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Jews, Christians, and Israel: Some Recent Developments

As John Hagee regales AIPAC with his views on why Christians should back Israel, the Knesset considers a new anti-missionary bill. Y-Net reports:

A war on missionaries was declared Tuesday when Shas faction head MK Yakov Margi proposed a bill stating that Israel’s laws against proselytism should be aggravated.

Backed by six other faction members and in concordance with Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s instructions, Margi proposed the sentence for preaching conversion should be one year imprisonment.

…Currently, Israeli law deals with conversion on two levels. Firstly, anyone offering money or material products in exchange for conversion faces five years in prison or a monetary fine. The person on the accepting end of the offer also faces a certain punishment.

On the second level, regarding minors, anyone acting in favor of or conducting a conversion ceremony on a minor, faces six month in jail.

Israeli officialdom has also sought to discourage Jewish-Israelis from converting to Islam. Y-Net links to another report, which it published last year:

…In the past, the Religious Affairs and Interior Ministries made it very difficult for Jews to convert to Islam. “They are giving me the runaround, sending me back and forth from office to office. They made me see a psychiatrist, to ‘make sure I wasn’t brainwashed.’ They did everything so that I would despair and return to Judaism,” one convert related.

Shas argues that the proposed bill is not discriminatory as it also “applies to Jewish sects bringing Muslims from the Old City to convert to Judaism”. Margi is a big fan of banning things – last year he wrote an opinion piece against the proposed gay pride march in Jerusalem (“Social perversions should be kept in the dark, not put on display for all to see”). Ovadia Yosef, meanwhile, has featured on this blog before, and his many surprising statements have brought him international notoriety (that hurricane Katrina was caused by “blacks” failing to read the Torah is probably his best-known).

Margi’s call comes as the harassment of Jewish converts to Christianity continues. The Baptist Press reports:

BEER SHEVA, Israel (BP)–The arrest of a Messianic Jewish evangelist in Israel reflects the strife that often confronts Messianic Jews despite Israel’s guarantees of religious liberty and without any repercussion from law enforcement officials, the leader of a Messianic congregation told Baptist Press.

Messianic evangelist Eddie Beckford was arrested outside his business, the Chess and Bible Shop in Arad, after a mob of ultra-Orthodox Haradim Jews surrounded his van in the parking lot and beat him Feb. 25.

…Jim Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies at Criswell College in Dallas, told Baptist Press the word needs to get out about the harassment of Messianic Jews in Israel.

“It really is intolerable, and I think a lot more attention needs to be given to it,” Sibley said. “That’s the only way that the Israeli government is going to really do anything to protect the rights of believers.”

I covered the situation in Beersheeva in December 2005. The Messianic leader there, Howard Bass, is now taking legal action, although he warns that “It is not to be used in any way to foment or promote anti-Israel or anti-Jewish actions or reactions”.

As it happens, the JTA has just reported on conversions to Christianity among Ethiopian immigrants:

…Recent Ethiopian olim [immigrants] are easy prey for Christian missionaries. They come to Israel with little knowledge of Judaism; some have Christian roots. Most practiced some form of Christianity in Ethiopia before filing their aliyah petitions and moving to the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa.

Some veteran Ethiopian Israeli leaders are warning that the ongoing Ethiopian aliyah is making matters worse, bringing to Israel many Christians who either are married to Ethiopians of Jewish origin or fraudulently claim to be related to Jews.

“Today the aliyah of the Falash Mura has turned into a business,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Zagay, an Ethiopian Israeli rabbi in Rehovot and director of the National Committee of Ethiopian Jews, formed recently to combat missionary activity.

…”This aliyah is causing irreversible damage to the State of Israel,” one Ethiopian Israeli leader in Jerusalem told JTA. “These people aren’t Jewish. It is tearing apart the Ethiopian and Israeli community…”

Similar complaints have long been made against Russian immigrants, who have been described by Shas as “hundreds of thousands of Gentiles flooding the land with pork, prostitution, impurity and filth” (a fringe of these immigrants has responded in kind, forming the neo-Nazi “White Israeli Union“). Of course, such mass migrations must particularly upsetting to Palestinian refugees, who have long been told that their return to Israel proper would undermine the Jewish character of Israel, and that therefore anyone who supports them must be anti-Semitic.

The consequences of mass immigration were the subject of a 1999 academic article by Ian Lustick, entitled “Israel as a non-Arab State”. Roger Owen briefly summarized the findings in Al-Ahram in 2000. Among them:

…First, no meaningful debate on the question of the Jewishness of the Russian immigrants can be carried on without raising the whole notion of the Right of Return and so, by extension, one of the main rationales for the Zionist project in the twentieth century. Second, given the demographic struggle between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, the Jewish Israelis would be unhappy about any diminution in the numbers they claim for their side. This also makes sense if one considers that the non-Jewish Russians are just as likely to be anti-Palestinian as their Jewish compatriots.

