• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Christian Iraq?

Following the murder of four missionaries in Iraq, the Los Angeles Times gives us some background, pointing out that Evangelicals are “flocking” to the country (large numbers of Christians always “flock” according to journalists). The article describes a church on an American base where 400 Iraqis worship every Sunday. The article describes the worshippers as

Converted from Islam and from other branches of Christianity

Bit of a difference there! How many from each? I suspect more Christians than Muslims. And were these people previously pious or nominal adherents of their faiths? Our journo fails to ask.

Kyle Fisk, executive administrator of the National Association of Evangelicals, is quoted as saying that:

Iraq will become the center for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to Iran, Libya, throughout the Middle East…President Bush said democracy will spread from Iraq to nearby countries. A free Iraq also allows us to spread Jesus Christ’s teachings even in nations where the laws keep us out.

Sorry to curb Fisk’s enthusiasm, but even if democracy spreads in the area (and it’s a big “if”), there are a few more points to consider:

  • Proselytism is legal (albeit difficult) in democratic Turkey. But few Turks have converted and it’s hardly a centre for missionaries.
  • Groups like Pat Robertson’s CBN have been active in Middle East for years, based on Cyprus and the Lebanon. Not much to show for it so far, except grief for indigenous Christians across the Middle East.
  • Democracy does not always mean freedom to proselytise. For example, in 1996 evangelism came close to becoming illegal in Israel.
  • 400 Iraqis at a service is not actually all that that impressive. Why should significant numbers of Iraqis be interested in becoming Christians when most Turks are not?

However, the missionaries do have an advantage when we read of the strategy of the Muslim clerics:

Shiite Muslim leader, Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa…said Shiite and Sunni clerics have discussed issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, against missionaries.

Rather less impressive than an intellectual rebuttal, or a plan to make Islam appear more attractive.

Meanwhile, what do the leaders of the local Orthodox and Catholic churches have to say about Evangelical sheep stealing? Alas, the Los Angeles Times does not even raise the issue.

Passion‘s Impact on American attitudes towards Jews

A poll of 1003 random American adults has discovered that The Passion is lessening hostility to Jews. The survey, conducted by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, shows that

24 percent of Americans familiar with the film say that Jews alive at the time of Christ’s crucifixion were not responsible for it. Less than two percent of Americans surveyed blame Jews for the crucifixion today…Of the 146 respondents who saw the film, 80 percent said the film had no impact, five percent said it made them more likely to hold Jews responsible, and 12 percent said the film made them less likely to hold today’s Jews responsible.

This is encouraging news. There’s still a question, though: 76% appear to think either that Jews at the time were responsible or don’t know. What does that mean? That Jews alive then in general were responsible? Or just the Jews of Jerusalem? Or the Pharisees? Or the Temple authorities in collusion with the Romans (my own view, by the way, following E.P. Sanders)? How does that translate into views of Judaism or Jewish character, even if “collective guilt” is rejected?

The Institute admits that outside the USA the results might be very different. Given that copies of pirated DVDs are in hot demand in Saudi Arabia, we may soon know the answer to that.

Meanwhile, I note that a new CD is on the way: Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ’. This will include songs by Elvis Presley and Ricky Skaggs…

UPDATE (3 April): A new poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (brought to my attention by The Church of Critical Thinking), reveals that

26 percent of respondents believe Jews were to blame for the Crucifixion, up from 19 percent in ABC News poll in 1997.

The greatest increase was among young people and blacks.

Thirty-four percent of those under age 30 now believe Jews were responsible, compared to 10 percent in 1997, the Pew Center said. And 42 percent of blacks hold that view, compared to 21 percent seven years ago.

Spinning Statistics on Muslims

The PA headline reproduced in The Scotsman announces shocking news:

British Muslims ‘Back Terror Strikes on US’

Apparently, a poll has discovered that the Muslims of Britain support al-Qaida! However, if you decide to read on, you find that

Attacks on the US by al Qaida or other groups were viewed as justified by 13% of the 500 British Muslims questioned. Another 15% said they did not know whether such attacks are wrong or right.

In other words, as The Guardian (the newspaper that commissioned the poll) puts it rather less sensationally:

The ICM survey…shows that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims – 73% – are strongly opposed to terrorist attacks by al-Qaida and other organisations. But a small minority – 13% of British Muslims – disturbingly say they believe further such attacks on the US would be justified.

This interpretation is rather at odds with the impression given by the PA headline: a headline that many people will not look beyond, and which is currently on the religious news websites.

