Russia

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

Glimpse of wider Orthodox debate: Will Russian priests keep blessing weapons of mass destruction?

egular GetReligion readers are probably aware that I am a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Readers who have been paying close attention (including a few in Russia) know that I attend an Orthodox Church in America parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that — while largely made up of converts — has Russian roots and members who are from Russia and Romania. When our senior priest (from the American South) does some of the Divine Liturgy in Old Church Slavonic, you can hear people reciting the rite by memory.

When I talk to Russians about subjects linked to Russia and the church, I hear all kinds of things — ranging from realistic concerns about life in Russia to worries and frustrations about how Americans often forget that there is more to Russia and the Russian worldview than Vladimir Putin.

However, when you read U.S. news reports about Russian Orthodoxy the assumption is always that the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime are one and the same. However, many Orthodox believers reject much of what Putin does and are concerned about the church being tied too closely to the state. Russians also see tensions between church and state that are rarely mentioned in news reports, tensions linked to political and moral issues, such as abortion. In other words, they see a more complex puzzle.

Every now and then I see a U.S. media report that — for a second — seems aware of complexities inside Russia and inside the Russian Orthodox Church. The Religion News Service recently ran this kind of feature under the headline: “Russian Orthodox Church considers a ban on blessing weapons of mass destruction.” Here is the overture:

MOSCOW (RNS) — Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.

As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

This may sound simplistic, but here goes. With most news events that involve elections, or votes to settle disputes inside an organization, there will be a winning side and a losing side.

Life is more complex than that, of course, and the “winners” of a single vote may not be the winners over the long haul. But let’s say that the winners keep winning the big votes for a decade or two.

At that point, journalists need to do one of two things. First, journalists can produce a story that, as Job 1, focuses on what the winners plan to do (since they won) and then, as Job 2, covers how the losing side plans to respond. The alternative is to write a major story about the winning group and then, to offer needed balance, to write a second story about how this outcome will affect the losing side.

With that in mind, please consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: “U.S. Methodist leaders lay plans to resist vote against same-sex marriage.” That is one way to state the issue — looking at this from the losing side of the equation.

It would be just as accurate to say that this was a vote — the latest of many — defending the United Methodist Church’s stance in favor of ancient (thinking church history) doctrines on marriage and sex. You could also say that the key votes focused on whether UMC clergy can be required to honor their ordination vows to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline. However, that would be the point of view held by the winners, after that special global UMC general convention held recently in St. Louis.

So the Post team doing? The headline states the editorial approach: This is a feature story built on the reactions on the losing side in St. Louis, the plans of the left-of-center establishment that has long controlled UMC life in the United States. That’s it. That’s what readers get. Thus, the overture:

When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.

In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision.

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News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

As European blasphemy laws endure, journalists should consider how words can get them in trouble

Here’s an explosive combination: The democratic demand for freedom of speech and the equally emotionally laden demand that sincerely held religious beliefs not be subjected to indiscriminate insults and scorn.

Religiously speaking, we’re talking about blasphemy, an issue contemporary Westerners are apt to believe is more of a concern in Muslim communities and highly autocratic nations such as Russia — and which they would be correct to conclude.

Journalistically and artistically speaking, we’re talking about the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the novelist Salman Rushdie. Both were victims of blasphemy charges by Muslim. The former ended in horrific violence.

Now, Foreign Policy magazine — on the occasion of the Hebdo attacks fourth anniversary, and the 30th anniversary of the blasphemy fatwa issued against Rushdie by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini — has published an intriguing analysis piece on this issue. It ran under this headline:

30 Years After the Rushdie Fatwa, Europe Is Moving Backward.

Blasphemy laws have been given new life on the continent.

Here’s a hefty chunk of the Foreign Policy essay.

But despite the unanimous rhetorical support for free speech after Charlie Hebdo, blasphemy bans have become more firmly anchored in some parts of the continent in recent years. In a recent case, the European Court of Human Rights even reaffirmed that European human rights law recognizes a right not to have one’s religious feelings hurt. The court based its decision on the deeply flawed assumption that religious peace and tolerance may require the policing rather than the protection of “gratuitously offensive” speech. Accordingly, it found that Austria had not violated freedom of expression by convicting a woman for having called the Prophet Mohammed a “pedophile.”

Some have argued that the court’s decision was a necessary defense of an embattled Muslim minority vulnerable to bigotry and religious hatred. But laws against religious insult and blasphemy are generally different from hate speech laws—which are problematic in themselves—that purportedly protect people rather than abstract religious ideas and dogmas.

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A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

My wife was born in Israel and most of her extended family still lives there. We have several close friends living there, plus I also have journalist friends and acquaintances in Israel.

It’s wonderful to have so many people I care about in a nation to which I’m deeply connected. However, this means that when we visit, which is often, we generally have a packed schedule. This leaves us little down time for rest and seeking out new experiences, even when we’re there for a couple of weeks or more.

So for that we schedule stopovers in Europe, either going or coming. Just the two of us and a rented car, exploring and hanging out where our interests take us, including  beautiful and nourishing environments. We're also drawn to Jewish historical sites, old synagogues and the like.

We’re now thinking about another trip to Israel this spring or summer. But this time, we’re considering skipping our usual European respite. Why? Because of the increasingly overt anti-Semitism.

We have no desire to either experience it anew or spend our money in societies where the dislike of Jews and Israel are menacingly on the rise.

A disturbing survey, released just last week, by the European Union on the growing insecurity of the continent's Jews — and their increased desire to emigrate — prompted our reevaluation. Here’s part of how Bloomberg reported the survey's chief findings.

Insecurity fueled by anti-Semitism prompted a growing number of British, German and Swedish Jews to consider leaving their countries, according to a landmark survey conducted by the European Union.

Nine out of every 10 Jews sense anti-Semitism is getting worse with some of the most acute concern registered in northern Europe, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The survey is the largest of its kind worldwide and polled more than 16,000 Jews in 12 countries.

“Mounting levels of anti-Semitism continue to plague the EU,” said Michael O’Flaherty, the Irish human rights lawyer who runs the Vienna-based agency. “Across 12 EU member states where Jews have been living for centuries, more than 1/3 say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews.”

Concerns over safety are prompting Jewish communities in some of the EU’s biggest economies to question whether they should remain, according to the data. In Germany, their share soared to 44 percent from 25 percent six years ago.


The BBC ran its online story on the survey under the headline, “Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report.”

Let that sink in for a moment. “Pervades.”

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PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

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Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Anyone who has studied the history of Orthodox Christianity knows the details of this story, as well as the arguments about its significance.

As the first Christian millennium was drawing to a close, something big happened among the East Slavic and Finnic tribes of Europe. As always, the change involved economics, culture, military might and, last but not least, religion.

Here is a typical short take on this complicated subject:

The chronicles report that the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. … They breathlessly reported back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell if they were on earth or in heaven.

Thus, Prince Vladimir was baptized In 988 and commanded his whole nation to follow his conversion to Orthodoxy.

Just in case you missed it, one of the key words in this account is “Kiev.”

In the past week or so, I have received all kinds of contacts asking for my take on mainstream news coverage of the split that has taken place between the giant Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch based — with a tiny, persecuted flock — in Istanbul.

To be blunt, this topic is so complex that most of the Orthodox folks that I know think it would be next to impossible for journalists to handle it in a few inches of type or sound bites. Many of the Orthodox are reading the transcripts of statements by Orthodox leaders and that’s that.

However, I would like to note a few key issues that news consumers should watch for, when reading about this important story.

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