Seen from this point of view, the construction of Russian Orthodox churches in the communities where there is a heavy concentration of Russian immigrants makes perfect sense. So too does the increasing unwillingness to question people’s religion and ethnic origins. According to Lustick, the 1995 census was the first in Israeli history not to ask questions about what is obviously becoming an increasingly contentious, but also increasingly blurred, situation regarding individual religious and ethnic identity.

Meanwhile, far away in the USA, the alliance of Israel and the Christian right continues to grow. The JTA reports on John Hagee’s recent speech at AIPAC:

…The popular TV preacher went straight for the heart, and if there were doubts that an evangelical could cast aside concerns about proselytizing and make his case based simply on love of Israel, they were quickly dispersed.

“What we have in common is far greater than the things that have separated us over the years,” Hagee said to applause.

“We must stop Iran’s nuclear threat, and stop it now, and stand boldly with Israel!” he said to even greater applause.

…”There will never be another Holocaust, not on our watch and never again!” Hagee continued.

Unless, of course, the Jews annoy God, which is why Hagee believes the Holocaust occurred. Although he had the good sense not say this at AIPAC, Max Blumenthal notes that Hagee’s book Jerusalem Countdown (which I blogged here) contains the following:

It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God’s chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day…(pp. 92-93)

Hagee has also railed against international bankers and the “Illuminati” in ways that obviously recall anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. This video, which is also from Blumenthal’s page, consists of a Hagee sermon with some interesting images and music added. I’m sceptical that the video is an official Hagee production, but the words are his own, and the pictures do seem to fit. The resulting production borders on the camp.

(Some links from Christianity Today Weblog and Talk to Action)

Prosperity Gospel Preachers Under Pressure

Morris Cerullo to Face Tax Trial

Two decades on from the infamous events of 1987, this year looks like it’s shaping up as a bit of an annus horribilis for those US evangelists who practice and preach the Prosperity Gospel. WCNC reports:

The onetime leader of the Inspiration Network, now based in Fort Mill, S.C., is in court next week in San Diego on tax evasion charges.

…Cerullo’s attorney says “Dr. Cerullo is extremely disappointed that the charges were filed and believes they are without merit (and) the charges will be proven false.”

But, the federal prosecutor said that the money in question came from offerings at breakthrough rallies and speaking fees. The feds tells us Cerullo used that money as his own.

Cerullo’s previous legal difficulties were reported in Christianity Today last year:

…he was sued twice in 2000 by employees who said they were punished for raising questions about fundraising. The more prominent of these came from John Paul Warren, who said he was fired for confronting Cerullo about “unethical and fraudulent fund raising techniques.”

A California appeals court in December 2001 said that the courts could not get involved in the case since it involved employment at a religious organization, and that state involvement would violate both the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (The Supreme Court in 2002 decided not to hear an appeal.)

Meanwhile, February saw Kenneth Copeland coming under scrutiny:

The Copelands are regarded by many as the most successful televangelists in the world, and they certainly look the part these days—jetting about in their new Cessna Citation, operated, they say, in exact accordance with federal tax law and used solely for ministry purposes.

But flight records News 8 obtained raise questions.

…According to flight records obtained by News 8, the Copeland jet, on its way to an evangelical seminar in Australia last October, made a two-day layover in Maui. Then it was on to the Fiji islands for another stop.

After seven days in Australia, the Copelands headed to Honolulu for another three days of what they called “eating and rest.”

Last December, amid other evangelical stops, there was a jet ride to the Yampa Valley Airport in Colorado, just a few miles away from Steamboat Springs Ski Resort.

This was announced as the Minnesota Star Tribune published its investigations into the finances of another Prosperity preacher, Mac Hammond:

Last week, a Washington watchdog group filed a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against Hammond’s Living Word Christian Center, which now has nearly 10,000 members, broadcasts weekly services to local and national television audience, and runs an array of businesses.

The group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says the church gave loans to Hammond at favorable rates and created a sweetheart deal on a plane lease, possibly violating federal tax law that forbids insiders from benefiting from a charitable organization. But church officials said they are confident that they are complying with tax laws.

Hammond’s church’s board of directors includes Copeland’s son and “Texas minister Dennis Burke.”

The very idea of the Prosperity Gospel has also recently come under attack in a new book:

Dr. Robert M. Franklin, author of newly released Crisis in the Village, says the achievements of the African American community are losing ground, especially among church leaders who have shifted more focus onto individual achievement.

…”I am convinced that the single greatest threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition is posed by what is known as the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement,” he writes, explaining that the black church has assimilated into a culture that is hostile to marginalized people, such as the poor, the HIV-infected, homosexuals and immigrants.

According to Franklin, one-fourth of the black community lives in poverty. But many churches are devoting more time to “building their local kingdoms” and less time aiding and uplifting the poor.

