Is Lebanon Lost?

Evidence of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon wasn’t  hard to come by as I travelled in the country a few years ago.  Visiting the world-renowned ruins of Baalbek,  for instance, meant entering Hezbollah-controlled territory in the Bekaa Valley.  On the way to the archeological site, I passed numerous yellow and green Hezbollah flags and banners, posters of Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, as well as sundry Shia ‘martyrs’.  The women we passed along the road were all dressed in black:  a sign that we were in Shia territory.   I must confess that I was tense as we approached the checkpoint, but we were waved through without any problem.

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Columns of the Temple to Jupiter

The city of Baalbek had its origins in the 3rd millennium BC as a Phoenician place of worship to the god Baal.  In 47 BC Julius Caesar made Baalbek capital of his Roman colony here.  Over the next 200 years a succession of Roman emperors oversaw the construction on the site of temples in honour of Rome’s gods.  The columns in the photo above are what remains of a temple dedicated to Jupiter.   A trip to Baalbeck is a must-see for any visitor to Lebanon.

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Evidence of Hezbollah on the way to Baalbek  (I have no idea what the Arabic on the Hezbollah banners says.)

At the time I visited Lebanon, Hezbollah held sway largely in the Bekaa Valley. Today, Hezbollah, incredibly, is the most powerful member of Lebanon’s current ruling coalition.  How could this have happened?

The answer is, in one word, Iran.  The Shiite militia group hizb’allah, ‘party of Allah’, or Hezbollah, was formed in 1985, aided and abetted by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a resistance group to counter Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.  At the end of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Hezbollah was the only major militia allowed to retain its weapons, in spite of a UN Security Council resolution to the contrary.  In 1992, Hezbollah began running candidates for Lebanon’s government.  In 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon,  Hezbollah claimed the credit for driving the Israelis out.  In 2005, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb.  More recently, Hezbollah has seen more than 1000 of its members killed  fighting on the side of Bashar Assad and Iran in the Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah’s influence only keeps growing, not just in Lebanon, but in the wider region. Hezbollah is working with Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, and is allegedly  arming and training the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen as well.  Returning the favour, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is said to be building underground arms factories right in Lebanon itself.  Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon now constitutes Iran’s most valuable proxy in the Middle East.

Is it still possible, even at this late date, to wrest control of Lebanon from the clutches of Shiite Iran?  That is what Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his son Crown Prince  Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) appear to have in mind.  On 4 November, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, pressured to resign (most likely), and is now being held against his will (allegedly).  It is believed that King Salman removed PM Hariri–a Sunni Muslim and a citizen of Saudi Arabia as well as Lebanon–because he failed to adequately deal with Hezbollah. Hariri’s ‘kidnapping’ is merely the opening salvo in a tug-of-war between the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran over Lebanon’s future.   There’s more to come, for sure.

Iran is very open about its ultimate goal:  the destruction of Israel.  I mentioned earlier how I saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon.  I also saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence on the other side of the world, in Buenos Aires, in a park.

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On 18 July 1994, a Hezbollah suicide bomber from south Lebanon detonated a car bomb in front of the Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The explosion killed 85, wounded 300, and destroyed the building.  The scene of what was once a cruel terrorist attack on innocent people has been turned into a place of quiet contemplation.

Being Iran’s proxy in the region makes Lebanon extremely vulnerable in any coming confrontation with Israel.  When I was in Lebanon, I encountered people so opposed to the Shiite militia/terrorist organization that they literally spat out the name, “Hezbollah.” For their sake and Lebanon’s, I hope it’s not too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Terror on Temple Mount

Today is Tisha B’Av, the saddest day for the Jewish people in their entire lunar calendar.  This is a day of fasting and reflection as Jews recall the great calamities that befell their people on Tisha  B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av.  Tradition has it that both Jerusalem Temples were destroyed on this day:  Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and Herod’s Temple in AD 70.  Also on this same day, the last Jewish fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba Revolt fell in AD 135. A  year later, the Temple area was ploughed under by the Romans, again on TishaB’Av.

