Saturday, September 27, 2008

Iran: Jailed ayatollah asks Pope to help free him
Tehran, 26 Sept. (AKI) - Iran's jailed Ayatollah Sayyid Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi has written a letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other religious leaders asking them to help secure his release.

The ayatollah asked the pontiff to "...defend the divine credibility and spiritual sacredness" by asking the Iranian authorities to respect human rights. The letter was reportedly smuggled out of jail and distributed by the ayatollah's representative in Europe.

It was also addressed to Israel's chief rabbi, the grand mufti of al-Azhar and the Saudi ulema of Dar al-Fatwa.Addressing the Muslim leaders, Kazemeini says that "Political Islam is erasing the word of God and his prophet, Mohammed", while he asks rabbis to "make the world hear the cry of the Muslims in Iran, in the name of the same God that (we) jointly worship.

"Kazemeini has been jailed since October 2006 with a group of his supporters. They have been accused of anti-constitutional activities and heresy.

Rights group Amnesty International claims that Kazemeini has been tortured for the past two years. He is known to oppose political Islam and the presence of the mullahs and ayatollahs in government and institutions.

Kazemeini has broad support in Iran and before his arrest, thousands of people filled stadiums to hear his sermons.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Clearly d'Arcais would prefer that all opponents of his point of view just keep their mouths shut.

Critics say pope aims to change laws

NEW YORK, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Critics of the Roman Catholic Church say Pope Benedict XVI wants to retake Europe, if not in the number of its faithful, then at the political table.

Benedict presents the church as an underdog fighting for a voice in secular Europe when it actually remains a mighty power influencing law through friendly center-right governments, said Paolo Flores d'Arcais, editor of the left-wing Italian journal MicroMega.

"How can you say that you're an oppressed minority?" Flores d'Arcais asked. "That's madness."

* * * * My thoughts - "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” - attribution unknown. * * * *

This month in France, Benedict called for Roman Catholics throughout Europe to strongly support church opposition to same-sex couples, euthanasia, abortion and artificial insemination, The New York Times reported Sunday.

With Mass attendance and the number of priests at a record low, Benedict is wielding his influence to try to change laws in countries with church-friendly coalitions such as Germany, Italy and France, said John Allen Jr., who writes for National Catholic Reporter, a U.S. newspaper.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Benedict Defends Holocaust Pope Accused Of Silence


Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday that his predecessor Pius XII spared no effort to save Jews from the Nazis, one of the strongest Vatican defenses of a pontiff accused of silence during the Holocaust.

Benedict said during a meeting with a U.S.-based interfaith group that he wanted any prejudice against Pius to be overcome, praising what he called Pius's "courageous and paternal dedication" in trying to save Jews.

"Wherever possible he spared no effort in intervening in their favor either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church," Benedict said.

Pius XII reigned from 1939 to 1958 and was a Vatican diplomat in Germany, and its secretary of state before that. Some historians say that he did not do everything in his power to prevent Jews from being deported to concentration camps. His supporters say he made every effort to help Jews and other victims through quiet diplomacy.

Benedict said that Pius' many interventions were "made secretly and silently, precisely because, given the concrete situation of that difficult historical moment, only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews.

"The Vatican has rejected the accusations against Pius, and has started the process for his beatification. But the process has gone on for some years and there's been no indication that it is moving forward.

Pius' wartime conduct is an unresolved issue in the Vatican's delicate relations with Israel and with Jews, many of whom share in the criticism of Pius.

Jews and others have accused him of not speaking out loudly enough against the Holocaust. Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis.Last year, the caption of a photo of Pius at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem was the subject of a public spat between the Holy See and Israel. The caption said Pius did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."

In Italy, under Pius' papacy, convents opened up their doors to hide Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Benedict said the interfaith Pave the Way Foundation had gathered material that showed the extent of Pius' efforts. The group, based in New York, is active in improving Catholic-Jewish relations and organized a symposium in Rome on Pius.

"So much has been written and said of him during these last five decades and not all of the genuine facets of his diverse pastoral activity have been examined in a just light," the pope said during the meeting with members of the group in Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat.

"One can also come to appreciate the human wisdom and pastoral intensity which guided him in his long years of ministry, especially in providing organized assistance to the Jewish people," Benedict said.

The pope said Pius' efforts were recognized by Jewish communities and individuals during and after World War II. He said that on Nov. 29, 1945, shortly after the end of the conflict, 80 delegates of German concentration camps came to the Vatican and thanked Pius "for his generosity to them."

The German-born Benedict has made a point of reaching out to Jews, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, John Paul II. He has publicly condemned the Nazi regime and mentioned the Holocaust on several occasions. During a trip to Poland in 2006, he prayed at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Pius' death, and Benedict said he hoped that commemorations would provide the opportunity for further study "in order to come to know the historical truth, overcoming every remaining prejudice."