Last month, Cerullo was in Nigeria for a rally. The Tide reported:

An American Evangelist, Morris Cerullo, has urged Nigerian leaders to ensure a sustainable economic empowerment for all Nigerians

“God is in control of politics, oil, education and other facets of the economy,” Cerullo said. …He said Nigerians needed honest and upright men of integrity to move the country forward, noting that “the church provides men of integrity, but the greed of some won’t allow credible people to rule”.

UPDATE: Commentator Jason Spaceman notes another case, that of the Prayer Palace in Toronto:

…the three white pastors – Paul Melnichuk and his 40-year-old twin sons, Tim and Tom – lead lavish lives in contrast to the mainly working-class black families that make up the bulk of the church.

Between them, the pastors have amassed a real estate fortune worth about $12 million. Each owns a multi-million-dollar country estate north of Toronto (Tim’s is worth as much as $5.5 million), they share a Florida vacation villa, and the pastors and their wives drive luxurious cars – among them a Porsche Cayenne SUV, a Lexus RX 330 SUV and a Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 convertible.

Further,

…charitable works, like a promised orphanage in Brazil, either dried up or never materialized.

Knesset Members at Unificationist Event in Italy

From an Italian news report:

Martedi’ prossimo, alle ore 21.00, presso la Casa della Pace, l’Assessorato alla Partecipazione, Pace e Cooperazione Internazionale della Provincia di Milano in collaborazione con la Upf-Italia accogliera’ la delegazione Israeliana, composta dai Parlamentari Talab El Sana e Ran Cohen, dal Segretario Generale Upf – Israele Hod Ben Zvi e dal Shuki Yariv Ben-Ami, politologo ed esperto di mass media.

Unfortunately, I don’t actually know any Italian, but we can get the gist: two Israeli parliamentarians – Ran Cohen and (Arab-Israeli) Talab El Sana – have held a meeting in Milan under the auspices of Upf-Italia and an Italian peace organisation. The Knesset members were accompanied by Hod Ben Zvi (the General Secretary of Upf), and with Shuki Yariv Ben-Ami.

Ben-Ami has featured on this blog before – back in 2004 he took part in a remarkable ritual in a US senate office, during which he placed a crown upon the head (“with my ten fingers, with white gloves”, he later boasted) of Rev Sun Myung Moon, who was declared to be “humanity’s saviour, messiah, returning lord and true parent”. “Upf” of course, is the Universal Peace Federation, which was founded by Rev Moon in 2003. Hod Ben Zvi, meanwhile, is one the founders of the Association for Jewish Unificationists, which happens to be based in the illegal West Bank settlement of Maale-Adumim.

I’ve been following Rev Moon’s interest in the “Holy Land” for some time, and last December I noted his plans for an interfaith centre in Galilee. One wonders what the strategic significance of this latest event might be.

(A second report, also in Italian, can be seen here)

Hamas Backs Down on Folklore Book Banning

From the AP:

The Hamas-run Education Ministry on Saturday rescinded its decision to pull an anthology of Palestinian folk tales from school libraries and destroy copies, reportedly over mild sexual innuendo, following a widespread public outcry…Some 1,500 copies of the book were destroyed – the most direct attempt by the militant Muslim group to impose its beliefs on Palestinian society.

The restrictions on the book (whether the copies were actually destroys appears to be a matter of some dispute) had appalled many Palestinians, and the Christian Science Monitor reports that the Palestinian public may be getting fed up with Hamas:

“We can say now that Hamas is being revealed to the Palestinian people,” says [Yahya] Yakhlef [the former minister of culture]. “I think the popularity of Hamas has dropped.”

The Monitor also quotes the reasons given for the banning:

“The book was withdrawn because of the problems with offensive language which contradicts our beliefs and morals,” says Sheikh Yazid Khader, who is the director-general of the PA’s Ministry of Education.

…”Our society depends on Islamic values and has for hundreds of years,” continues Sheikh Khader…”The Israeli occupation is interested in introducing us to Western values that work to destroy our Arab and Muslim values.”

Interestingly, Sheikh Khader has himself been on the receiving end of attempts to suppress writings: he was formerly the editor of the Hamas newspaper, and in June 2006 he was attacked in his office by Fatah gunmen.

The book, Speak Bird, Speak Again, was compiled by Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, and the English-language edition has a foreword by the late Alan Dundes. A substantial chunk of the text can be read here (one footnote mentions a mouse who “dangles his penis in the water”). The book was reviewed in American Ethnologist by Dwight Reynolds back in 1990, and this gives us some clues as to why Hamas might have found it so subversive:

All of the narratives presented in Speak, Bird, Speak Again were recorded by the editors in 1978-80 on the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the Galilee…Most of the narrators are older women,…for the Palestinian folktale tradition…is primarily a women’s tradition (in opposition to the public recitations of epic and romance dominated by men). Women are the major transmitters of folktales and often constitute a large portion of the audience. All of the female narrators are housewives, none of whom are literate, of both Muslim and Christian cultures.