I can’t help but think that recent events on the Temple Mount must add to the Jewish sense of mourning today. A little over two weeks ago, Arab Israelis smuggled guns onto the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif to Muslims).  Three of the gun smugglers then trained their guns on policemen standing guard just outside the site, killing two Israeli Druze police officers, before being themselves killed.  As a way to prevent further attacks of this nature, Israel installed metal detectors at two of the gates opening onto the Temple Mount and closed the others.  We all know how well that went over with certain members of the Muslim population.  Not content merely to boycott the Temple Mount or riot, one ‘aggrieved’ Arab Israeli, wanting to avenge what he saw as an ‘assault on the al-Aqsa mosque’, slaughtered three members of a Jewish family as they were sitting down for their Shabbat meal.

Mounting metal detectors seems like a reasonable response to the attack, yet it was highly objectionable to many Muslims.  What Israel had done by installing metal detectors was to “change the status quo.” (I would have thought that a terrorist attack on the Temple Mount had already changed the status quo, but that was not what the Muslim objection was all about.)

What is the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount?  Although the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is sacred to both Jews and Muslims,  Jews are not allowed to pray there.  Before Jews are allowed to enter the compound, their belongings are meticulously checked for prayer shawls and phylacteries.  On the esplanade itself, patrolling police carefully scrutinize Jewish faces for moving lips, a telltale ‘giveaway’ that the Jewish visitor just might be praying.  Two weeks ago, the police were checking for moving lips, but missed terrorists moving guns onto the Temple Mount.

The idea that it is illegal for a Jew to pray on the former site of the Jewish Temple–to even be seen moving his or her lips–should be abhorrent to anyone who cares about religious freedom and human rights.  Hard to believe, but it was a fellow Jew,  the Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, who bears the responsibility for the current status quo.

Up until 1917, the Temple Mount had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  In 1948, when Jordan seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Jordan transferred responsibility for the Temple Mount compound to itself.  Jews were not allowed to visit the Temple Mount while Jordan exercised control from 1948 to 1967.  With the retaking of the Temple Mount during the Six Day War in June 1967, Jews finally had control of the site of their two temples–for the first time in two thousand years.

But then Dayan, Israel’s defense minister at the time, in a stunning decision, relinquished control of the Temple Mount back to Jordan, reasoning thus:  for Muslims, the mount was a “Muslim prayer mosque” while for the Jews, the Temple Mount was no more than an “historical site of commemoration of the past…one should not hinder the Arabs from behaving there as they now do.”

Dayan’s first act on the Temple Mount was to have the flag removed that Israeli paratroopers had raised there.  Next, he cleared out the paratroop company that was supposed to remain permanently stationed on the northern part of the Temple Mount. Then,  he forbade Jewish prayer and worship on the compound (although he insisted that Jews could visit the site).  He left the Mount and its management in the hands  of the Islamic Religious Endowments Authority, or Waqf.  (The Waqf is entirely controlled and funded by the Jordanian government.) Jordan would continue to have control over what happened on the Temple Mount, while Israel would be responsible for security around the perimeter of the esplanade. Dayan believed that, by relinquishing control of the Temple Mount to the Jordanian Waqf,  he would avoid a larger conflagration with the Muslim world.

For Israel to put metal detectors on the Temple Mount was a sign,  in the eyes of many Muslims, that Israel had wrested control of the Temple Mount from the Muslim Waqf–an unlawful act.

Dayan’s magnanimous concession to the Muslim world in 1967–continued control over the Temple Mount–did not win the Jewish state any friends in the neighbourhood in the ensuing years.  Given the obvious lack of control by the waqf overseer two weeks ago, leaving the Temple Mount in the hands of a dubious ‘peace partner’ is likely to lead to a larger conflagration, just the opposite of what Moshe Dayan intended.  The status quo is no longer tenable.

 

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(This is the most volatile piece of real estate on the planet:  Temple Mount /Haram al-Sharif). This picture of the Temple Mount with its prominent Dome of the Rock was taken on my recent visit to Israel.  As I had been up on Temple Mount on a previous trip, I decided to stay down below at the Western Wall.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Betrayal at the UN

In eighteen days time, Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency will have ended and President-elect Trump will have been installed as the 45th president of the USA.  By now, many have likely forgotten how Pres. Obama, in office for only a few months and before he had accomplished anything of note, was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.  Widely criticized for their choice of recipients, the Norwegian Nobel Committee justified their selection of the fledgling US president thus:  It was because Pres. Obama had “created a new climate in international politics.”  (The award was intended, as much as anything, as a rejection of the foreign policies of Pres. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.)

