The Pope’s Politics vs. Trump’s Christianity

The spat between His Holiness Pope Francis and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump appears to have ended. The unholy brouhaha began when Trump, speaking on Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.”, called the pontiff “a very political person” who didn’t understand the dangers an open border with Mexico posed to the US.  “I think Mexico got him to do it,” claimed Trump, “because they want to keep the border just the way it is.”

The pope pushed back by calling Trump’s profession of Christian faith into question, averring that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.”  Trump, in turn, called the pope’s questioning of his faith “disgraceful.”  Realizing that a fight with the pope would not likely endear him to Catholic voters, Trump has since assured everyone that he actually has great respect for the pope.

Pope Francis, to quote ‘the Donald’, is “a very political person.”   Just how political is the pontiff?   On the last night of his visit to Mexico, the pope, hoping to influence the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election (what other explanation could there be?)  turned the celebration of the Catholic Mass into a piece of political theatre.  On the evening of 17 February, the pope, accompanied by some 200,000 people, gathered on the southern shore of the Rio Grande River across from the city of El Paso, Texas, for an open-air mass.  On the US side of the river stood about four hundred or so.  During the ceremony on the Mexican side, the pope laid flowers on a memorial dedicated to those who had perished trying to reach the US.  He lamented “the forced migration” of thousands of Central Americans. As the pope well knows, what to do about the US-Mexican border is a huge issue in the 2016 election.  Deliberately injecting himself into the debate as he has done, the pope made it clear where he stands.

How political is the pope?   In 2014, the pope wrote a letter to Pres. Obama, urging the president to pursue a closer relationship with Cuba and to ease the trade restrictions imposed on the island by the US after Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution.  Pope Francis, who acted as mediator between the US and Cuba throughout 18 months of secret negotiations, can be credited with the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.  (Interestingly, the Holy See never broke off relations with Cuba even after Castro imprisoned or exiled the priests and confiscated all Catholic property on the island.) In protesting the economic embargo imposed by the US, the Cuban people knew they had an ally in the Vatican, which had always objected to the embargo on the grounds that impacted most adversely Cuba’s poor.

Overcome with gratitude for the economic lifeline Pope Francis has thrown him,  Raul Castro gushed on a recent visit to the Vatican:  “If the pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic church–and I’m not saying this jokingly.”  A new Catholic Church is slated to be built on the island at Sandino, the first one since the 1959 Revolution. Strangely enough, since the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US, the number of imprisoned dissidents has reached the highest level in five years.

How political is the pope?  Probably the pope’s greatest political achievement since assuming St. Peter’s Throne  has been the historic meeting between him and His Holiness  Patriarch Kirill, head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, which took place on 12 February at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba.  This was the first meeting between a Catholic pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism of 1054. This was not a political meeting, however, the pope claimed:  the purpose of the meeting was for the two branches of the church to deal jointly with the dire problem of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.   The pope might have not regarded their meeting as political, but it was nevertheless.

patriarch-kirill-and-pope-francis-600x389[2].jpg

Photo from Asia News .it  01/27/2016

The meeting could never have taken place if Russian President Putin had not first given the patriarch the ‘green light’ to attend.  His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, the first patriarch since the breakup of the USSR, is closer to the Kremlin than any of his predecessors, even to calling Putin a “miracle from God.”  [I wrote about the unusually close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church in a previous blog (2 January 2015).] The pope’s meeting with the saintly-looking Russian patriarch (rumoured to be, like Putin, a former KGB officer) helped to restore–somewhat–the image of Putin’s Russia in the West.

Trump was correct when he called Pope Francis a very political person.  How does one account for the pope’s political activism?  The answer is:  Latin American liberation theology aka ‘Christian’ Marxism.  Liberation theology puts social action on an equal footing with the gospel message.  In the eyes of the Argentine pope, someone who would build a wall to keep migrants out is not a Christian.

