The newspaper headlines here have been astonishing. “So Far So Good,” read one banner headline; “Alliance of Faiths,” read another. And splashed across the front page of most papers Thursday was a picture of a smiling Pope Benedict XVI waving a Turkish flag. With gentle gestures and well-timed words, Benedict managed to charm the Turkish people and transformed his image from a crusty old anti-Turkish Islamaphobe to a politically savvy statesman in a matter of days.
Pope Benedict XVI has visited one of Turkey’s most famous mosques in what is being seen as an attempt to mend relations with the Muslim community. During his tour of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the pontiff paused in silent prayer alongside senior Muslim clerics. It marks only the second papal visit in history to a Muslim place of worship.
BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell finds Turks wary of the Pope’s historic visit and grapples with the religious controversy sparked by the pontiff’s speech in Bavaria. It must be a very strange visit for the Pope. In Turkey there are none of the cheering, adoring crowds he must be used to by now. The largish figure in white robes is hustled along by men in dark suits from mausoleum to bullet-proof car, from the car into the next meeting.
A council which refused to sell land for a new mosque has been criticised for its handling of the case. Ribble Valley Borough Council provoked anger when it refused the application in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in 2004. Local Government Ombudsman Anne Seex investigated a claim that the decision was taken in response to racially motivated opposition in the area.
ROME – When Zeinep Ozbek told her parents how she planned to pursue her education, they were shocked. Not only was the young Muslim woman about to leave her native Turkey, she was venturing into a strict traditional bastion of Christianity: Rome. Ozbek, 25, is now one of several Muslim students ensconced in the Vatican’s system of higher learning in and around the Italian capital. They attend pontifical universities, schools sanctioned by the Vatican, taking lessons from nuns and priests and sitting in classrooms decorated with crucifixes, in buildings adorned with larger-than-life statues and symbols of papal power. As Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey today, international attention is riveted on his attempts to improve troubled relations between Christians and Muslims. But here in Rome, at a more grass-roots level, a less-noticed experiment is taking place. Officially, the Muslim students attend the Jesuit-run Gregorian Pontifical University and other Vatican schools to learn about Christianity. In reality, they have become mediators navigating the suddenly very tricky world of interfaith dialogue and understanding. Some are meeting Christians for the first time, and they are often the first Muslims their Christian classmates have encountered. Several said they wanted to correct Western misconceptions about Islam. Interfaith dialogue was a favorite theme of the late Pope John Paul II, who became the first pontiff to enter a mosque. Benedict asks for an honest interaction that might ultimately lay bare mistrust and chafe historic sensitivities. His speech in September at the University of Regensburg in Germany was seen by many Muslims as an insult to their faith and its founder, the prophet Muhammad. In it, Benedict quoted a medieval emperor who branded Islam “evil and inhuman.” Ever since, in the face of Muslim anger, the pope has sought to explain that he was attempting to illustrate the incompatibility of faith and violence and that he has profound respect for Islam. In Turkey, crowds have been protesting the planned four-day visit. The Regensburg comments also proved problematic for Muslim students in Rome, and raised questions about the pope’s commitment to interfaith dialogue. “All the trouble of the recent months has been pushing people to think carefully about where dialogue is headed, and to realize how much more urgent it is,” said Father Daniel Madigan, head of the Gregorian’s Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures, where most of the Muslim students are based. The program at the Gregorian is facing some uncertainty because Madigan, a leading expert on Islam and interfaith relations at a time the Vatican needs such insight, is leaving Rome for a position at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington. Ozbek, the Turkish woman working on a master’s degree, had never met a Christian before she came to Rome. The Christian communities in Turkey are tiny and generally linked to ethnic groups such as Greeks or Armenians that Ozbek did not find particularly embracing. Some of her friends and relatives were afraid her immersion in a Catholic world would cause her to lose her identity. But that is a fear of those insecure in their faith, she said; for her, learning about the “richness” of Christianity only expanded her own devotion and helped her see “the other” as a fellow human being. “Generally I’m the first Muslim person they have met and they ask lots of questions,” she said. Ozbek wears a head scarf. An irony of her experience here is that most Turkish universities, obeying a strictly enforced government policy of secularism, would not let her attend class with her head covered. Naser Dumarreh, 34, of Damascus, Syria, said the pious Catholic milieu that Rome provided was more comfortable than a secular Western environment. “I’m living in a Christian society, not a Western society, and there’s not such a big difference from an Islamic society,” said Dumarreh, one of the first Middle Easterners to join the program. The students said they felt a fair amount of pressure as representatives of Islam. “They expect me to know everything about Islam, to be able to quote all the verses of the Koran by heart,” said Mustafa Cenap Aydin, 28, a Turk who has been studying in Rome for three years. But he says there is a mutual learning curve. Until arriving at the Gregorian, he did not know of the many positive references to Christianity contained in the Koran. “I’m not the same Mustafa who came here,” he said. Several of the students said understanding Christianity had broadened their understanding of Islam, a later religion that incorporates some of the earlier Christian and Judaic traditions. “To study in Rome on Christianity means to me to discover the historical, literary and theological background of the Koran,” said Esra Gozeler, who is working here on her PhD and teaches theology at the University of Ankara in Turkey. Omar Sillah, a 30-year-old student from Gambia who is specializing in the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), has seen the traditions of his Muslim faith reflected in Catholicism. He knew Christians before coming to Rome; in fact, he studied at a missionary school in Gambia. But Rome was an eye-opener. After the pope’s Regensburg speech, Sillah said, he was bombarded with e-mails and questions from fellow students. He told them that a religion of violence and evil “is not the Islam that I follow.” His goal, he said, is to show Christians in Rome “by our actions” a different kind of Islam. But he doesn’t mind the endless queries. “That’s our goal – that’s dialogue,” he said.
