince Americans that its concern for the women involved in abortion is as great as its compassion for the unborn. As Peter Steinfels wrote in these pages (“Beyond the Stalemate”), the movement needs to shift more of its energies from partisan gestures and all-or-nothing legal gambits to the tasks of persuasion and witness. Gestures like the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” will change no one’s mind—and are not intended to. Neither do they protect the unborn—and they are not expected to.

Read the whole thing here.

And, in "Secularists for Christmas!," Albert Wu discusses the rise of groups in France like Résistance Républicaine that are wielding an old notion of "secularism" (laïcité) in a new way:

[T]hese groups employ the term as a form of aggressive anti-Islamic politics. They take pride in their contempt: the Résistance Républicaine website proclaims, “Islamophobia is not a crime…. It’s legitimate defiance,” and, “I’m an Islamophobe and I’m proud.” At [a] December demonstration, marchers switched seamlessly from chanting “Hands off Christmas” to “Islamists, fascists, killers.”

It might be easy to dismiss this hyperbolic rhetoric as limited to fringe groups. A routine demonstration against unemployment and inequality earlier in December attracted four thousand (about four times as many people as the Résistance Républicaine rally drew). An antigay marriage protest in May brought out nearly a hundred fifty thousand. But defining laïcité in a way that preserves France’s Christian identity is far from a marginal idea. It is also taught to new immigrants at a “day of civic formation,” a full-day class on French law, history, culture, and “Republican values.” Attendance is mandatory for all who wish to obtain a long-stay visa. Truancy can result in the rejection of future visa applications.

Read it all here.

Homophobia

My nickname is Pat, but the Egyptians named me Mr. Bat, since Arabic has no “P” sound and they liked to pretend that they couldn’t pronounce the letter.

When I went to Cairo in 1976 to visit my high school friend Ken (known to the Egyptians as Mr. Kent), I was an uptight Catholic working class boy. Although I had grown a beard to annoy my boss at work (and to hide what I thought were my overly youthful features) and although I had long hair like everyone else in 1976, I was no hippie. I certainly wasn’t a confirmed pot or hash smoker. I was very straight-laced for the time.

I expected the Egyptians to be straight laced too. If I can put a word to what I expected, that word would be austere. Although I was aware that Egypt was a more open society than, say, Saudi Arabia, I expected it to be chaste and humorless, rather like Massachusetts in the 17th century.

This is probably why it took me about two weeks to get the first joke that was played on me. The morning after I had arrived, I noticed that Ken was still wearing a gallabiyah (a robe like outfit that most non-Westernized Egyptians wore). He usually did so in the apartment. It seemed cool in both senses of the word, and I asked him if I could borrow one. He readily agreed and he loaned me three of them for my own use. I was delighted and I put one on immediately.

What he didn’t tell me was that the three that he loaned me had belonged to his ex-girlfriend Shelley. There are subtle (to a Western eye) differences between a man’s and a woman’s gallabiyah that I didn’t see and for two weeks Ken and his friends and neighbors enjoyed the spectacle of me dressing up as Ken’s girlfriend. I now understood why I got such strange looks from the postman, the doorman, the garbage collector, and the laundry man.

 

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'In our time': Francis moves beyond Nostra Aetate

Muslim immigration to Italy. Persecution of Christians in Syria. Anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands. Anti-Christian rulings in Malaysia. Mosque burnings in the United States and church burnings in Egypt. These sad events are some of the most obvious points of contact between Catholics and Muslims in the modern world. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” makes mention of Islam and Catholic-Muslim interaction. In his familiar style, Pope Francis smartly roots his commentary on Islam in the tradition of the Church and his predecessors, while at the same time forges new theological territory.

In our time

Fifty years ago, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council published Nostra Aetate (“In our time”), which spoke in new ways about the Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions, including Islam. This document was prompted by the important events of that era, when the world was coming to grips with the reality of the Holocaust and the increased interaction between people of different faiths. In his exhortation, Francis responds to the signs of our own time—the issues and events that are salient for Catholics and Muslims today.