(© 2008 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Papal Address to World of Culture a "Surprise"
Secretary of State Notes Positive Reaction From Muslims

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 17, 2008 ( Benedict XVI's discourse in France to the world of culture was both surprising and well-received, particularly to its Muslim listeners, says the Pope's secretary of state.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone spoke with L'Osservatore Romano about the Friday evening address at the Coll├Ęge des Bernardins in Paris.

"[I]t was a superlative, high-flying lecture" in which "the Pope invited us to put ourselves before the word with a listening disposition, but I would also say with an attitude of veneration and with the intention of letting ourselves be transformed by this word, to be able to act according to it," Cardinal Bertone said. "So, word and work, God's work and man's work."

"Perhaps there was a bit of surprise," he continued, "because perhaps everyone was expecting the Pope to speak about faith, culture and reason, or politics perhaps."

The Holy Father "went well beyond that," Cardinal Bertone said. "As I was watching the audience, I had the impression of a clear separation between those who listened almost ecstatically and others who listened with the expression typical of people who are caught off-guard and find themselves confused."

The audience in Paris included a delegation of French Muslims -- there are some 5 million Muslims in France, between 5% and 10% of its population.

There was perhaps heightened interest in the Muslim reaction to the Pontiff's speech since exactly two years earlier, another address to the intelligentsia -- at the University of Regensburg in Germany -- brought a reaction from Muslims (sometimes violent) the effects of which (both positive and negative) continue to be notable today.

Cardinal Bertone said the Muslim listeners received Friday's address with interest.

"The Pope," the secretary of state said, "spoke about the word, about sacred Scripture, about the book of Christians that is certainly not the book of Muslims. I believe, however, that the representatives of the Muslim community listened with much interest."

I noted, for example, that they openly shared the Pope's invitation to seek God. In this, they do not think differently from us, indeed, it could be a point of contact."

Then, I can say that, when at the end of the meeting the Pope met and conversed with each of them whom he greeted, I recognized expressions of agreement."

"They were very happy and kind with the Pope," the cardinal affirmed. "So, I think that they were satisfied."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pope: Accept death at 'hour chosen by God'

Published: Tuesday, September 16, 2008

LOURDES, France -- People must accept death at "the hour chosen by God," Pope Benedict XVI told ailing pilgrims Monday in an anti-euthanasia message at Lourdes, the shrine that draws the desperate, sick and dying.

At the chilly open-air service outside the sanctuary reputed for its curative spring water, some faithful lay on gurneys, tucked into quilts and comforters. A few breathed with oxygen tanks. The 81-year-old pontiff administered the sacrament of the sick to 10 people, most in wheelchairs, anointing their foreheads and palms with oil.

While several European countries permit euthanasia, the Vatican vehemently maintains that life must continue to its natural end.

The pope said in his homily that the ill should pray to find "the grace to accept, without fear or bitterness, to leave this world at the hour chosen by God."

The Mass closed the pope's four-day trip to France, his first to the country since becoming pontiff in 2005. Benedict used the trip to lay out the church's opposition to rampant materialism and recognition of divorced Catholics' new marriages.

The pontiff also urged more room for religion in society, a topic that renewed long-simmering debate in France about its historic separation of church and state -- so staunch schoolchildren cannot wear Muslim head scarves or large crosses in public schools.

In a traditionally Roman Catholic country with a dwindling churchgoing population and a growing Muslim community, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has argued that dialogue with religious groups should play a greater role in national decisions .

Julien Dray, the spokesman of the opposition Socialists, complained that the stances that Benedict repeated in Lourdes were "fundamentalist" and "closed to the evolutions taking place in the church." During the visit, he said, Sarkozy "did not put enough distance between religious practice and the public sphere."

Francois Bayrou, a centrist politician, has said he had reservations about Sarkozy inviting the pope to the presidential Elysee Palace because it is a symbol of the French Republic. Bayrou is a Catholic who showed up for Sunday Mass at Lourdes.

Despite the political debate that erupted during the trip, the main purpose of Benedict's visit was to mark the 150th anniversary of visions of the Virgin Mary to a Lourdes peasant girl, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, who was later named a saint.

The shrine in the foothills of the French Pyrenees draws 6 million pilgrims a year, many of whom believe that Lourdes' spring water has the power to heal and even work miracles.

Maryse Bargain, a 48-year-old woman from the Brittany region of northwest France, was among those praying for healing. She expressed hope that the pope, "someone else or the Virgin" might help cure the blindness she has suffered from since birth.

At Mass for the sick outside the gold mosaic facade of Lourdes' Basilica of the Rosary, the pope urged the ailing to remember that "dignity never abandons the sick person."

"Unfortunately we know only too well: the endurance of suffering can upset life's most stable equilibrium, it can shake the firmest foundations of confidence, and sometimes even leads people to despair of the meaning and value of life," the pope said.

"There are struggles that we cannot sustain alone, without the help of divine grace," he said.
"For each person, suffering is always something alien," he said. "It can never be tamed."