The Guardian also explains the methodology of the poll in more detail than the PA report gives us:

ICM interviewed a random sample of 500 Muslims between March 3 and 11 2004. The interviews were conducted by telephone throughout the country. ICM also interviewed a random sample of 1,014 adults aged 18 and over by telephone between March 10-11, 2004. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.

That’s fine as far at it goes, but among British Muslims there are Arabs, Pakistanis, West Africans, Turks, white converts and many other ethnic groups, as well as confessional differences between and amongst Shias, Sunnis and nominal Muslims. A random sample of 500 Muslims that may or may not represent all these strands seems to me of limited value.

Cal Thomas: Islam to Take Over UK

Conservative pundit Cal Thomas warns that Britain will soon be dominated by Islam:

According to “British Muslim Magazine” editor Sarah Joseph, by the year 2020 mosque attendance could surpass church attendance in Britain.

She says between 10,000 and 50,000 per year convert to Islam in England and that the country currently has 1.8 million Muslims.

And why is this?

One of the few things I learned in physics was that nature abhors a vacuum. So does the spirit world…In England, where only about two percent of the people bother to attend church, Islam is about to become the dominant faith…Unless it rediscovers the God of scripture, it will be powerless to defend itself against militant, fundamentalist Islam.

This is nonsense. First, the figures: 10,000 converts a year would be very impressive, let alone 50,000. Unfortunately, I do not have access to Sarah Joseph’s magazine (called Emel, by the way), so I can’t check either where she got her data from or even if she has been cited correctly. However, according to a site quoted on British Muslim website Revival:

There are perhaps 10,000 British converts to Islam, predominantly white, middle-class women.

That’s 10,000 in total, not 10,000 every year: a rather more credible figure. According to Nicole Borque, an academic expert in conversion to Islam in the UK (and, I suspect, someone Thomas didn’t even spend one minute looking for on the net, let alone contact):

I would estimate that there are probably around 200 converts to Islam in Glasgow alone, but that’s just a rough estimate. The data is difficult to acquire.

Besides, even if there is currently a rapid increase in conversions, that does not mean the rate will continue for the next fifteen years. As Charismatic Christians discovered in the 1980s and 1990s, there comes a point where most of those attracted to the movement will have joined, and conversion rates drop.

Now, to Thomas’s lack of any analytical ability: here are a few basic points he couldn’t even be bothered to raise:

  • Why are people converting to Islam? Some may be attracted to militant fundamentalism, but very many may well be converting nominally purely for marriage purposes. A number will have come via a New Agey interest in Sufism. There may be plenty of other private reasons (Borque has considered some of these). Most of these people will never become fundamentalists.
  • How many converts drop out? Many young people join religious or political movements, only to leave after a period of time – there are only three hundred Unification Church adherents in the UK, for instance.
  • How many members of ethnic minorities in the UK are, or have become, merely nominal Muslims? Converts may well be cancelled out by secularisation and nominalism within the established Muslim communities.
  • Why do so few people go to church? Nobody is stopping them. It seems that most people are happy with a nominal affiliation, encountering church only for weddings and funerals. There is no “spiritual vacuum” for most people. A small minority show an interest in other forms of spirituality, but most of them are more likely to turn to Eastern religions, the New Age or New Religious Movements than to Islam. Of the minority of the minority that does become interested in Islam, only some of them will choose militant forms, and most of them only temporarily.

In short, the idea that Britain is “powerless” against militant Islam is bunk. Most people simply are not interested in religion, and for those who are militant Islam is a less attractive option. But then, I suppose Thomas’s job is fear-mongering for his own purposes rather than writing serious articles.

UPDATE (2 April 2004):

Sarah Joseph has been kind enough to leave a comment in which she clarifies the statistics used in Emel:

Hello Richard Came across your website. I am Sarah Joseph as cited by Cal as cited by Gulf Daily News which seemed to go every where.

What I said was not as dramatic as quoted. The “Islam as dominant UK religion” was the headline given to a rather bland statement about Church/Mosque attendance – where I had cited figures taken from a Church study done in 2001)

The quote re 10,000 to 50,000 conversions every year is inaccurate. There are no numbers on conversion to Islam in Britain. There are “guess-timates” that there are currently between 10,000 and 50,000 people who have ALREADY coverted (I would go with the lower figure but the 2001 census confused us all by the number of people that ticked Muslim and White). There are probably about 1000 new converts per annum based upon Mosque statistics, but these are difficult to gauge.

So hope that helps clarify things – not as exciting I know!

Best wishes Sarah Joseph

Christian Zionists Feel The Cold after The Passion

This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain…A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me. Because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.