Francis begins his three hundred-word discussion of Islam by highlighting the phenomenon of increased Muslim immigration to Europe. No doubt aware of the challenges and prejudices faced by Muslims in Europe, Francis writes that “we Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries.” His visit to Lampedusa, an Italian island where many African immigrants make landfall, indicated his own personal concern about the plight of refugees—including non-Christians. Yet, Francis describes the situation in Europe in overly idealistic terms—saying, “they can freely worship and become fully a part of society”(252) —seeming to understate the impact of often-racist policies that keep Muslim immigrants confined to ghettos and low-paying jobs.

Francis also addresses the recent spike in persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries: “I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries!”(253) This statement is only one of many he’s made on the plight of Christians—and all those suffering—in the Middle East. 

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Malaysian Christians fight for Allah

Today an appeals court in Malaysia delivered a major setback to the religious freedom of Christians. A Catholic newspaper, the Herald, may not use the word "Allah" to refer to God.

Christians in the Western hemisphere might be confused by the headlines. The ruling is not about Christians' referring to the God worshipped by Muslims, but rather about what Christians may call the God they themselves worship. Catholics in Malaysia, as in many other countries, call God by the word "Allah."

Arabic-speaking Christians do so, as do Arabic-speaking Jews. The word sounds almost exactly like the way Aramaic-speaking Jesus would have pronounced it.

From Reuters:

The unanimous decision by three Muslim judges in Malaysia's appeals court overturned a 2009 ruling by a lower court that allowed the Malay-language version of the newspaper, The Herald, to use the word Allah -- as many Christians in Malaysia say has been the case for centuries.

"The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity," chief judge Mohamed Apandi Ali said in the ruling. "The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community." ...

Lawyers for the Catholic paper had argued that the word Allah predated Islam and had been used extensively by Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia's part of Borneo island for centuries.

They say they will appeal against Monday's decision to Malaysia's highest court.

"The nation must protect and support the rights of the minority," said Father Lawrence Andrew, the founding editor of the Herald. "God is an integral part of every religion."

Christians in Indonesia and much of the Arab world continue to use the word without opposition from Islamic authorities. Churches in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak have said they will continue to use the word regardless of the ruling.

The defendants fear that the decision will also apply to other Christian publications in Bahasa Malaysia. This could end up being the most important religious liberty story of the year, with wide-ranging implications for religious pluralism in southeast Asia. At issue are three of the minority rights at the very core of modern rights-based polities: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.

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The Church Francis wants

Mass for Pope Francis, Church of the Good Shepherd, Our Lady of Peace Center, Amman, Jordan

Last week, here in Amman, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the pope who bears his name. Parishes held large Masses, and the Franciscans friars at the well-known Catholic school Terra Sancta College performed their annual ritual commemorating the life and work of their patron. The Jordanian Catholic television channel Noursat/Telelumiere (Light TV) live-streamed Francis’s visit to Assisi and provided immediate Arabic translation of his remarks.

The most important event was a Mass in honor of the pope hosted by Apostalic Nuncio Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican’s ambassador to Jordan. Though the Mass was an elaborate affair with many non-Catholic guests, a large youth choir, posters of the pope, and a post-Mass reception, it has not yet been covered in English-language news outlets.

This post isn’t an attempt to cover the event from a journalist’s perspective. Instead, because I was in attendance as a worshipper, I hope to share some of my own reflections on the significance of the service. The Mass reflected ways in which the spirit of the two Francises is alive and well the Catholic Church in Jordan, and it illustrates what the global church can learn from the church in the Holy Land.

Nuns on a bus

Many of those in attendance at the Mass, which was held outside Amman at Our Lady of Peace Center, a Catholic-run complex that serves individuals with special needs, were nuns. Nuns from numerous orders and nationalities live in Jordan, including the Comboni Sisters who work in Amman’s Italian hospital. I met these sisters, who hail from Italy, Egypt, Syria, Poland, and Singapore, on the bus ride to the service, and I continue to see them at morning Masses at Amman’s Jesuit Center. Their humble ministry reflects two of the values promoted by Pope Francis and his namesake: simplicity and accompaniment. These sisters left their home countries to live and work among the sick of Jordan. These nuns are a reminder that the church is not just one in service of the poor, but of the poor. 