The prominence of women, both as narrators and as heroines, may be surprising to many readers. In seeming contradiction to the restricted public role of women in real life, many of these tales concern women who act, who decide, and who wield power. At times the heroines of the tales act openly as women, and at times they do so disguised as men. Several of the tales deal explicitly with sexual conflicts and the problematics of gender roles including the “feminization” of male spouses and lovers by the female heroines…and the incestuous desires of fathers…More than one tale is remarkable for the bluntness with which sexual issues are presented or parodied. The tales are not direct reflections of Palestinian Arab norms, of course, but rather represent a traditional discourse which wrestles with and negotiates the strictures of female public modesty and subordination. They are tales which, after all, are heard and appreciated by male as well as female children as they grow up, and even at times as adults.

Meanwhile, in the USA school pupils in New York have recently been suspended after saying aloud the word “vagina” while reading from the Vagina Monologues, and Christian conservatives in Michigan (in the form of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education) have been trying to have a school board arrested on obscenity charges over assigned readings that included such “pornographic” material as a book by Toni Morrison.

Name variation: Yazeeb Khader

Lawsuit Against Bethel Outreach Withdrawn

The former Agape Press has made a change to one of its old stories:

On July 25, 2005, AgapePress published a report documenting allegations made against Bethel World Outreach Center’s “Victory Club” youth program. The allegations have been withdrawn and the report has, therefore, been removed from this page.

Additionally, the original report indicated that Bethel World Outreach Center, which is a member of the “Every Nation” family of churches, was affiliated with the “New Order of the Latter Rain.” That portion of the report was mistaken and AgapePress regrets the error.

The allegations, which I blogged on here, concerned “brainwashing”, pressure allegedly put on two school pupils to speak in tongues, and a claim that one was encouraged not to take medication. The parents of the two pupils subsequently brought a lawsuit against Bethel. Agape added the details about the supposed links to the NOLR, which were formulated by Agape in a rather peculiar way that recalled old-fashioned Christian fundamentalist antagonism against Pentecostalism.

The Bethel World Outreach website now carries a sworn letter from the plaintiffs (who are now named), in which they withdraw all their allegations:

TO: Bethel Church, Every Nation Churches, Inc., Victory Clubs of America, Inc., Steve Hollander, Rice Broocks, Jr.

FROM: Maria and Felicia Vega, Laurie Noyes and Jill Gustafson

…The Plaintiffs are persuaded that members of Bethel Church, its pastors and the Bethel Parties have sincere beliefs which can be a positive influence in the world. The Plaintiffs are also persuaded that the vast and overwhelming majority of the members of Bethel Church, its pastors and the Bethel Parties are good and decent people motivated by the spirit of Christ, who try to live Christ’s teachings, and who desire to help young people in need.

…The Plaintiffs hold no ill will towards members of Bethel Church or the Bethel Parties in general. Further, the Plaintiffs absolve the Bethel Parties and their officers as well as members who are not currently parties to the litigation, of any fault or responsibility for any injuries suffered by the Plaintiffs in the course of their association with the Bethel Parties or their members. The Plaintiffs agree to dismiss their claims against the Bethel Parties with prejudice such that those claims may never be brought again, and release the Bethel Parties from any responsibility for damages or injuries suffered by the Plaintiffs arising from or related to the events which are, or could have been, the subject of the lawsuit.

Swazi Pastor Wants Journalists Dead

Swazi Pastor Justice Dlamini of the Mbabane Worship Centre has explained how God will deal with a couple of journalists who he thinks have damaged his reputation:

Dlamini shocked a church gathering, which also included Cabinet Ministers, when he declared from the pulpit that he was praying for the death of two journalists, “Times of Swaziland” Managing Editor Martin Dlamini and reporter Nhlanhla Mathunjwa, whom he claims wrote badly about him.

…This followed a story published by the “Times” of February 27, 2007, in which the pastor was said to have been involved a squabble over a church vehicle with one of his subordinate pastors.

Pastor Dlamini claimed the story lowered his dignity and said he has prayed to God to remove the two journalists from the face of the earth “to teach the media a lesson”. He said this would also be a lesson to other journalists not to write ‘badly’ about church ministers.

The reports that caused the pastor to curse the two journalists can be seen here. A taster:

The businessman caught in the crossfire of a wrangle over a car between Worship Centre’s Pastor Justice Dlamini and departed Pastor Ndumiso Dlamini has come out to clarify that he did not give the vehicle to Pastor Justice, but to Ndumiso without any conditions attached. This effectively settles whatever confusion there was that the car belongs to Pastor Ndumiso.

The businessman, Abner Shongwe, said he presented the car as an offering to the church in the first place.

Shongwe said he gave the car to Pastor Ndumiso to use until he decided to leave Christianity, not until he left Justice’s church, Worship Centre.