The pope's anti-euthanasia message followed up renewed debate on the subject this year in France following the death of a woman whose tumor burrowed through her head, leaving her disfigured and in constant pain. While Belgium and the Netherlands have legalized euthanasia, France permits patients to refuse treatment that can keep them alive but stops short of allowing euthanasia.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The four day trip Pope Benedict XVI took, seen here with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to Paris and Lourdes is seen as an attempt to reinvigorate Catholicism in France.

Pope speaks of secularism in first France visit

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians to make their voices heard in France and other countries that have strong traditions of secularism, saying Friday that politics and religion must be open to each other.

The pope embarked Friday on a four-day trip — his first to France as pontiff — that will take him from the presidential Elysee Palace to the Roman Catholic shrine in Lourdes.

Benedict was greeted by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, at a Paris airport, where a military band in plumed hats played a fanfare. Later in Paris, the pope was to address a gathering including Muslim leaders on the second anniversary of a speech that heightened tensions with much of the Islamic world.

Traditionally Roman Catholic France is wrestling with its changing religious landscape, and how to reconcile it with the secularism that underpins the modern French Republic. The country has a growing number of Muslims whose visible customs, such as wearing headscarves in public schools, have raised the hackles of officials determined to preserve the boundaries between church and state.

On the plane, Benedict expressed understanding for secular traditions, but added that, nonetheless, "Religion and politics must be open to each other."

"The presence of Christian values is fundamental for the survival of our nations and our societies," he said.

In a speech after talks with the pontiff at the Elysee Palace, Sarkozy promoted his idea of "positive secularism" — upholding the separation of church and state, while considering religions as beneficial for society, not a danger.

The French president said positive secularism could allow for a dialogue "on the meaning we want to give to our existences."

Similar comments have raised the hackles of Sarkozy's critics in the past. Secularism is so firmly entrenched here that one prominent politician, centrist Francois Bayrou, even questioned Sarkozy's decision to invite the pope to the Elysee Palace, saying that government and religion don't mix.

In a speech following Sarkozy's, the pontiff said he was convinced of the need for "new reflection on the true meaning and importance" of separation of church and state.

The pontiff said it was "fundamental on the one hand, to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the State towards them."

But he added that societies must also be "more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to — among other things — the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society."

The pope's agenda for later Friday included a vespers service at Notre Dame Cathedral, meetings with representatives of France's Jewish community and a speech before cultural figures and Muslim leaders.

His stay in the French capital coincides with the second anniversary of his speech about Islam that offended many Muslims. In the pope's 2006 Regensburg lecture to theologians in Germany, he quoted a 14-century Byzantine emperor who was explaining why spreading faith through violence is unreasonable.

The pope has said he is sorry for any offense his Regensburg remarks caused, and the rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, said he considers the incident closed.

"Through his speeches we know that he is a man of peace and dialogue," Boubakeur said.
France has Western Europe's largest population of both Jews and Muslims. Despite its Catholic roots, fewer than 5% of the nation's 62 million people attend Mass every week, according to a 2006 Ifop poll, and some of its centuries-old cathedrals are crumbling in towns that lack money or the motivation to fix them.

The pope's trip to France grew out of his desire to visit the Lourdes shrine in southern France near the Pyrenees while the sanctuary celebrates the 150th anniversary of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a local 14-year-old, Bernadette Soubirous.

The shrine draws 6 million people annually, some of them disabled or desperately sick, many of them hoping for a miracle. The Catholic Church has recognized as miraculous 67 healings linked to Lourdes from 1858 to the present.

Benedict told reporters on the plane, "We don't go to Lourdes looking for miracles. The love of the mother (Mary) is the true healing."

Lourdes was the last trip abroad for Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. When John Paul visited in 2004, he was 84 and suffering the final ravages of Parkinson's disease. He needed to be helped by aides. He died in 2005.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. .

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI waits to celebrate Mass at La Prairie in Lourdes on September 14, 2008 where the pontiff is on a pilgrimage to the shrine where the faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl 150 years ago.

Pope Benedict draws massive crowd in Paris
Updated Sat. Sep. 13 2008 7:42 PM ET
The Canadian Press

PARIS -- Pope Benedict condemned unbridled "pagan" passion for power, possessions and money as a modern-day plague on Saturday, as he led more than a quarter million Catholics at an outdoor mass in Paris.

Benedict was making his first visit as pontiff to the French capital, renowned for its luxury goods, fashion sense and cultural riches.

"Has not our modern world created its own idols?" Benedict said in his homily, and wondered aloud whether people have "imitated, perhaps inadvertently, the pagans of antiquity?"
"This is a question that all people, if they are honest with themselves, cannot help but ask," the pontiff said.

The 260,000 or so people who gathered on the lawns of the Esplanade des Invalides displayed a joyful outpouring of faith for this traditionally Roman Catholic country, which has witnessed a sharp decline in churchgoing in recent years.