This was Billy Graham’s notorious assessment of American Jews to Richard Nixon back in February 1972. Graham survived the storm when the remarks became public knowledge in the 1990s because of his support for Israel. Now, with debate over The Passion, some Jewish commentators are saying that perhaps they can do without the support of Christian Zionists who claim to be pro-Israel but who have aligned themselves with Mel Gibson’s movie. This comment by the Rev. Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals, caused particular annoyance:

There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel. For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted.

This attitude has led to both conservative and liberal criticism of Christian Zionists. First, Rabbi Smuley Boteach, writing in the Jerusalem Post:

The Passion has forced upon politically conservative Jews like myself a horrible choice: either betray Jewish interests by pretending that a movie making the charge of deicide is no big deal and playing sycophant to the much larger Christian market by praising the film – a choice all too many high-profile Jewish conservatives have made; or be told that you are endangering Israel by undermining Christian support for the Jewish state.

But I reject the choice between the interests of the Jewish people versus the interests of the Jewish state. Any Christian friend whose support can so quickly evaporate when we object to being falsely portrayed as god-killers in a movie is hardly an ally.

From a liberal angle we have Knesset member Yossi Sarid, writing in Haaertz:

Without supportive surroundings, Gibson, who is not exactly known as a modern-day Shakespeare, would not have dared make this movie.

Within these surroundings are to be found the best friends of Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, Beni Elon, Nathan Sharansky and Effi Eitam, who are fighting fiercely, as we all know, against anti-Semitism. Sharon, Netanyahu, Elon and their friends have long entered into a blood pact, of ketchup, with the more anti-Semitic Christian groups in America, who pretend to be sworn friends of Israel.

Their friendship is conditional; for the evangelists, the return of the Jews to their land, especially to the Greater Land of Israel, free of Muslims, is a precondition for a complete Christian redemption, which includes, among other things, wiping out the Jews as a people. These evangelicals see the redemption of Israel as a crucial foundation in the return of the messiah Jesus Christ. This is the only reason they encourage Israel and donate a lot of money to it, mainly to the messianic streams within the Jewish state, who view the settlements as the start of the redemption.

Indeed. Christian Zionists go on about their love for Israel and Jews, but their enthusiasm is based on romantic stereotyping rather than reality. Jews who prefer to live outside Israel are seen as going against God’s will: increased anti-Semitism is God’s way of dropping a hint that they should be on their way. Christian Zionists are deaf to Israelis who criticise their government, who investigate human rights abuses, who don’t want the Occupation to continue, or who refuse to serve in the Israeli army (and as for gay Israelis – “pigs defiling the Temple” according to one Christian Zionist newsletter I saw). Christian Zionists insist that the Occupation must continue, no matter how many Israelis or Palestinians will suffer, for no other reason than that the Apocalypse is inevitable. Israeli politicians have indulged all this for a long time – books by fantasists like Mike Evans (China has built a road across the Middle East so North Koreans can invade Israel!) are adorned with photos of the author meeting senior Israeli figures, both Likud and Labour. Perhaps The Passion is blowback.

UPDATE (10 May): Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, one of Israel’s most highly respected halakhic authorities, has declared that Jews should not accept funds from the Fellowship of Christians and Jews. See my entry for today.

Vaccine Madness: AIDS! Infertility! Cancer! Paralysis!

The Nigerian polio vaccine saga rumbles on. As I noted a couple of days ago, a committee consisting of Muslim scientists had reported to Governor Shekarau that the vaccine was safe, but Shekarau rejected their findings for a number of specious reasons. Now Hussain Abdulkareem (or Hussein Abdulkareem/ Hussain Akande Abdul-Kareem), currently a professor at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, puts forward the case against the vaccine in a Nigerian newspaper.

To summarise his position: one in a thousand children are paralysed by the Oral Polio Vaccine; studies show that the vaccine in interaction with other vaccines causes paralysis; Lawan Hassan Bichi, a Pharmacologist from Bayero University, Kano, testified in December that the polio vaccine contains elements “capable of impacting negatively on fertility and causative agent for AIDS”; the committee that travelled to India and South Africa found contaminants; the WHO had previously failed to admit that a tetanus vaccine it introduced to the Philippines in the 1990s caused miscarriage; Polio vaccines were responsible for AIDS in the first place, and also cause cancer. Plus population control is in Western interests.

Given all the above, one wonders where this leaves Shekarau’s “solution” of importing safe vaccines from Muslim countries, a point the professor does not consider.