Shongwe added:

“I never thought that this time the offering I thought I had secretly given to God would end up in papers in this manner…”

This is a bit of a turnaround for Pastor Justice, who in 2003 was trying to resurrect a journalist. The Swaziland Times reported at the time:

Despite the embarrassment that he has been subjected to, controversial pastor Justice Dlamini insists that deceased former editor of the Times Sunday Vusie Ginindza will rise from the dead. The pastor, without being specific, maintained that the miracle he had promised the Ginindza family would be fullfilled when Vusie finally rises from the dead. Dlamini said people should not persecute him because he believes that God can raise people from the dead but should have faith in His word. “It is not me who will say when and how Vusie will rise from the dead but it  was my responsibility to go there and pray as he (God) had ordered me to. “I cannot also tell his family not to bury him and wait for the miracle,” he said. The pastor acknowledged the fact the public will label him as being insane because of his actions. To that he said, it was not a problem to him that he was publicly embarrassed because he was serving God as he had been told to.”

(Ginindza, by the way, appears to have been a much-commended writer. He died aged 35)

Although Pastor Justice now wants prying journalists dead, he was himself the victim of an attempt to suppress free speech back in 2002:

The Swaziland Royal Police, acting on a court order on Thursday, 2002 invaded ‘Channel S’, the only privately owned television station in the country, and confiscated a video tape containing a sermon that has been termed by the Swazi government as “threatening the foundations of the kingdom”.

According to local sources the footage was of a sermon broadcast nationally and regionally (Southern African Development Community – SADC) on Friday, 6 September 2002, in which pastor Justice Dlamini of the Swaziland Association of Christian Ministries (SACM) suggested that some of the cultural practices in the country are “ungodly”. Mr Dlamini was referring to the “Incwala”, an annual cultural celebration.

…During the Incwala, tens of thousands of Swazis in traditional attire converge on the Queen Mother’s village, and petition the national ancestral spirits to endow the king with wisdom, and the nation with good rains and fortune.

[The Media Institute of Southern Africa] further reported that Mr Dlamini has since suffered harassment by policy makers in the country, ostensibly in the name of protecting culture and the monarchy.

Pastor Justice has also ;spoken out against condoms, which he believes to be “full of holes”.

One enthusiast of the pastor is Swazi businessman Bongani Mashwama:

Mashwama’s long route to success was detailed out at the dinner graced by Minister of Housing and Urban Development Mabili Dlamini who was representing the PM Themba Dlamini as well as the Economic Planning Minister. The BNM Director urged participants at the dinner to put God first in whatever they engaged in for their businesses to succeed.

Quoting from the Holy Book, Mashwama said he had to start in very humble beginnings, preaching in hospitals and other areas after his resignation from SEB before the Lord assisted him open the consultancy engineering business in 2002. He paid glowing tribute to Pastor Justice Dlamini of the Mbabane Worship Centre whom he said taught him business principles and unveiled to him the secret of success.

Luckily for us, though, Dlamini spilt some of the secret to the Swazi Observer in December:

According to pastor Justice Dlamini people fail to receive their miracles form God because they do not know how to position themselves for the miracles.

“It is after when people do not position themselves where the devil then take advantage,” he said.

The pastor added that things never materialise for people, not because God fails but because they fail to meet God’s terms.

“God is a God of principles and his principles should not be violated. If God’s principles are violated there is no way people can receive blessings and miracles,” Dlamini said.

Russian Conference Slams “Western Culture”, Calls for Slavic and Orthodox Ideology

Interfax reports on yet another religious conflab in Russia: this time, it’s the “XI Meeting of the World Russian People’s Council”, at the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. As with previous Council meetings, it provided a forum for the Russian Orthodox church and others to make pronouncements on Russian values and Russia’s place in the world.

The meeting’s focus was on wealth and poverty, and a message from Putin offered some platitudes on the subject:

‘It is obvious, that effective solving of these problems depends not only on economic growth or technological progress. Our society’s moral condition and ability to defend each person’s rights and interests are very important,’

The message was delivered just days after the suspicious “suicide” of Moscow journalist Ivan Safronov.

In opening comments, Metropolitan Kirill ruminated – in slightly obscure terms – on the Russian national character:

The Russian Orthodox Church welcomes ‘serious attempts to comprehend Russia’s originality through the prism of her spiritual and historical tradition…Among those attempts we may count such concepts as sovereign democracy, real sovereignty, Russian project, and empire conception rethought,’

Kirill followed this up with a rather less esoteric discussion of Russian energy pricing:

‘When Russia is asked questions about the price formation at her market, including energy resources prices, so she also should not hesitate to ask the same kind of questions…We do not make any attempts to influence price forming policies of transnational corporations, so why should Russia make excuses and explain her internal market price forming policies?’

Russia has used energy pricing as a means to leverage in a number of countries. A recent report in Businessweek gives a bit of background:

…Moscow has long sought to use its energy resources to regain the influence it lost with the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the headline-grabbing shutoffs of oil to Belarus and gas to Georgia and Ukraine in the past year are only the most visible part of the story.