Is Trump a Christian?  When it comes to determining who is or is not a Christian, it is not our place to judge, but, as the saying goes, that doesn’t mean we can’t be ‘fruit inspectors’.

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.

 

 

Christmas and the Spirit of Inclusiveness

One of the things I love about this time of year is the music.  There is such a wealth of wonderful Christmas carols, some old, some contemporary:  how to pick a favourite?  The carol O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one that never fails to move me.  Its haunting melody captures, I believe, the sense of longing felt by the Jewish people down through the centuries as they looked for their promised messiah.  Christians believe that promise was fulfilled with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  In the words of another carol, “The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee [Jesus] tonight,” ( O Little Town of Bethlehem).

I still vividly recall the words to a carol I sang as a child with my school choir at the Christmas choir festival held annually in one of the big churches in my home town:

Winds through the olive trees softly did blow

round little Bethlehem long, long ago.

Sheep on the hillsides lay white as the snow;

Christ came to Bethlehem, long, long ago.

In a sign of how much things have changed in the multicultural West:   At their annual ‘December’ concert this year, 285 schoolchildren from the French public schools in Canada’s capital Ottawa and the surrounding area sang a piece arranged especially for them:  Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna, which translates into English as ‘The Full Moon Rose over Us’, a number based on a traditional Arabic song purportedly sung to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad upon his arrival in Medina after leaving Mecca.  Robert Filion, the choir’s director, said that he had wanted to do a Muslim-inspired piece for some time, but that he had had difficulty finding anything.  (I can just imagine, given Islam’s ambivalence towards the performance of  music.)

Coming upon this ancient Islamic piece known as Tala’ al-Badru ‘Alayna,  Filion commissioned Laura Hawley to compose a new arrangement.  To make certain that what they were undertaking wouldn’t cause offense, Filion and Hawley consulted with the local imams, who obviously gave their project a ‘thumbs up’.  And so, in the name of inclusiveness, school children performed a Muslim-inspired song at their December concert.  The song has been very well-received–getting more than 600,000 views on YouTube–and is slated to be performed for a second time at an upcoming Christmas concert in one of Ottawa’s churches.  Many who heard the piece took it to be a song of welcome to the Syrian refugees arriving in Canada.

A Muslim-inspired song at a multicultural school concert is one thing, but at a church Christmas concert?  Recognizing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, even in song, presents a dilemma to those churchgoers who will be present at the concert.  The Jesus of the Qur’an is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospels.  Muslims revere Jesus, too, but only as a prophet, one prophet in a line of 28 prophets, a prophet who was superseded by their Prophet Muhammad.

The Jesus we Christians celebrate, on the other hand,  is called Emmanuel, a Hebrew word which translates as ‘God is with us’.  The writers of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was not merely a prophet, but God in human form.  In Jesus the Christ, God personally launched a rescue mission to save His fallen creation.  This is the Jesus we sing about at Christmas time.   God taking on human flesh:  That’s amazing.  Maybe that’s why there’s so much amazing Christmas music!

Terrorists: Why Don’t They Mind Dying?

“…a handful of people who don’t mind dying…” is how President Obama described Islam-inspired terrorists at a press conference at the recent G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey.

From my previous blog you will know that I spent the last month travelling in Spain, travel which took me to Spain’s capital Madrid, and to Madrid’s Atocha train station, scene of an horrific terrorist attack on 11 March 2004.  In what was the deadliest terrorist attack in Spain’s history–referred to by Spaniards as ‘M-11’–ten bombs were placed inside backpacks and then planted on four cercanias, ‘commuter trains’.  The bombs were detonated simultaneously by terrorists using cell phones during the height of the morning rush hour.  That morning, 191 innocent commuters died and 1,800 were injured.  An al Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell claimed responsibility for the bombings, citing Spain’s participation in the war in Iraq as their motivation.  Later, when the terrorists who carried out the attack were surrounded by police, they blew themselves up rather than be captured.