Adbulkareem’s article also contains some nice bits of purely rhetorical dishonesty. I note particularly this paragraph:

The second committee was set up by Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) and sent to India where they spent 28 days to conduct the investigation in New Delhi under the directive of WHO. The tests in India confirmed that the batches of OPV taken from Kaduna, Sokoto and Zamfara states, contained “undeclared contaminants” which “could cause malfunction of the testes in males and infertility in women as well as toxic substances”. (Daily Trust of Monday 26/1/2004).

But what he committee actually said was that the substances found were normal and in such tiny quantities that they were harmless. The lurid accusations above come from Abdulkareem’s interpretations of the findings (before the tests were even finished), not the committee itself. He is quoting his own previous article (see it also quoted here: couldn’t find original) and writing in such a way that it looks like the committee said it.

So, who are the scientists who uncovered the conspiracy? I couldn’t find anything about Lawan Hassan Bichi, and Abdulkareem’s research background seems to consist almost purely of pronouncements against sex education and condoms. However, Abdulkareem is a bit of a polymath, and may have spent more time in political science and theology. According to this report of the inauguration of the Lagos Independent Sharia Panel a year ago:

Perhaps the strongest speech was that of Professor Hussein AbdulKareem of the Lagos State University College of Medicine (LASUCOM), who branded the opponents of Sharia as agents of Western domination and oppression. The professor of Medical Biochemistry likened the agitation by Muslims for the implementation of Sharia in the country to a liberation struggle and declared that the stiff opposition to the Islamic legal system by non-Muslims was informed by Western anti-Islamic stance.

This will be news to the thousands of Muslims who protested AGAINST Sharia in northern Nigeria just recently as a foreign, Saudi, imposition.

However, although it’s easy to decry self-serving Islamist demagogues like AbdulKareem, we should also reflect on why such a figure can gain a hearing in the first place. While the West battles overpopulation in the developing world, the devastation wrought by overconsumption in the West is treated less urgently. Western politicians lie, and pursue self-serving foreign policies. Biotechnology remains a murky business.  The Vatican also promotes pseudo-scientific information about health issues when it comes to condoms. None of this excuses the demagogues, but we could stop giving them ammo.

Bad Omen for American TV

A little more news about NBC’s attempt to cash in on the Left Behind phenomenon:

(Variety) Feature star Bill Pullman (“Igby Goes Down”) has joined NBC apocalyptic thriller “Revelations” in the limited-run series’ leading male role, while Natascha McElhone (“The Truman Show”) has taken the female lead…Pullman will play Dr. Richard Massey in “Revelations,” which comes from Pariah TV. The character is a Harvard professor whose daughter is murdered by satanists. McElhone stars as a nun who recruits Massey to help investigate whether what’s told in the Book of Revelations is starting to come true.

The story will be scripted by David Seltzer, who brought us The Omen back in the 1970s. In an earlier report from Variety magazine, Seltzer enthused that:

What the Book of Revelation predicted is at hand…Nuclear brinkmanship, worldwide terrorism, collapsing economies and environmental atrocities make it clear that the critical mass of injury to this planet is sufficient to bring down the wrath of God and put the biblical prophecies into play. What is not written in the Bible is whether man can do anything about it. This is where our story begins.

Perhaps not as fatalistic as LaHaye’s efforts, but it’s still religious paranoia dressed up as entertainment. And it’s going out primetime over the Olympic period.

Seltzer promises “a respectful look” at the Bible. This is the man who made up awful doggerel for The Omen which he then ascribed to the Book of Revelation:

When the Jews return to Zion, and
A comet rips the sky,
And the Holy Roman Empire rises
Then you and I must die.

From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore;
Turning man against his brother
‘Til man exists no more

Meanwhile, nine years after the first Left Behind novel, we discover ourselves still unraptured and the final novel in the series, Glorious Appearing, about to be released. Apparently the first print run is already sold out. The book ends with the return of Jesus (sorry to give it away), but this will not stop Jerry Jenkins and Tyndale Books from milking this cash cow even more: check out Soon.

The great creation of Türkmenbasy, Native land, sovereign state, Türkmenistan, light and song of soul, Long live and prosper for ever and ever!

A great new blog by The Blogmenbashi charts “President Sapurmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan and the infinite wisdom of his words and deeds”. Niyazov, the “Turkmenbashi” (father of the Turks), is a flamboyant megalomaniac in the tradition of Caligula and Amin, and like them his despotism is so excessive that tragedy comes interlaced with black humour.

Niyazov is Turkmenistan’s former Communist ruler who has made Turkmenistan into “his own little USSR”, according to a foreign diplomat, with a cult based around his own personality mixed with Islam. As he writes in the Ruhnama, his Book of the Soul which Muslims and Christians must touch whenever they enter a mosque or church:

Fate gave me the role of being leader of Türkmenistan at the juncture of the second and third millennia. The burden of the responsibility of taking my people from the last years of the second millennium, in which things did not go well, to the summits of the third millenium fell onto my shoulders.