For the last several years, the state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, has been trying, with limited success, to get significant stakes in gas distribution networks in Central and Eastern Europe, while private Russian operators have been buying gasoline retailers across the region…

However, the spat with Belarus – whose dictator Alexander Lukashenko was been honoured more than once by the Russian Orthodox Church for his pan-Slavic sentiments – has apparently been controversial in Russia, where some hope for a future in which Belarus is united with Moscow. Political scientist Alexander Tsipko spoke on the subject:

‘If for the elite ruling in Russia this world is of no spiritual and moral value, as it was illustrated by the gas war on Belarus, what can the Russian Church do in this circumstances?’ the scientist wondered.

Earlier, Tsipko called the current period of the Russian Orthodox history ‘very dramatic.’ The recent gas conflict with Belarus may ‘result in her leaving the Russian Orthodox world’ and the collapse ‘of the still unborn Union State,’ he said.

Tsipko also called for the church to enjoy more support from the state:

‘The Russian Orthodox Church is indeed the only one spiritual and organizing power in the former Soviet Union, which is able to consolidate others. But we all clearly understand that the church is not self-existing and her initiatives need to be backed by the state,’

Orthodox privilege was also demanded by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin:

…Ideological neutrality of the state is ‘rather mythical than real now’ as the modern Western society is ‘ideologized’ and often ‘values the idea more than the human person,’ Fr. Vsevolod said. ‘That is why the very issue of religiously neutral state is misleading and ‘intends to clear the way for other ideologies,’ he added.

‘So the Orthodox tradition has full right to demand ideological preferences from the state, and the society may demand having their ideological preferences reflected by the state policies,’ he noted.

Unity of the people and authorities is natural for the Orthodox world while ideas of economical and political competition or ‘dirigible conflict’ give way to the consolidation of the society, he said.

Other speakers also stressed the spiritual side of things:

Mikhail Leontyev, a well-known TV observer, has urged to realize in Russia an economic model based on values traditional for the country rather than copying the Western one.

‘Our culture, civilization and values have nothing to do with the culture which claims to be Christian. We know that ‘in God we trust’ is inscribed on the dollar but I have an impression that it is not our God’, he said…

An unsubtle swipe at feminism and gays followed:

‘The refusal of liberal communities to reproduce themselves is a doom because, motivated by hedonism, they destroy the very basis of reproduction of human beings as species’, he noted.

Singing from the same song-sheet was Ukrainian communist leader Petr Simonenko:

“We have seen with our own eyes and realized and experienced what ‘Western culture’ is. People hoped naively that they were given access to the ‘silver tap’ pouring out the pure spring water of Western culture. In real fact however, a huge cloaca has been opened to let out the ‘mass culture’ sewage”…

Simonenko stressed that the Slavic culture was now defiled… [and] also noted that ‘it is impossible to overcome the systemic spiritual crisis growing into national disasters both in Ukraine and Russia without preserving our common history and culture, our Slavonic languages, our Slavic humanistic traditions’.

Other religious traditions represented at the Council raised similar issues; according to Valery Engel of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia:

“Russia is a Eurasian civilization, which can develop a mega-civilization pattern that rests on values of traditional religions tomorrow,” he said, calling on the Russian Interreligious Council to launch a discussion on the principles and basis of the Eurasian ideology.

Farid Asadullin of the Russian Council of Muftis added that

“We share the approaches of the Russian Orthodox Church on the importance of understanding Russia’s civilizational characteristics,”

The Council of Muftis also used the occasion to reveal a conspiracy against Russia:

‘…The rapprochement between Russia and the Islamic world has given no rest to our opponents, since our unity threatens their global plans of world domination…The rapprochement between Russia and the Islamic world has given no rest to our opponents, since our unity threatens their global plans of world domination…the enemies of Russia and Islam have allotted considerable financial resources [and]…they are preparing a number of propagandistic actions aimed to stir up inter-ethnic and interreligious conflicts and to discredit the Russian Federation in the eyes of the world Muslim public.’

One wonders if by “rapprochement”, the Mufti was referring to the plan to sell Russian arms to Iran and Syria, using Belarus as middleman (Lukashenko and Ahmadinejad have had some cosy meetings). That was the subject that Ivan Safronov was working on when he mysteriously fell to his death.

The Cardinal and the Anti-Christ

Conservative Catholic cardinal Giacomo Biffi has made headlines:

According to Vatican Radio’s summary of his preaching, the cardinal explained that “the teaching that the great Russian philosopher [Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov] left us is that Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of values. At the center of being a Christian is, in fact, the personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”

Quoting the work “Three Dialogues on War, Progress and the End of History,” Cardinal Biffi told his listeners that “the Antichrist presents himself as pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist.”

“He will convoke an ecumenical council and will seek the consensus of all the Christian confessions, granting something to each one. The masses will follow him, with the exception of small groups of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants,” he said.

[“]There are absolute values, such as goodness, truth, beauty,” Cardinal Biffi said…The preacher of the Spiritual Exercises added that “there are relative values, such as solidarity, love of peace and respect for nature. If these become absolute, uprooting or even opposing the proclamation of the event of salvation, then these values become an instigation to idolatry and obstacles on the way of salvation.”