What Christian unity looks like

The Mass was not just a celebration by Catholics, but by leaders of other faiths in this religiously diverse area. Representatives from Orthodox and Coptic Churches were easily noticeable from their distinctive garb. Other Eastern leaders entered alongside dozens of Roman Catholic priests as the Mass began, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who sat beside the Catholic leaders on the altar, beneath a large icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

In his homily, Archbishop Fouad Twal, head of the Archdiocese of Jerusalem, which includes Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Cyprus, spoke about the unifying nature of Pope Francis’s papacy: “His Holiness is a source of pride for us, because during the short time of his papacy, not more than seven months, the pope has been able to seize the hearts of many people, enthrall them with his goodness and simplicity and angelic smile, whether they be Christians or non-Christians.”

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Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio reportedly alive in Syria

Great news from Syria: Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, S.J., about whom I wrote both here and here, is being reported as alive.

“Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio is alive and is being treated well by his kidnappers, who are members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) extremist group,” anti-regime activist Khalaf Ali Khalaf was informed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated sources close to the extremist group.

Sources saw the Italian Jesuit last Saturday in an area in northern Syria where ISIS is active, Khalaf told  Aki-Adnkronos International news agency. The journalist, who is based in north-eastern Syria, did not wish to reveal the identities of his sources for fear of reprisals. Neither did he mention where exactly Dall’Oglio had been seen. The Jesuit priest went missing in the city of Raqqa on 28 July.

He had re-entered Syria in hopes of assisting peace negotiations in the Kurdish region of Syria. Over decades, he and his monastery / retreat center had become a symbol of positive Muslim-Christian relations in Syria. May he be able to continue in that work...

“Mercy-ing”: A Starting Place for Vatican-Azhar Dialogue

In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.

Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for "mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice"—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world. 

While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks. 

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What an Islam expert isn't

 

Most Catholics will remember the hysterical opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque back in 2010. But what any may not realize is that one of the opposition’s principal organizers is considered by some influential Catholics to be the church’s chief expert on Islam.

Since the September 11 attacks, Robert Spencer has capitalized on the curiosity—and fear—that many Americans have about Muslims. While most of his sixteen books, including two New York Times bestsellers, attempt to convince all Americans that Islam is an inherently violent religion, Spencer has also authored books aimed at Catholics.

In 2003, he co-authored Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics with a Muslim convert to Christianity, Daniel Ali, and in 2007 he wrote A Religion of Peace: Why Christianity is and Islam Isn’t. His newest book for Catholics, Not Peace But a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam, was published earlier this year. In it, Spencer explicitly discourages dialogue and cooperation between Catholics and Muslims. The book’s cover features a curved sword, with the Arabic name of Muhammad inscribed on the blade, piercing a red cross. The first line of the introduction reads, “Can’t we all just get along? Maybe not. And if not, what then?”

He argues that Catholics and Muslims have virtually nothing in common, and falsely claims that Islam teaches that Christians should be persecuted. According to Spencer, Catholics put themselves in harm’s way by engaging in dialogue. Not only does this view place him in defiance of the Catholic Church’s teachings on dialogue and on Islam, it also reinforces the toxic belief that as Muslims as a group are a violent threat and should, at best, be avoided and, at worse, be opposed.

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Catholic commentary round-up on proposed attack in Syria

The past few days have seen a burst of commentary from Catholic writers about the proposed attack in Syria. This blog has featured a lot, and the current issue of the magazine has Gabriel Said Reynolds's essential short take. A few other items of note, and feel free to add more in the comments:

Maryann Cusimano Love on the "just war" question in the Huffington Post

Drew Christiansen, S.J., on the role of prayer in Washington Post "On Faith"

Tobias Winright on "just war" analysis in The Tablet and Catholic Moral Theology

R. R. Reno on "symbolic killing" in First Things

The USCCB's letter to President Obama

E. J. Dionne's column in praise of democracy, today in the Washington Post

Michael Sean Winters taking the liberal interventionist route in National Catholic Reporter

And, of course, the Pope has been leading the way from last week's Angelus to his letter to President Putin to his forceful social media activism, about which I wrote a short piece in the Washington Post's "On Faith" section. My take-home point was: "Prayerful, prophetic denunciation of war is one papal tradition that the reform-minded Francis will not be changing."