In 2009, Pres. Obama hadn’t as yet created the “new climate in international politics” that the Norwegian Nobel Committee believed he had.  But that is not the case eight years later.  Just look around at the world he leaves for his successor.  The world’s greatest exporter of terrorism, Iran, is billions of dollars wealthier, courtesy of the US.   An ascendant Russia now ‘calls the shots’, literally, in the Middle East, thanks to a leader content to “lead from behind.”

Not only has Pres. Obama empowered two of the biggest threats to the West and, ultimately, to world peace–Iran and Russia–he has abandoned the one and only true democracy in the Middle East, Israel.  It had been a longstanding tradition that when the United nations Security Council (UNSC) attempted to pass resolutions targeting Israel over the issue of so-called ‘settlements’, the US as one of the permanent members would use its veto power, and thus the resolution would fail to pass.  On 23 December 2016, the Obama administration, breaking with tradition, abstained rather than using its veto power, thereby allowing UNSC resolution 2334 to pass.

This unprecedented abstention will have far-reaching consequences.  Resolution 2334, unlike previous resolutions, calls for Israel not only to withdraw to the pre-June 1967 borders, but to withdraw from East Jerusalem.  Consider what such a withdrawal would mean for the Jewish people:  It would mean abandoning the Temple Mount, site of the First and Second Temples; it would mean forsaking the Western Wall where Jews pray; it would mean turning over to the Palestinians the entire Jewish Quarter of the city, including the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, the Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus.  Resolution 2334 calls for the Jewish people to deny their historic and religious connections to Jerusalem.  It calls for Israel to do the unthinkable!

 

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(Personal photo taken on a trip to Israel in 2014)

Israelis remember all too well what life was like when Jordan occupied the same territory (1948-67).  During the 1948 war between the nascent Jewish state and its Arab neighbours, Jordan seized control of the west bank of the Jordan River as well as the Old City of Jerusalem.  Jordan’s seizure and annexation of this territory, interestingly, was viewed as an illegal act by the Arab League; Britain recognized it.  The 1949 Armistice Agreement that ended the war was supposed to give Israelis access to their religious sites in the Old City/East Jerusalem, but Jordan never honoured the agreement.  Israelis were barred from entering the Old City; some 58 ancient synagogues in the Jewish Quarter were either desecrated or destroyed; and tombstones from the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives were used to build army barracks and even latrines for the Jordanian army.  Slum dwellings were allowed to abut the Western  Wall where Jews once prayed.  The site most sacred to Jews worldwide came to resemble a garbage dump.

Contrast Israel’s treatment of religious sites today with that of Jordan’s.  In Israel, all religious groups are allowed administration over their own holy sites.  The administration of the Temple Mount has been retained by the Islamic Waqf, as it has been for centuries.

Because the US president abandoned Israel at the UN, expect to see more boycotts, divestment, and sanctions placed on Israel goods (economic warfare); more Israelis and their supporters hauled up before the International Criminal Court (lawfare); and, ominously, anticipate even more resistance a.k.a. terrorist attacks.  The Palestinian Arabs have had their claims to East Jerusalem affirmed by the UN Security Council, so why bother to negotiate with the Israeli government?

With the West’s enemies empowered and Israel abandoned at the UN, war is more likely now after eight years of an Obama presidency than before. This is the new climate in international politics created by the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize:  Pres. Obama.

 

Glamourizing Oppression

There was a Marks & Spencer (M&S) Store for a time in a city where I once lived.  I liked to wander the aisles of this British commercial icon; it was like taking a mini-trip ‘across the pond’.  There were tantalizing jams and marmalades, biscuits, candies, etc.:   products that one would normally encounter only in the UK.  Mostly I looked and salivated, though.  I think I purchased products from the frozen food case a couple of times.  Unlike the food offerings, the store’s limited selection of women’s clothing held little appeal for me, as it would have for most North American women, I believe.  I found their clothing rather matronly, even dowdy.  There must have been too many consumers like me, for the store closed its doors for good after what seemed to me like the briefest of forays into the local market.