…Cardinal Biffi affirmed that “if Christianity — on opening itself to the world and dialoguing with all — dilutes the salvific event, it closes itself to a personal relationship with Jesus and places itself on the side of the Antichrist.”

This is a song that Biffi has sung before; back in 2000 the BBC reported that

Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, 71, said that the modern Antichrist, identified in the Book of Revelation as a seven-headed beast, was most likely now disguised as a philanthropist supporting creeds like vegetarianism, animal rights or pacifism, or advocating dialogue with Orthodox or Anglican believers.

…He was speaking at a conference of academics in Bologna last weekend, on the 19th century Russian mystic Vladimir Solovyov, who predicted horror and disaster in the 20th century.

For those of us who are not as familiar with nineteenth-century Russian mystical philosophy as we might be, The Transnational Vladimir Solovyov Society has a useful summary by Greg Gaut of the work cited by Biffi:

…This was a fictional work in the form of three dialogues among five Russians vacationing on the Mediterranean: a General, who represents a traditional Orthodox viewpoint; a Politician, who believes in Western cultural progress; the Prince, a stand-in for Leo Tolstoy; Mr. Z, a mysterious gentleman who takes an uncompromisingly religious view of all questions; and a Noblewoman, who facilitates the conversations and occasionally interjects pertinent questions and comments. Solovyov wrote that he totally agreed with the views of Mr. Z, but that he “fully recognized the relative truth of the General and the Politician” (10:87).

…To explain his view on the end of history and the Anti-Christ, Mr. Z then read a manuscript given to him by a monk named Pansophius, entitled “Short Tale of the Anti-Christ.” According to the tale, the last great war in human history occurred in the twentieth century when the movement of Pan-Mongolism, that is, the Asian nations led by Japan, conquered Europe. Later the Europeans rebelled and set up the United States of Europe. Then a remarkable man came to power, “whom many called a superman,” a man who believed in the good, God, and the Messiah, “but loved only himself” (10:197-8). He brought the whole world under a universal monarchy which provided bread and circuses to all. Seeking to unify all Christian believers under him, he called Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to a congress. Most pledged loyalty to him, but three religious leaders–the pope, a famous Orthodox starets, and a Protestant theologian–recognized him as the Anti-Christ. Together with their few followers they escaped to the desert where they agreed to unify all true Christians under the pope. Just when it seemed that the Anti-Christ was established for all time, the Jews exposed him, and after a huge battle, overthrew him. Then the true Christ descended, and the Christians and Jews rose from the dead and ruled with Christ for 1,000 years. When Mr. Z concluded the tale, it came to light that the Prince had fled during the reading of the manuscript, precisely at the moment when the true Christians had unmasked the Anti-Christ.

Gaut adds some commentary on the “Pan-Mongolism” fantasy:

…He worried not just about the rise of the non-Christian East but also about the decline of the Christian West, including Russia. His deepest fear was that Christian culture was so weakened by pseudo-Christians (either believers who thought that mere faith was enough, or Tolstoyans who had no real faith), that the Church could no longer fulfill its universalizing mission in world history. The Christian West would have nothing to fear if it was spiritually strong and healthy, but if it continued its decline, then it was subject to retribution.

Substitute Muslims for the Yellow Peril theme, and we can see why Biffi might warm to Solovyov. However, an academic essay on the subject by Judith Deutsch Kornblatt (1) suggests that Solovyov is rather more interesting than to be simply grist for conservative punditry:

…our interpretation of the embedded story as a whole grows from a recognition of the distinction between the oral tale (a “joke” about the Antichrist) and the written one (his initial triumph, told in high melodrama), pointed out to us by Mr. Z. We might be tempted, as most Solovyov scholars have been, to read the prose text as declarative philosophy– it says what it means and it means what it is…Indeed, this is the type of reading of authoritative texts for which Tolstoy calls when he tells us, for example, that “Christ says exactly what he says”…When we go on to the oral story, however, we are reminded of Solovyov’s less transparent, problematic fictional discourse. We need literary tools, not to mention a sense of humor, to see the inter-play of the what and the how, of the content and the context…

One wonders if Biffi is aware of these subtleties. Either way, however, it is likely that the apocalyptic pop-culture of the English-speaking world will be interested in Solovyov only insofar as he can be reduced to some sort of Russian Hal Lindsey.

Meanwhile, WorldNetDaily carries a new piece on how “environmentalism is nothing less than the global elitists’ replacement ideology for communism/socialism.” The article champions senator James Inhofe, whose views on the subject I blogged here.

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(1) ‘The Truth of the Word: Solovyov’s “Three Conversations” Speaks on Tolstoy’s “Resurrection”‘, in The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 301-321.

East European Churches Seek to Redefine Human Rights

Following on from yesterday’s blog entry, news via Kommersant, under the headline “Christians Do Not Believe in Human Rights”:

Meeting of Christian leaders of CIS and Baltic countries ended in Moscow yesterday. One of the chief issues on the agenda was the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to reconsider the concept of human rights existing in secular world.