Benedict has continued with a campaign started by his predecessor, John Paul, who worried that the ever-more affluent West was turning consumerism into a kind of religion and ignoring its Christian roots of spiritual values.

Paraphrasing from the New Testament, Benedict decried "insatiable greed" and said "the love of money is the root of all evil."

"Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even knowledge, diverted man from his true destiny?" the Pope asked.

In his homily, Benedict blasted modern society's thirst for these new "pagan" idols as a "scandal, a real plague."

The Pope urged the faithful to "shun the worship of idols. Do not tire of doing good!"'
Listeners welcomed his words.

"It was a vivid call to order about what is essential in life," said Herve Tarcier, a 49-year-old engineer who volunteered at the mass. "This was exactly the message our society needs."
Jacqueline Dudek, a 76-year-old great-grandmother from Paris, said she was glad much of France's political elite was there to hear the anti-materialism homily.
"They have plenty of things to learn," she said.

The late-morning mass ended peacefully, with followers pressing for a chance to touch the pontiff's robes or clutch his hand as he left the field. Security officers surrounded the Pope, and about a dozen sharpshooters watched over the crowd from the roof of a stately 19th century building overlooking the Esplanade.

It was Benedict's only public appearance Saturday before he flies to Lourdes on a pilgrimage to the shrine there, which draws millions of pilgrims each year, many of them hoping for miracle cures of physical or psychic ills.

Tens of thousands of faithful, many of them young people, had camped overnight on the Parisian field after hearing greetings from the Pope Friday night as he left a prayer service in Notre Dame.

On Friday, Benedict told young people they shouldn't fear spreading their faith in a society where secularism is entrenched and Islam is growing.

While most French are Catholic at least by tradition -- if not in practice -- the old yarn is that most go to church three times in their lifetimes: at their baptism, wedding and funeral.
France also has a fervent belief that faith and the state should be kept strictly separate.
Benedict and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who held talks on Friday, spoke publicly of the contribution religion can make to forging an ethical society.

"They say that Catholics in France are fewer and fewer, and less devoted. But you can see here that is not true," said Robert Pavilla, a 58-year-old school groundskeeper, gesturing toward the throngs of people on the Paris esplanade Saturday morning.

causa nostrae laetitiae: Help this video to change the tide of the election

causa nostrae laetitiae: Help this video to change the tide of the election
Do not be afraid to spread the faith – Pope Benedict
Sunday, September 14, 2008

PARIS (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI told a crowd of tens of thousands of young Roman Catholics that they shouldn’t fear spreading their faith. These days in France, with secularism entrenched and Islam growing, that’s easier said than done.

"Don’t be afraid,’’ the pontiff, clad in white under a spotlight with his arms outstretched, said to roaring applause on a packed square in front of Notre Dame cathedral on Friday night, on the first day of four in France. "Have the audacity to proclaim it.’’

The message wasn’t lost: Many listening said they know the fears of ridicule, the timidity about talking about faith at school or among friends, and the hesitation that they might come across as Bible-thumping proselytizers.

Fear, frustration and misunderstanding over religion – not just Catholic – run deep in French society. Three Jewish boys in skullcaps were treated for fractures and bruises after a suspected anti-Semitic brawl that started with one getting hit by a tossed walnut last week.

France is home to Western Europe’s largest populations of Muslims and Jews. While most French are Catholic at least by tradition – if not in practice – the old yarn is that most go to church three times in their lifetimes: At their baptism, wedding and funeral.

France also has another religion, "laicite,’’ a fervent belief that faith and the state should be kept strictly separate. That guiding philosophy, born out of the French revolution, is enshrined in a 103-year-old law that keeps church and public administration apart.

Its defenders watch closely for any sign, hint or suggestion that religion is encroaching on affairs of state. So they were eagle-eyed Friday when French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid the pope the honor of greeting him at a Paris airport and welcomed him to the presidential Elysee Palace.

Secularism is so firmly entrenched here that one prominent politician, centrist Francois Bayrou, questioned Sarkozy’s decision to invite the pope to the Elysee – even though Bayrou himself is Catholic.

Catholics gathered at Notre Dame said they sense the secular scrutiny as surely as the stare of the scorning stone gargoyles that look down from the cathedral’s towers.

"The problem is the secular majority,’’ said Antoine Elyn, a 19-year-old medical student at a Jesuit school, clutching a handout prayer book. "There is now a secular extremism that rejects all form of religion.’’

Secularism is a supposed safety valve: The idea that the state doesn’t play favorites among religions was originally aimed to help keep intolerance at bay.

"It’s the right principle, it’s just been pushed too far,’’ said Italian Salvatore Gatto, a 25-year-old engineer. "This visit is the chance for Catholics in France to get out of their houses and hoist up their faith.’’

A Socialist senator, Jean-Luc Melenchon, painted the pope’s visit as a deliberate effort to weaken France’s secular foundations. He wagged a finger at Sarkozy for getting too cozy.