M&S’s latest business venture is making news headlines these days.  For the first time, M&S will offer burkinis for sale in the UK, beginning with their flagship store at Marble Arch in London.  A burkini,  for those who don’t know, is a women’s bathing ‘costume’ which meets the Quranic requirements for Muslim women.  Resembling the wet suit worn by divers, the burkini covers the whole body except for the face, hands, and feet.  Up until now, M&S sold burkinis only at its stores in Dubai and Libya.  M&S will be selling two versions in its London store:  a blue item with a floral print across the front, and a black number with a paisley pattern.  “It’s  lightweight so you can swim in comfort,” promises the ad.

I wonder about that “swim in comfort” claim.  I have seen a woman wearing a burkini.  It was at a public pool during adult swim time.  As I watched her doing lengths, seemingly oblivious to the swimmers around her–young men with their bare chests and sleeve tattoos, female swimmers  wearing the latest swimwear–I couldn’t help thinking:  What must it feel like to do lengths in a soggy body-length suit?  Maybe it was tolerable while in the water, but one certainly wouldn’t want to sit around in it after coming out of the water.

Like M&S, a number of the world’s foremost fashion houses have recognized that there is money, big money, to be made in Islamic fashion for women.  A 2013 report revealed that Muslims spend $266bn on clothing and footwear–more than Japan and Italy combined.  The biggest buyers of haute couture fashion are not Westerners, but Arab women.  Determined to capture a corner of the lucrative Islamic fashion market, the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana has launched, for the first time ever, a line of fourteen abayas ‘loose-fitting, full-length cloaks worn over clothes to conceal the woman’s shape’ with matching hijabs ‘head scarves’. Their new line of Islamic clothing, according to some, is so beautifully-made that even non-Muslim women would like to wear it.  Other fashion houses are getting into the act:  Chanel, H&M, Gucci, to name a few.

Thankfully, not everyone believes  that designing and selling clothing for Muslim women that meets Quranic standards is the right thing for Western businesses to do, and they are speaking out.  British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, herself a Shia Muslim, protests, “These companies might not think they are encouraging fanaticism, but they are.  They’re complicit in a version of Islam that believes women must be subjugated in public.”

Pierre Berge, French businessman and co-founder of the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, outraged by what fashion houses are doing, told a French radio station that “creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion…[that] designers who do are taking part in the enslavement of women…Designers are there to make women more beautiful, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.”

Another voice of protest is that of France’s Minister of Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol who argues that “What is at stake is social control over women’s bodies.  When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.”

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(Courtesy Pixabay)

Glamourizing abayas and hijabs by trimming them with black lace, beads, and flowers does not alter the garments’  purpose, namely, to conceal the feminine form from public scrutiny.

Is being made to wear abayas and hijabs a form of oppression?  And do those who design and sell the garments contribute to that oppression?   I still vividly recall a scenario I witnessed while sitting on a park bench in Vienna.  Having spent several hours inside the cool of Vienna’s war museum and not realizing how hot the weather outside had turned during that time, I started out for the bus stop, managing only to make it as far as the first park bench before being forced to take a ‘breather’.  As I sat there, a young female jogged by at a brisk pace, arms and legs bare, pony tail flying!  Behind her, along the path plodded three young Muslim women–comparable in age, I would guess–wearing hijabs and abayas, only their hands and faces exposed.  Looking uncomfortably warm, they plunked themselves down on the park bench down from me.  Their actions and that of the jogger spoke volumes to me that day.

Pope Francis: Peace through Religious Reconciliation

Economic sanctions had barely been lifted when President Rouhani was off to France and Italy to drum up business for Iran.  His visit will forever be remembered–not for anything he said or did, but for the silly actions of Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi who had Roman statues covered up so their nudity would not offend the Muslim guest.  This incident has grabbed most of the world’s attention and, as a consequence, scant notice has been taken of the closed-door meeting in the Apostolic Palace between the pope and the Iranian president.

At the end of the 40-minute session, the Vatican issued a communique which described the talks between the two as “cordial.”  Among the topics discussed was “the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfill, along with other countries in the region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, and to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking [emphasis mine].” Iran, a designated sponsor of terrorism, has a role to play?  Iran, a country that engages in acts of terrorism worldwide through its proxy Hizbollah?  Is the pope serious??