…”We are for changing the existing human rights, up to reconsidering the International Human Rights Declaration,” said Pastor Konstantin Benas, executive secretary of the United Russian Union of Gospel Faith Christians. “For there cannot be universal human rights,” he added.

Instead, human rights should mean: (1) the right of religious groups not to be offended, and (2) no gays. Interfax gives further details:

“We are confident that attempts to corrode traditional family values, legalize same-sex unions and drugs, give moral justification to abortions and euthanasia, promote ‘the culture of death’, inter-ethnic and inter-religious discord, violence, fornication, homosexuality and other vices dangerous for the individual and the society are destructive tendencies,” says the final document of the forum posted on the Moscow Patriarchate website on Monday.

Also at the conference was British cleric Colin Williams, who is General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches; a curious photo with the Kommersant report shows Williams surrounded by Russian priests who are pointing excitedly at something off-camera. The caption reads:

Russian Orthodox Church members showed the drawbacks of liberal values to Secretary General of the Conference of European Churches Colin Williams (center).

The cause of the agitation is left to our imagination.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has been on the receiving end of protests in London, due to his forbidding of gay pride marches on the grounds that such events are “satanic”. London mayor Ken Livingstone, who was Luzhkov’s host, tried to head off the problem by bizarrely suggesting that the protesters’ organiser, the indefatigable Peter Tatchell, was motivated by “Islamophobia”.

Anti-Gay News from Nigeria and Russia

An interesting article in the Lagos Vanguard gives a bit of cultural context to the pending anti-gay law in Nigeria, which I blogged on a few days ago:

…Beyond Christianity, homosexuality has been a taboo subject in Africa for mostly cultural reasons. It is a closet issue nobody wants to confront…[T]hat homosexuality is a closet issue is no reason to believe that the practice is totally alien in these parts. Like in South Africa where HIV positive men sleep with under-aged girls in the mistaken belief that sex with virgins cures HIV/Aids, homosexual acts are, in certain cases, believed in our part of the world to confer mystical powers on its practitioners. In some cases, it is seen as the harbinger of great wealth.

…It is a known fact that one of the reasons adduced for one of the bloodiest coups in Nigeria’s history was the alleged overwhelming presence of homosexuals in the government that was to be displaced. The April 22, 1990 coup, announced/led by Gideon Orka, was partly staged to oust the ‘homosexual’ regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. Likewise, homosexuals supposedly populate the Yan Dauda cult.

“Yan Dauda” is a Hausa term for male homosexuals and transvestites, rather than the name of an actual “cult”. The author of the article, Rotimi Fasan, concludes with a pretty obvious question:

It would seem to me that many of us did not have to learn to be attracted to the opposite sex. Rather we simply came to such realisation. Could the possibility that homosexuals have no control over their sexual preferences lead to such sympathetic understanding of their situation as might allow for a generally acceptable response to it?

Meanwhile, Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola’s support for the new legislation has the backing of the Roman Catholics:

[The Director of Social Communication, Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Rev. Patrick] Alumuku condemned any attempt by anybody or any group of persons to make same sex marriage a lawful practice in the country.

…”If we allow same sex marriage because some people say that they should have the liberty to do whatever they like, we should also allow rapists and armed robbers to have their way because they think they have the freedom to do so,” he said.

…”Because of his consistent opposition to this move, the Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), Most Rev. Peter Akinola, was last year given an award as belonging to the first 100 most influential people in the world,” he added.

The authoritarian views of Akinola and Alumuku are currently being echoed far away, in Russia:

[Pentecostal] Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, a Russian Protestant leader and a member of the Public Chamber of Russia, refused tolerance for gay parades’ participants.

‘The tolerance our sexual minorities mention so often, does not in reality correspond to the concept of ‘right.’ The fundamental human rights as formulated by the UN General Assembly in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, do not include anything like a right to vice and or a right to moral crime,’ Ryakhovsky said in his statement received by Interfax on Tuesday…He also regretted that heads of European capitals ‘miscall the aggressive propaganda of moral corruption “a spirit of respect of the universal human rights”.’

(Ryakhovsky, whom I’ve blogged before, owes much of his status and authority to Putin)

And, as ever, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad has a predictable perspective:

‘Nobody is urging to judge these poor people (gays – IF), or to discriminate against them. But the question arises, whether Churches can insist on having protection from gay propaganda, and the gay parade is such propaganda…propaganda of sin is allowed, while propaganda of religious values in multicultural societies is reduced to private life.’

According to Metropolitan Kirill, now it is time for Christians to consolidate stating their common position regarding the issue.

‘Otherwise the Moslems may stay alone to defend the traditional values, and due to a number of reasons their voices will be heard better, than the voices of Christian Churches,’ Metropolitan Kirill added.

(Nigeria links: hat-tip to Political Spaghetti)