This position and responsibility, which have been given to me without my asking, have motivated me to call up my spiritual, intellectual and physical strength that Allah granted me with and use them as a societal force to achieve progress in my country.

This means political and religious oppression, as well as bizarre rulings such as renaming the word for “bread” after his mother. Contrary to Islamic teaching, Niyazov has declared himself to be a Prophet. The current Sunni Mufti is in prison for opposing the personality cult, and religious groups other than Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are banned – as, Ross Perot-like, are beards. Dissenters risk being taken to “The Ministry of Fairness”. But as an opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, Niyazov is unlikely to face much pressure from the West to mend his ways.

Twenty Years Too Late: Pat Robertson’s Dictator Buddy Arrested

As former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt faces charges for manslaughter, conspiracy and threatening bodily harm in relation to the death of journalist Hector Ramirez, I look in vain for a word on CBN’s website. Montt, as is well known, enjoyed huge support from Pat Robertson back in 1982-3, despite massive human rights abuses and massacres of Mayan Quiche Indians. Montt is a Charismatic Protestant, and within a week of his coup in 1982 Robertson had flown down to meet him, promising a billion dollars and missionaries. Robertson raised cash for Montt on his “700 Club”, and lobbied Reagan to allow military aid to the country. He also provided an introduction to an apologetic for Montt and apparently wrote in his book New World Order (quoted second hand, I must confess) that Montt’s successor

continues the enlightened leadership of his patron, former President Rios Montt, who insisted on honesty in government and then had every key official sign a pledge that read, “I will not steal; I will not lie; I will not abuse.”

(this successor, Jorge Serrano Elias, was himself forced out after attempting to impose authoritarian rule in 1993)

Montt’s church is Verbo Ministries, which is still going strong in California and central America. Its one-time international director, Francisco Bianchi, was a presidential candidate in the 1999 election, standing for his own Democratic Reconciliatory Alliance party. Bianchi was Montt’s private secretary, and in one assessment was

one of the few candidates in this race who can be described as extreme right. At one point during Ríos Montt’s government, Bianchi told The New York Times that if the indigenous people sympathized with the guerrillas they had to be killed, even if they were civilians, a statement he now denies having made.

Although Bianchi’s impact was negligible, that election was won by Montt’s party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, under Alfonso Portillo. Montt himself came third in the 2003 election, despite being barred from office. The pro-Montt riots that followed his defeat, and the death of Ramirez leading up to it, suggest that, unlike Charles Taylor of Liberia, this friend of Pat Robertson remains a menace to his country.

Shekarau Snubs Vaccine Advice

As variants of polio traceable to Kano in Northern Nigeria (see my post here) continue to be found across West Africa, Governor Ibrahim Shekarau has offered a long and rambling defence of his continued boycotting of polio vaccines. Several days ago, the federal government sent a committee to South Africa and India to investigate the issue. The committee discovered that

a) Trace amounts of estradiol were found in some samples analysed…The sensitivity of this equipment is very high to the level of one part in a hundred billion parts.

(b) No trace of progesterone was detected in any of the vaccine samples.

(c) The trace amounts of estradiol in question is much less than what is found in recycled drinking water in several developed countries. Also calf blood (serum) is used to help the growth of the polio virus during the production process for OPV by some production centres. These trace levels of estradiol might very well be physiological residues from serum.

Therefore, they concluded, the vaccine was safe. The results were explained to Shekarau by the chairman of the committee, Sheik Umar El-Kanemi.

However, Shekarau is still not having it. He insists that the investigators did discover “contamination”, but also that the vaccine declared safe was “different”. Also, bizarrely:

I challenge the committee put up by the federal government to south Africa, to India. They put a representation of Jama’atul Nnasril Islam, JNI, I say where is the representation of CAN [Christian Association of Nigeria].

This is priceless. Shekarau’s whole argument was that the vaccine was a plot to make Muslim women infertile. But now Muslim investigators have told him this is bunk, he’s suddenly decided that Christians were not given adequate say in the investigation, and that therefore the boycott should stay in place.

Shekarau has now decided to import vaccines from Muslim countries in Asia rather than take part in the government programme. Why this continual intransigence? I thought paranoia, but Nigerian President Obasanjo offers another possible explanation in a TV interview, where he claimed that

one of the Muslim leaders opposing the immunisation programme had unsuccessfully sought a government contract to import new vaccines.

Ahh, of course. The old adage about asking who’s going to profit…

UPDATE: See here.