The Vatican also reported that, during the meeting, “common spiritual values emerged.”  At the end of their discussions, the pope presented Rouhani with a medallion depicting Saint Martin giving his military cloak to a shivering beggar.  (This is the traditional gift given by the pope to visiting statesmen.)  Pope Francis called the medallion “a symbol of gratuitous fraternity.”

That the pope would have a “cordial” meeting with a world leader who, two days before his inauguration, referred to Israel as a “wound on the body of the Islamic world” that “should be removed” is disturbing to supporters of the Jewish state.  There is no evidence that Rouhani has changed his view of Israel since then.

The pope’s meeting with Rouhani may be shocking to some, but it was predictable.  Since assuming the papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis has made outreach to the Muslim world a priority.  The lengths to which he is prepared to go in pursuit of this goal are unprecedented for a pope.  Nine months after taking office, the pontiff invited the secretary-general of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), at that time Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, to the Vatican for an audience, something no previous pope had ever done.  (The OIC forms the largest voting bloc in the UN.  This is the same organization that would like to have all criticism of Islam criminalized!). The two discussed Ihsanoglu’s vision of an historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, based on their common Abrahamic roots, a reconciliation vital for global peace and security.  The pope agreed to work towards making Ihsanoglu’s vision a reality.

Anyone following the pope can see that he has been true to his word.  In another unprecedented act for a pope,  Pope Francis made a trip to the Holy Land in May 2014 accompanied by two Argentine friends, religious leaders from the two other so-called Abrahamic faiths:  Rabbi Skorka and Omar Aboud.  While there, the pope also met with the current patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I.

A month later, the pope invited Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him at a prayer summit in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica.  In his address to those gathered in the garden, the pope called the presence of the two presidents, one a Jew and one a Muslim, a “great sign of brotherhood which you offer [Peres and Abbas] as children of Abraham.”  Allah’s name was invoked for the very first time in the Vatican (albeit out back in the gardens).

This past November, during his visit to a mosque in the capital city of the war-ravaged Central African Republic, the pope told the people gathered there that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.”

Are the Catholic pope and Rouhani, a trained Shia cleric, “brothers” as the pope claims? Paragraph 841 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which deals with the Catholic Church’s relationship with Muslims, reads as follows:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day [emphasis mine].

The Catholic Catechism claims that Catholics and Muslims “adore” the one God.  The Qur’an, on the other hand, makes it very clear that Muslims do not adore the God of the Christians!  Quite the contrary.  The Qur’an denies the existence of the Trinity (sura 5:73); denies the deity of Jesus (sura 5:72); and denies the divine Sonship of Jesus (sura 19:35).  Far from adoring the Christian God, the Qur’an issues repeated warnings of the “painful doom” (sura 5:73) that awaits anyone who ascribes “a partner to Allah” (sura 3:64).  Allah is not a ‘father’ and he most certainly does not have a ‘son’!

To overcome what are insurmountable theological differences, the pope (and he is not alone) has turned back to the patriarch Abraham.   Jews, Christians and Muslims are ‘brothers and sisters’ on the basis of their common ancestor, Abraham.  The notion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are spiritual kin is gaining traction beyond the walls of the Vatican.  At the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC  on 4 February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, herself a Catholic, invoked the name of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. “The same message stands at the center of the Torah and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad too,” she said before reading from the Gospel of John.

Indications are that Pope Francis has a vision of religious reconciliation not limited to the three  Abrahamic faiths.   A video released by the Vatican on the Feast of Epiphany in January, for example, included not only a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim, but a Buddhist as well.  In the video, the speakers express a common belief in love.  Are we looking at a future world religion without any dogmas or doctrines,  a world religion whose adherents share only a common belief in love?  That’s what the Vatican video would seem to suggest.