The French leader has tested the secular taboos here by stressing the role of religion and, before he was elected, suggesting that the French state should fund the construction of mosques.

"For the first time in the history of republican France, a pope and a president of the Republic are demonstrating a shared policy,’’ Melenchon said. "In this sense, the secularism of our Republic is already in danger.’’

Amid such vehemence, religious faith in France can’t be worn on sleeves like in some other countries.

Priscille Choquet said many fellow teens bristle when her religion comes up. "People mock you, saying, ‘Don’t think that’ll go over here,’’’ she said.

And the faith is dwindling. Despite its Catholic roots, fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s 62 million people attend Mass every week, according to a 2006 Ifop poll, and some of its centuries-old churches are crumbling in towns that lack money or the motivation to fix them
The pope clearly injected enthusiasm for some downtrodden Catholics on Friday.

From a 2nd floor balcony, he greeted several hundred people who waited outside the building where he spent the night Friday. He thanked them for coming and invited them to an open-air mass Saturday.

Islam’s ‘Public Enemy #1

’Coptic priest Zakaria Botros fights fire with fire
By Raymond Ibrahim

Though he is little known in the West, Coptic priest Zakaria Botros — named Islam’s “Public Enemy #1” by the Arabic newspaper, al-Insan al-Jadid — has been making waves in the Islamic world. Along with fellow missionaries — mostly Muslim converts — he appears frequently on the Arabic channel al-Hayat (i.e., “Life TV”). There, he addresses controversial topics of theological significance — free from the censorship imposed by Islamic authorities or self-imposed through fear of the zealous mobs who fulminated against the infamous cartoons of Mohammed. Botros’s excurses on little-known but embarrassing aspects of Islamic law and tradition have become a thorn in the side of Islamic leaders throughout the Middle East.

Botros is an unusual figure onscreen: robed, with a huge cross around his neck, he sits with both the Koran and the Bible in easy reach. Egypt’s Copts — members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East — have in many respects come to personify the demeaning Islamic institution of “dhimmitude” (which demands submissiveness from non-Muslims, in accordance with Koran 9:29). But the fiery Botros does not submit, and minces no words. He has famously made of Islam “ten demands” whose radical nature he uses to highlight Islam’s own radical demands on non-Muslims.

The result? Mass conversions to Christianity — if clandestine ones. The very public conversion of high-profile Italian journalist Magdi Allam — who was baptized by Pope Benedict in Rome on Saturday — is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Islamic cleric Ahmad al-Qatani stated on al-Jazeera TV a while back that some six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Botros’s public ministry. More recently, al-Jazeera noted Life TV’s “unprecedented evangelical raid” on the Muslim world. Several factors account for the Botros phenomenon. First, the new media — particularly satellite TV and the Internet (the main conduits for Life TV) — have made it possible for questions about Islam to be made public without fear of reprisal. It is unprecedented to hear Muslims from around the Islamic world — even from Saudi Arabia, where imported Bibles are confiscated and burned — call into the show to argue with Botros and his colleagues, and sometimes, to accept Christ.

Secondly, Botros’s broadcasts are in Arabic — the language of some 200 million people, most of them Muslim. While several Western writers have published persuasive critiques of Islam, their arguments go largely unnoticed in the Islamic world. Botros’s mastery of classical Arabic not only allows him to reach a broader audience, it enables him to delve deeply into the voluminous Arabic literature — much of it untapped by Western writers who rely on translations — and so report to the average Muslim on the discrepancies and affronts to moral common sense found within this vast corpus.

A third reason for Botros’s success is that his polemical technique has proven irrefutable. Each of his episodes has a theme — from the pressing to the esoteric — often expressed as a question (e.g., “Is jihad an obligation for all Muslims?”; “Are women inferior to men in Islam?”; “Did Mohammed say that adulterous female monkeys should be stoned?” “Is drinking the urine of prophets salutary according to sharia?”). To answer the question, Botros meticulously quotes — always careful to give sources and reference numbers — from authoritative Islamic texts on the subject, starting from the Koran; then from the canonical sayings of the prophet — the Hadith; and finally from the words of prominent Muslim theologians past and present — the illustrious ulema.

Typically, Botros’s presentation of the Islamic material is sufficiently detailed that the controversial topic is shown to be an airtight aspect of Islam. Yet, however convincing his proofs, Botros does not flatly conclude that, say, universal jihad or female inferiority are basic tenets of Islam. He treats the question as still open — and humbly invites the ulema, the revered articulators of sharia law, to respond and show the error in his methodology. He does demand, however, that their response be based on “al-dalil we al-burhan,” — “evidence and proof,” one of his frequent refrains — not shout-downs or sophistry.