I entered the Atocha train station for the first time in a reflective mood, my thoughts turning to the innocent people who were so brutally murdered there eleven years earlier.  There was no plaque or memorial commemorating the 191 victims anywhere in the train station, at least none that I could see.  I have since learned that a memorial garden was created in their memory in a park near Madrid’s famous Prado Museum.

No terrorist attack on the scale of the Madrid train station bombings had taken place in Europe until this past Friday the 13th in Paris.  Before the nine terrorists had ended their murderous rampage, 129 lay dead (now 130) with hundreds more injured, almost 100 critically.  The terrorists carried out their operation on Friday, fully intending to die; all wore identical suicide vests packed with ‘Mother of Satan’ explosives which they detonated at various points in their co-ordinated attacks.

Why did seven young men–in their late teens or 20s, at the prime of life–“not mind dying,” to use President Obama’s turn-of-phrase?  (Was the president only feigning indifference?  Let’s hope so.)  To listen to the ‘experts’ in the media, the young men who willingly turn themselves into human bombs are “mad men,” “crazies,” “psychopathic killers.”

Earlier this month, Remembrance Day services were held to honour the young men who perished in World Wars I and II, and in the conflicts that followed.  Undoubtedly, those who died–to a person–hoped to survive the war and return to their loves ones and former way-of-life.  No so with the Paris terrorists.

Last night, for the first time, I heard someone reporting on the Paris attacks say the word “zealotry.”  When I hear the word zealotry, I think of religious fervour.  Was this an acknowledgment–finally–that the young men who blow themselves up are religiously-driven, at least in part?  Islam does not condone suicide.  The Qur’an never mentions suicide, and in the hadith, the written record of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions, suicide is forbidden.  How do terrorists then justify their actions?  Suicide is held to be an act of martyrdom, and the one who commits suicide is regarded as a shahid, a ‘martyr’.  Suicide is forbidden, but martyrdom is praised.

A prime example of the glorification of martyrdom is that of Palestinian  terrorist Abu Jihad a.k.a. Khalid al-Wazir, responsible for the deaths of 125 Israelis.  One of his ‘glorious’ feats was a bus high-jacking that resulted in the deaths of 37 Israelis, including twelve children.  Last year, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah named a West Bank forest in his honour:  the Martyr Khalil al-Wazir Forest.

Praise from family and friends who remain behind, a place in paradise after death:  these are the rewards that await the shahid.  Unlike the rest of Muslim males, the shahid is guaranteed a place in Islam’s paradise, depicted in the Qur’an as a garden of never-ending delights.  There, the shahid will wear “clothing of fine, thick silk” (44:53); “eat and drink in health, reclining on couches” (52:19-20); marry “fair ones with wide lovely eyes” (52:20). The number of virgins allotted to him–72–is not stated in the Qur’an but found in one of the hadiths (al-Suyuti’s).  The shahid gets to name 70 family members to paradise as well.  How much do sensual incentives and sexual enticements like these influence young Muslim males to strap on suicide vests:  only a failed terrorist can say.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, France’s President Hollande declared war on the Islamic State (IS), the terrorist group that claimed responsibility.  Yesterday,  exactly a week after the Paris carnage, another terrorist group with the name al-Mourabitoun, aided by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), stormed the Radisson Hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, firing at anyone who moved, killing 21.  Who has heard of al-Mourabitoun before?  We’re fighting a war against a global jihadist ‘cancer’ that is metastasizing rapidly.  It’s getting to be quite a handful, isn’t it.

 

Seeing Spain, At Last

Those of you who follow my blog will have noticed that some weeks have passed since I last posted anything.  The reason for my silence:  I have been travelling in Europe, mostly Spain, for the past four weeks.  This was a trip that was supposed to have taken place twelve years ago, but which had to be cancelled at the last minute.  Mere days before we were to leave, while my husband and I were out for a Sunday afternoon hike, my husband started seeing birds–birds that weren’t there.  Later that day, when a ‘black veil’ slowly and inexorably began to reduce the field-of-vision in his left eye, we both knew where we were going–and it wasn’t Spain.  This year, as we were pondering what to do with some freebie air miles we had acquired, it occurred to me, “Why not take that trip to Spain we had to cancel more than a decade ago?”  So that’s what we did.