The conflict between Western society and Muslim extremism has called into question the reality of multiculturalism in the Netherlands. In a guest article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, writer Ian Buruma, born in the Hague in 1951, sees this as a result of the complacency that Netherlanders have had about the functioning of their multicultural system.
Mohammed Farjani says that since his arrival in the Netherlands 38 years ago he has wanted nothing more than to be integrated. Living among many other Moroccan immigrants in Slotervaart, Amsterdam, he became concerned that the groups of dark-skinned youths sometimes congregating on street corners would intimidate native Dutch. “We created an association to work for children in order to help them be like Dutch children, not different,” he says. He and other members of his group, the Buurtvaders (neighbourhood fathers), would patrol the streets, trying to persuade the boys to go to school or back to their homes at night. His organisation has been copied in other Dutch cities, and has been held up as a model of good citizenship.
Islam is often “misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented”, according to Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm. At the launch of Islam Awareness Week in Glasgow Central Mosque, he reiterated the Scottish Executive’s belief in religious diversity. Mr Chisholm said anti-Islamic comments or abuse would not be tolerated. During the speech, he revealed that First Minister Jack McConnell hoped to meet imams across Scotland.
WASHINGTON – Mohammad Malik, owner of Bismillah Halal Meat in Langley Park, doesn’t have Thanksgiving off. He will spend the day in his store, cooking the food his Muslim customers want for the holiday – lamb and goat roasts and pound after pound of rice. But recently, more people have come in requesting something different: turkey. “I guess more and more people getting into that tradition,” said Mr. Malik, 34, of Gaithersburg. “Just as an American, they are celebrating Thanksgiving. I guess more people, Muslim people, are going, ‘Why not have a turkey?”‘ Although there is still no nationwide distributor of turkeys that are “halal,” or slaughtered according to Islamic law, halal food stores in Maryland and around the country report increasing demand for the birds as more Muslims immigrate to the United States and assimilate into the mainstream. In 2000, Maryland had an estimated 52,867 Muslims, the eighth-highest population of any state, according to the Glenmary Research Center, a leading religion research group. Most of the state’s Muslim population is concentrated in Baltimore and suburban Washington. Like the Pilgrims who first stepped onto Plymouth Rock centuries ago, Mohammad Sizar, owner of Sizar’s Food Market in Columbia, is an immigrant who fled persecution for a new world. Now a citizen, he left Iran during the revolution more than 20 years ago, but was constantly drawn back to his homeland because he had a good job there. “I had to choose, American or Iran,” he said. “When I decide I want to be an American, I read about Thanksgiving and I say, ‘OK, why not?”‘ Some Muslim immigrants refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving at first, thinking it is a Christian holiday that does not apply to them, Mr. Sizar said. But as they become more informed about American culture, they understand the tradition. “Thanksgiving is a nice holiday and it has very good message, you know,” said Mr. Sizar, 46. “It is a time to bring everybody together and it is not something that belongs to the religion.” Last year, Mr. Sizar took 35 orders for Thanksgiving turkeys, but this year he had 50 orders a week before the holiday. He’ll probably order 75 from his distributor, American Halal Meat in Springfield, Va., and still run out, he said. Although it was too early to tell a week before Thanksgiving, Mr. Malik estimated he would take more turkey orders this year as well. Years ago, one of Mr. Sizar’s Muslim friends who did not celebrate the holiday asked him why he did. “I said there was nothing wrong,” Mr. Sizar said. “I am Muslim but I am American, you know?”
Dutch Muslims have criticised a government proposal to ban women from wearing the burqa or veils which cover the face in public places. Dutch Muslim groups say a ban would make the country’s one million Muslims feel victimised and alienated. The Dutch cabinet said burqas – a full body covering that also obscures the face – disturb public order and safety. The proposed ban would apply to wearing the burqa in the street, and in trains, schools, buses and law courts in the Netherlands. Other forms of face coverings, such as veils, and crash helmets with visors that obscure the face, would also be covered by a ban. Critics of the proposed ban say it would violate civil rights. The main Muslim organisation in the Netherlands, CMO, said the plan was an “over-reaction to a very marginal problem.”