More often than not, the response from the ulema is deafening silence — which has only made Botros and Life TV more enticing to Muslim viewers. The ulema who have publicly addressed Botros’s conclusions often find themselves forced to agree with him — which has led to some amusing (and embarrassing) moments on live Arabic TV.Botros spent three years bringing to broad public attention a scandalous — and authentic — hadith stating that women should “breastfeed” strange men with whom they must spend any amount of time. A leading hadith scholar, Abd al-Muhdi, was confronted with this issue on the live talk show of popular Arabic host Hala Sirhan. Opting to be truthful, al-Muhdi confirmed that going through the motions of breastfeeding adult males is, according to sharia, a legitimate way of making married women “forbidden” to the men with whom they are forced into contact — the logic being that, by being “breastfed,” the men become like “sons” to the women and therefore can no longer have sexual designs on them.

To make matters worse, Ezzat Atiyya, head of the Hadith department at al-Azhar University — Sunni Islam’s most authoritative institution — went so far as to issue a fatwa legitimatizing “Rida’ al-Kibir” (sharia’s term for “breastfeeding the adult”), which prompted such outrage in the Islamic world that it was subsequently recanted. Botros played the key role in exposing this obscure and embarrassing issue and forcing the ulema to respond. Another guest on Hala Sirhan’s show, Abd al-Fatah, slyly indicated that the entire controversy was instigated by Botros: “I know you all [fellow panelists] watch that channel and that priest and that none of you [pointing at Abd al-Muhdi] can ever respond to him, since he always documents his sources!”

Incapable of rebutting Botros, the only strategy left to the ulema (aside from a rumored $5-million bounty on his head) is to ignore him. When his name is brought up, they dismiss him as a troublemaking liar who is backed by — who else? — international “Jewry.” They could easily refute his points, they insist, but will not deign to do so. That strategy may satisfy some Muslims, but others are demanding straightforward responses from the ulema.

The most dramatic example of this occurred on another famous show on the international station, Iqra. The host, Basma — a conservative Muslim woman in full hijab — asked two prominent ulema, including Sheikh Gamal Qutb, one-time grand mufti of al-Azhar University, to explain the legality of the Koranic verse (4:24) that permits men to freely copulate with captive women. She repeatedly asked: “According to sharia, is slave-sex still applicable?” The two ulema would give no clear answer — dissembling here, going off on tangents there. Basma remained adamant: Muslim youth were confused, and needed a response, since “there is a certain channel and a certain man who has discussed this issue over twenty times and has received no response from you.”

The flustered Sheikh Qutb roared, “low-life people like that must be totally ignored!” and stormed off the set. He later returned, but refused to admit that Islam indeed permits sex-slaves, spending his time attacking Botros instead. When Basma said “Ninety percent of Muslims, including myself, do not understand the issue of concubinage in Islam and are having a hard time swallowing it,” the sheikh responded, “You don’t need to understand.” As for Muslims who watch and are influenced by Botros, he barked, “Too bad for them! If my son is sick and chooses to visit a mechanic, not a doctor — that’s his problem!”

But the ultimate reason for Botros’s success is that — unlike his Western counterparts who criticize Islam from a political standpoint — his primary interest is the salvation of souls. He often begins and concludes his programs by stating that he loves all Muslims as fellow humans and wants to steer them away from falsehood to Truth. To that end, he doesn’t just expose troubling aspects of Islam. Before concluding every program, he quotes pertinent biblical verses and invites all his viewers to come to Christ. Botros’s motive is not to incite the West against Islam, promote “Israeli interests,” or “demonize” Muslims, but to draw Muslims away from the dead legalism of sharia to the spirituality of Christianity. Many Western critics fail to appreciate that, to disempower radical Islam, something theocentric and spiritually satisfying — not secularism, democracy, capitalism, materialism, feminism, etc. — must be offered in its place. The truths of one religion can only be challenged and supplanted by the truths of another. And so Father Zakaria Botros has been fighting fire with fire.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pope to find unlikely ally in France's Sarkozy

By Philip Pullella

Pope Benedict and French President Nicolas Sarkozy would appear to be unlikely allies in a battle to inject more Christian values back into Europe.

Yet when he welcomes Benedict to France for a four-day trip to Paris and Lourdes starting on Friday, Sarkozy, twice divorced and now married to ex-supermodel Carla Bruni, will likely have the German pope nodding in agreement more than once.

Sarkozy, who considers himself a "cultural Catholic" and attends Mass only occasionally, has been calling for a more active role for religion in public life and greater recognition of Europe's Christian roots.

Only last Saturday in Sardinia, the pope said Italy needed a new generation of Catholic politicians committed to using their religious beliefs to shepherd the country's future.

While no one expects the pope to go that far in France, where the split between Church and State is enshrined in the national identity, Benedict is expected to push for what he has called "a healthy secularism."

"I know people accuse me of being much too interested in religion ... I am not questioning the secular system," Sarkozy said last January after making a string of positive comments on faith and repeatedly citing God in speeches abroad.

Since the introduction in 1905 of a law on "laicite" -- the French concept of the separation of Church and State -- bringing religion into public affairs has been a major taboo.