 

 

 

Violence against Women: A Terror Tactic

First thing in the morning now, after making a Keurig coffee, I turn on the TV with one thought in mind:  “Where have the jihadis struck this time?”  This morning it was Ouagadougou in Burkino Faso, West Africa.  Four terrorists (the number keeps changing), two of them women, slaughtered 23 innocent people in a 4-star hotel and nearby Cappuccino restaurant.  Ouagadougou, Jakarta, Istanbul, Philadelphia, Paris, San Bernardino–on and on the list of terrorist atrocities goes, and grows.  I have some sense of what it must have been like during World War II, with our parents and grandparents anxiously turning on their radios each morning to learn how the war was going.  But there all similarity ends.  The people of that day, along with their leaders, recognized what was at stake:  freedom as they knew it.  To those who didn’t understand the gravity of their situation, there was Winston Churchill to articulate it for them.  We are facing an equally formidable foe in the global jihadist movement but we, unfortunately, have no ‘Churchill’.

The terror tactics of the enemy are not dependent solely on AK 47s and bombs, however, as women throughout Europe’s cities discovered to their grief on New Year’s Eve.  Over 500 women in Cologne alone were victims that night of something called taharrush gamea, an Arabic phrase which means roughly ‘collective harassment’.  The tactic goes like this:  a large group of men forms a circle around a lone female.  Some of the men then move into the middle of the ring to grope or rape, sometimes rob, the lone female.  Those not directly involved in the assault watch from the perimeter, or help divert outsiders’ attention to what is taking place inside the circle.  The tactic is almost always carried out in a naturally-chaotic setting, like a large public gathering where no one in the crush of people notices what’s going on beside them.  Because of the density of the crowds, the perpetrators are difficult to identify, and hence, to prosecute.  Though never seen before in Europe, this practice is not a new tactic:  CBS reporter Lara Logan, for instance, was a victim of taharrush in Cairo’s Tahrir Sqquare in 2011.

Not all, but a good number of those men who terrorized women on New Year’s Eve have been identified as recent migrants.  Rather than behaving like newly-arrived asylum-seekers, eager to ingratiate themselves with their generous hosts, the young men who assaulted and robbed women on New Year’s Eve were acting more like a conquering army.  (Do they perhaps see themselves as such?)  Speaking of conquering armies, the behaviour of the Soviet Red Army in Germany at the close of World War II comes to mind.  I’ve read accounts of how German women, of all ages, plain or beautiful, and  desperate not to attract the attention of the Russian soldiers  now patrolling their streets, would make themselves as undesirable as possible:  they stopped bathing and washing their hair; they smeared themselves with dirt; they wore the ugliest clothes they could find–all to avoid hearing the bone-chilling  words, “Komme, Frau ‘come here, woman’.”

The terror attack in Ouagadougou has left 23 innocent people dead and 56 wounded, many with grievous, life-altering, wounds.  I wouldn’t want to minimize the dreadful injuries those victims have undoubtedly sustained.  Their lives will never again be the same.  But we mustn’t think that the women and girls who were sexually molested  or raped or robbed on New Year’s Eve will be left unscarred, either.  Will they ever be as confident again out-and-about on their own?  That may have been one of the goals of the men that night:  to intimidate the women; to make them think twice about going into the public square, uncovered and unaccompanied by a male relative (just like back home).  Cologne looked an awful lot like a city in the Muslim Middle East that night, and the jihadis didn’t even have to fire a shot.  Incredibly, the mayor of Cologne, a woman, called on the local women to change their behaviour, to keep the men at arm’s length, in order to avoid a repetition. Now how about the young men?

 

Common Ground or Shaky Ground?

It’s the custom on January 1 to wish everyone from loved ones to complete strangers a “Happy New Year.”  I hate to be a pessimist but, despite all the well-wishing, I suspect 2016 is going to look an awful lot like the year that has just passed.  Tragically, a shooting at a bar in Tel Aviv supports my claim:  It’s only day one of the New Year, and already the murder of innocent victims has started.  A black-clad assailant with an assault rifle killed two people and wounded seven others at a birthday party celebration in a pub in Tel Aviv this afternoon.  (Israeli police as of yet are not calling it a terrorist attack.)