Elizabeth Tenety offered a round-up of some of these critiques from the commentariat, and then posed the question of whether all the Catholics in political power in the United States are listening.

Are they???

Finally, if you're in the New York area, I'm sure the Pope's out-front anti-war message will become a topic of conversation at our Fordham panel about Pope Francis on Mon, Sept 9, at Lincoln Center campus.  Info and RSVP HERE.

New issue, now live

Our September 13 issue is now live on the website. 

Some of the highlights:

Leslie Woodcock Tentler writes on Detroit:

Those of us who have watched Detroit’s long dying tend to think in terms of the physical city—the abandonment of buildings, their subsequent decay and finally, if the city does its job of demolition, the rubble-strewn lot. For a very long time, I found love in the ruins (to borrow from Walker Percy). Life has hung on stubbornly in Detroit, in such unexpected forms as the flourishing Hungarian bakery, now gone, that I stumbled upon in a decaying working-class enclave close to the city’s western border. (The proprietor had provided each of the often-married Gabor sisters with wedding cakes, which presumably helped his bottom line.) St. Cecilia’s Church, with its apse mural of a black Christ, provided refuge to the Tentler family when it seemed that nearly every Catholic in our nominal home parish worshipped at the shrine of Ronald Reagan. Those memorable Cecilia’s Sundays, suffused with incense and gospel music, probably kept my children in the fold. The Detroit Institute of Arts, a refuge of another sort since my adolescence, still delights with its dazzling collection and especially its famed Rivera murals, paid for with a second generation of Ford money. Flower Day at the city’s sprawling Eastern Market, a plant-buying orgy for gardeners throughout the region, provided—and indeed continues to provide—a pageant of interracial good fellowship.

One can still find love in the ruins of Detroit, but it’s harder now. So much of the city has disappeared that recent visits have left me disoriented. (I tend to navigate by landmarks, an astonishing number of which are gone.) A new generation of urban pioneers now hoists the banner of optimism—“say nice things about Detroit!”—while I alternate between rage and despair. Yes, there are signs of life there, some of them new, like the city’s flourishing arts scene. But the decay is so vast and the human suffering so appalling that optimism seems not just delusional—an old Detroit problem—but almost obscene.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels on the Catholic church as a "lazy monopoly" (subscription required):

Some would argue that the Catholic Church, claiming a monopoly on truth as well as salvation, has no course correction to make. That has been the stand of recent popes and their episcopal appointees, who have rescinded or tinkered with Vatican II reforms and ruled out further change. Complaints have gone unheard, while conforming members have been embraced. And many have left.

Parents and friends of former Catholics now singing in a Baptist choir, serving on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, or meditating in a Buddhist monastery may be relieved that they’re still praying, still believing in something. Perhaps even the “lazy monopolists” consider that these sheep are not lost, simply misplaced. But what of the “nones,” those who abandon religion altogether or just drift away from it. We seem strangely indifferent to their exit. If 12 million people stopped brushing their teeth, we’d all take notice.

Also, Gabriel Said Reynolds on why Syrian Christians continue to support Assad and Richard Alleva on the film Fruitvale Station. See the full table of contents here

Waiting for Fr. Paolo

It's been almost two weeks since Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit leader of interreligious peacebuilding in Syria, has vanished. It's been more than one week since the date after which he told his friends "to raise the alarm" if they had not heard from him. They -- and we -- are still waiting.

The coverage of his disapperance has been relatively widespread. John Allen's Friday column led with the story, tying it to the previous kidnappings of the Syrian Orthodox bishop and Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo. It even made the print edition of the Wall Street Journal. But no one seems to know what, if anything, can be done.

I only met Fr. Paolo once, sharing a meal, when he visited Fordham University in 2011. I obviously can't claim him has a friend. But I have been unexpectedly angry, disdainful, and plaintive in heart since hearing of his alleged kidnapping. Part of my response comes from my writing a book about early Christianity in Syria at the same time as its current civil war. Another part of it comes from having written scholarship about the art of the medieval monastery, Mar Musa al-Habashi, which is what Fr. Paolo refounded after centuries of abandonment and made into a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims who wanted to meet in peace and prayer.

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