But Sarkozy has branded this a "negative laicite," and wants a "positive laicite" that would value the hope faith brings and allow state subsidies for faith-based groups, Christian or not.

Benedict and Sarkozy might mention this in short speeches after their meeting at the president's Elysee Palace on Friday. "Everybody is waiting to see what they say," said Frederic Lenoir, editor of the French bimonthly Le Monde des Religions.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran told the Italian Catholic newspaper L'Avvenire he expects the pope to speak of "healthy secularism" at the Elysee Palace, his first stop after arrival.
But Catholicism in France, known as the "eldest daughter of the Church" due to its deep Christian roots, is anything but healthy.

Officially, some 75 percent of the French were baptized but far fewer identify themselves as Catholic and those who attend Mass on Sunday has fallen below 10 percent by most estimates.
"Undoubtedly, the level of religious practice is very low and the priest shortage is dramatic," Tauran said.

At the same time, France's committed Catholic minority has a new self-confidence and speaks out more openly than in the past. Lenoir said Pope John Paul's visit during the Paris World Youth Day in 1997 helped boost their Catholic identity.

One of the pope's main speeches will be on Friday evening at his "meeting with the world of culture" -- intellectuals, artists and scientists assembled in a renovated medieval hall.

He will make that speech on the second anniversary of his controversial lecture at Regensburg, Germany, which angered Muslims who saw it as implying that Islam was violent and irrational.
He also plans brief meetings with Jews and Muslims.

Benedict will spend most of his time in Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This year is the 150th anniversary of when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, 18 times in 1858.

In the past 150 years, the Church has recognized as "miracles" 67 medically inexplicable healings of sick pilgrims who visited Lourdes.

Some six million people a year, many of them sick or disabled, visit the city to drink or bathe in its spring waters.

(Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; editing by Keith Weir)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Notes Key Point in Paul's Damascus Experience
VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 3, 2008 (from

Christianity is not a moral code or a philosophy, but an encounter with a person, says Benedict XVI.

The Pope affirmed this today at the general audience held in Paul VI Hall. The Holy Father continued his series of catecheses on the thought and person of St. Paul, as the Church is marking the Pauline Jubilee Year.

Today's catechesis focused on St. Paul's experience of Christ on the road to Damascus, which the Pontiff called the "decisive moment of Paul's life."

"What happened on that road," the Pope asked.
To answer, he drew from two sources: the Acts of the Apostles and the letters written by Paul himself.

"The risen Christ appeared as a splendid light and addressed Saul, transforming his thinking and his very life," the Holy Father explained. "The splendor of the Risen One left him blind; presenting also externally what the interior reality was: his blindness in regard to the truth, to the light, which is Christ. And then, his definitive 'yes' to Christ in baptism reopens his eyes, and makes him truly see."

Intense event

Though Paul does not give details of the event, as Luke does in Acts, he makes it clear that it was the key moment of his life, Benedict XVI noted.

"[Paul] never spoke in detail about this event; I think he assumed that everyone knew the essentials of his story," the Pope said. "All knew that from being a persecutor, he was transformed into a fervent apostle of Christ. And this did not happen at the end of his own reflection but after an intense event, an encounter with the Risen One.

"Although not mentioning details, he refers to this most important event, that is, that he is also a witness of the resurrection of Jesus, the revelation of which he has received directly from Jesus himself, together with the mission of apostle."

The two sources -- the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul -- converge in a fundamental point, the Pope said: "The Risen One spoke with Paul, called him to the apostolate, made him a true apostle, a witness of the resurrection, with the specific charge to proclaim the Gospel to the pagans, to the Greco-Roman world.

"And, at the same time, Paul learned that, despite the immediateness of his relationship with the Risen One, he must enter the communion of the Church, be baptized, and live in harmony with the other apostles. Only in this communion with all will he be able to be a true apostle, as he wrote explicitly in the First Letter to the Corinthians."

A "conversion"

Benedict XVI clarified that Paul "never interprets this moment as an event of conversion."
This is because, the Pope contended, "this change of his life, this transformation of his whole being was not the result of a psychological process, of a maturation or intellectual and moral evolution, but it came from outside: It was not the result of his thinking but of the encounter with Jesus Christ. In this sense it was not simply a conversion, a maturing of his 'I,' rather, it was death and resurrection for himself: A life of his died and a new one was born with the Risen Christ. [...]

"At that moment, he did not lose all that was good and true in his life, in his heritage, but understood in a new way the wisdom, truth and depth of the law and the prophets; he appropriated them in a new way. At the same time, his reason opened to the wisdom of the pagans. Having opened himself to Christ with all his heart, he became able to engage in a wider dialogue with all, he made himself everything to all. Hence he could really be the apostle to the pagans."

The Holy Father further affirmed that Paul's experience has implications for the faithful of today.