How to bring an end to the scourge of Islamic terrorism is one of the greatest challenges of our day.  Some, like Fr. Ronald Rolheiser OMI, believe that the solution lies in getting Muslims and Christians to recognize what they share in common.  In the 3 December 2015 issue of the Los Angeles diocesan online paper The Angelus, Fr. Rolheiser calls for “greater solidarity with Islam,” the reason being that “We are both part of the same family….” and for this reason “Muslims more than ever need our understanding, sympathy, support, and fellowship in faith [emphasis mine].”  In his article, Fr. Rolheiser expands on sentiments voiced by Pope Francis on his recent visit to the Central African Republic, where the pope referred to Christians and Muslims as “brothers and sisters.”  The basis for that kinship, Fr. Rolheiser and the pope would say, is their common belief in one Supreme Being and their shared Abrahamic ancestry.  Jews, thus, are their brothers and sisters as well.

The idea of shared common ground between the three monotheistic faiths has been taken to a whole new level by a Lutheran parish priest in Berlin.  In 2009, archaeological excavations on Berlin’s Museum Island unearthed the remains of the city’s earliest church, the Petrikirche (St. Peter’s Church), as well as a Latin school for educating priests, both dating from the 13th century.  Upon learning of this discovery, Lutheran pastor Gregor Hohberg came up with a novel idea:  Why not use this prominent site to build a house of worship in multicultural Berlin where adherents of all three monotheistic faiths could worship together as neighbours?  And thus was born the idea for ‘The House of One’, as it is to be called.  Pastor Hohberg has brought Rabbi Tovia ben Chorin and Imam Kadir Sanci on board.  Together, the three clerics have come to be known as the ‘Tolerance Trio’.

Work on this highly unusual house of worship is slated to begin this year.  Designed by German architect Wilfried Kuehn, the structure will house under the one roof a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, each of equal size but of different shape.  The House of One will have a common room at its centre where adherents of the three religions can meet for dialogue and social events.  Adherents must follow two ‘house rules’:  one, there must be no violence; and two, no proselytizing is allowed.  The project, which is expected to cost some 43.5 million euros, is being funded through crowdsourcing; a donation of 10 euros will purchase one brick.  You don’t have to be a member of one of the three religions in order to donate, either.  The House of One is expected to open in 2018.

Although Berlin’s House of One will be the first worship centre of its kind (if indeed it does get built), a somewhat similar project is underway in the very heart of the USA.  In what is known as the ‘Tri-Faith Initiative’, Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Omaha, Nebraska intend to build houses of worship on a common campus:  a 38-acre plot of land just outside Omaha.  A synagogue, a church and a mosque will be erected on three corners of the lot.  A building that provides social, educational, and conference facilities to be used by all three faiths will occupy the fourth corner.  Participating in the project are Temple Israel, Countryside Community United Church of Christ, and the American Muslim Institute.  A fourth partner is the Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha, a local organization whose purpose it is to “foster mutual understanding, respect, and friendship between the Abrahamic faiths.”

Rev. Elnes, the Christian partner in the project, calls the proposed campus an attempt to “wage peace between the Abrahamic faiths in the modern era by engaging not simply in interfaith dialogue–which is important–but by learning to live with each other despite our differences as people who worship and adore the same God.”  (I’m not so sure about that).  Like the prospective occupants of The House of One, Tri-Faith Initiative members hope to start building this year.

Will the creation of houses of worship on common ground bring peace between the Abrahamic faiths?  It’s true, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do share common ground, but the differences between them are profound.  The so-designated ‘Abrahamic faiths’, for starters, don’t even agree on the identity of Abraham.  Muslims look on Abraham as the first Muslim, a view both Jews and Christians reject.

From a Christian perspective, what is more likely to happen, I believe,  is a ‘watering down’ of core doctrines and beliefs for the sake of unity and out of a desire not to offend.  Indeed, we have recent evidence of this very thing from no less than the pope himself.  From the very beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has sought to bring Jews, Christians, and particularly Muslims together.  There are many examples of the pope’s reaching out to Jews and Muslims:  the prayer meeting in the Vatican garden where Jews and Muslims for the first time were invited to pray alongside Catholics is a prime example.  In another instance of reaching out:  on December 10, the papacy issued a document stating that the “Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”  What the document says, in essence, is that the Catholic church will no longer try to convert Jews.   Does this mean that Jews no longer have to believe that Jesus the Christ is their long-awaited mashiach or messiah  (‘Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew ‘messiah’)?  I am speechless, other than to say, expect more concessions on this scale, all in the name of achieving common ground.