After having spent time in Spain, I would suggest that anyone with an interest in Roman history and archaeology (I include myself) should put Spain high up on their ‘bucket list’.  In Spain, the ancient Roman province of Hispania and modern-day Spain exist side by side.  Driving along a busy city street, you’ll suddenly spot a good-sized portion of a Roman wall as you go flying by at 80 km; or, walking along a side street just off a busy pedestrian mall lined with upscale shops and restaurants, you’ll come upon the pillars of a temple built in honour of a Roman emperor.

Evidence that Spain was once part of the mighty Roman Empire is everywhere, visible and accessible. To describe every ancient site of interest that I visited would make for a very long blog, so I’ll mention only three.  At the top of my ‘must see’ list of sites in Spain was the aqueduct in Segovia.  It was even more impressive than I had expected.

Segovia GMP

Built in AD 50 or thereabouts, this remarkably well-preserved aqueduct, with its two tiers of arches and 221 pillars, is a tribute to the engineering skills of the ancient Romans.

Taking a self-guided walk in the Barri Gotic neighbourhood of Spain’s second largest city, Barcelona, is to take a stroll back in time–way back in time.  Barcelona is built on the site of the Roman city of Barcino, founded around 15 BC.  On a side street off Barcelona’s famed pedestrian mall known as Las Ramblas stand four 9-meter high columns:  all that remains of a temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar.  Built sometime in the 1st century BC in honour of the Roman emperor who was regarded as divine, the temple was part of the forum located at the centre of ancient Barcino.

Temple of Augustus

The two defence towers that straddle the main gate into the Roman city of Barcino are still standing where they were erected, although only the base of the towers dates from the Roman era.  The top sections are 12th century renovations.

Roman Gates

 Spain was once an important part of a vast empire which stretched from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain to the Middle East.  Two Roman emperors, in fact, hailed from Hispania:  Hadrian and Trajan. Today, Spain is part of another kind of ’empire’:  an economic union consisting of 28 member countries called the EU (European Union).  Some see the EU as a revived Roman Empire–maybe, maybe not. (I’ll write more about that in a future blog).  What is clear is that Spain faces the same dilemma as her 27 fellow members countries:  What to do about the massive influx of migrants, more than 800,000 so far this year.  In Madrid, I saw a huge banner draped across a building which read in big bold letters:  WE WELCOME REFUGEES.  That’s a great statement, but the reality is, almost all of the migrants from the Middle East and Africa head for Germany and Sweden, countries with the most generous social programs.

I have to say, there is something disturbing about the nature of this new ’empire’ taking shape on the European continent.  Just today, the EU voted to label the source of origin of all products that come from Israeli ‘settlements’ in the Westbank and Golan Heights, this despite the fact that these businesses employ large numbers of Palestinians.  So now all ‘good’ Europeans can  boycott any product that originates from an ‘illegal Jewish settlement’.  This is nothing short of economic warfare directed by the EU against the Jewish state.  I wonder:  Will the labels be yellow?  You would think the EU would want to address the heinous knife attacks now being directed by Palestinian youths at pregnant Jewish women and 80-year-olds.

My husband and I both agree that our trip to Spain–delayed for more than ten years–exceeded all our expectations.  Our exploration of Spain was not confined to ancient Roman sites.  Rick Steeve’s guidebook on Spain in hand, we visited Spain’s many magnificent cathedrals; saw the beautiful Alhambra with its Generalife Gardens in Granada and La Mezquita in Cordoba with its 850 red-and-white striped columns–I could go on and on:  the great tapas and seafood paellas , the fast AVE trains that transport you at 300 km/hr across Spain in the matter of a couple of hours, the good weather (only two days of rain in 16).  The only problem:  Now I want to see more of Spain.