"It means that also for us, Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ. Of course he does not show himself to us in that irresistible, luminous way, as he did with Paul to make him Apostle of the Gentiles," he said. "However, we can also encounter Christ in the reading of sacred Scripture, in prayer, in the liturgical life of the Church.

"We can touch Christ's heart and feel him touch ours. Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians. And in this way, our reason opens, the whole of Christ's wisdom opens and all the richness of the truth. Therefore, let us pray to the Lord to enlighten us, so that, in our world, he will grant us the encounter with his presence, and thus give us a lively faith, an open heart, and great charity for all, capable of renewing the world."

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Betancourt: meeting pope 'a dream come true'

By ARIEL DAVID, Associated Press WriterFormer hostage Ingrid Betancourt on Monday was able at last to thank Pope Benedict XVI, the man whose voice she said reached deep into the Colombian jungle "like a light" to comfort her during captivity.

Betancourt, who was rescued in July by Colombia's military after more than six years in the hands of leftist guerrillas, said her private audience with the pope was "a dream come true."

"From my first moment of freedom I wanted to meet and embrace" him, she said at a news conference in Rome, during which she was frequently on the verge of tears.

The former presidential candidate in Colombia credited her religious faith with helping her survive in the years following her kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC.

She told Benedict that she found comfort in her Catholic faith and in the knowledge that millions of people in Europe and across the world were calling for the kidnappers to free her and her fellow prisoners.

Betancourt told the pope that once, after a daylong forced march between rebel camps in the jungle, she collapsed in a hammock, exhausted and dispirited, only to switch on the radio and hear Benedict's voice speaking of her plight.

"It's hard to explain the psychological effect this has on a prisoner, what it meant to know we hadn't been forgotten at a time when we thought we didn't exist," Betancourt said. "The voice of the Holy Father was like a light."

Betancourt said she told the pope about her distress for the hundreds of hostages FARC still holds and her concern for Colombia's future after decades of civil war.

"The pope is pained by the suffering of the prisoners," she said. "I know his prayers are also dedicated to obtaining the freedom of all the prisoners and peace in my country."

Betancourt's eyes filled with tears as she made repeated appeals to the heads of FARC to lay down their arms and free the remaining hostages.

"The world is watching you, the world is asking you to make space in your hearts for love and forgiveness, as there is in my heart," she said.

Betancourt was accompanied by her mother and other family members as she arrived at the papal summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, to meet with the pope.

TV footage showed Betancourt, a black lace veil covering her head, as she shook hands with Benedict and smiled at him.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the aim of Betancourt's trip was "to thank the pope for his prayer, his commitment, his remarks in favor of all the hostages and her personally."

Betancourt "was very moved, very grateful to have this possibility," said Lombardi. He added the private meeting lasted about 20 minutes.

The pope had previously appealed for an end of kidnappings in Colombia and had met with Betancourt's mother at the Vatican in February.

After the audience, Betancourt told reporters she had not yet decided if she would return to Colombian politics, saying she now wants to concentrate on helping her fellow hostages and all those who suffer around the world.

"I want to serve my country, but not necessarily in the political arena," she said.

While Betancourt is in Italy, she is also meeting with political leaders, including the country's president, and she has visited the Sant'Egidio Community, a Rome-based lay Catholic group that mediates world conflicts

Monday, September 01, 2008

Pope makes political appeal after boat tragedy

Speaking at the end of a week that saw some 70 would-be asylum seekers drown off Malta, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday appealed to politicians in both Africa and Europe to tackle the problems behind illegal immigration.

"The emergency into which the wave of migration has recently developed demands our solidarity, but at the same time needs an effective political response," he said during his weekly Angelus address to thousands of Roman Catholic faithful in St Peter's Square.

The countries of origin as well as the countries which migrants were desperately trying to reach all needed to work towards removing the need to migrate and the crimes associated with illegal migration.

Each year tens of thousands of would-be migrants make hazardous crossings across the Mediterranean from African to European Union countries, leading to tragedies like that off Malta earlier this week.

Seventy would-be African immigrants perished when their boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea, according to eight companions rescued off Malta on Wednesday. This was one of the worst incidents of life loss at sea this year. The fishing boat Madonna Di Pompei rescued the eight men from a dinghy that was taking in water, and passed them on to an AFM patrol boat.

According to Neil Falzon, a UNHCR representative who has spoken with some of the survivors, the migrants left Libya’s coast on Thursday. On Monday, the dinghy started taking in water until it overturned. The survivors held on to the dinghy until they were spotted by the Madonna Di Pompei on Wednesday night. The group was originally made up of about 78, of whom four were women, three of them pregnant. According to media reports, the survivors are Eritean, Ghanaian, Somali and Sudanese.

The last case of serious loss of life off Malta’s shores came in May last year when 53 would-be immigrants perished at sea.

Medecins sans Frontiers estimates that some 380 illegal immigrants have died at sea over the first six months of 2008 in the Sicily Canal, the Mediterranean strip between Sicily and Tunisia. About 500 died there in 2006.

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