Outcry as Mugabe invited to Pope’s beatification

The Vatican yesterday said it had “nothing to hide” after it emerged that Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, widely condemned over human rights abuses, would be among the dignitaries attending Sunday’s beatification of Pope John Paul II.

The coffin containing the remains of the late pontiff was removed from the crypts underneath St Peter’s yesterday in the run-up to the beatification. In a simple ceremony, the white marble tomb where the coffin has reposed since his funeral in April 2005 was opened in the presence of his former close associates, including his long-time Polish secretary, now Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the nuns who ran his household. The coffin will be placed in front of the main altar in the basilica, where it will remain on display, the Vatican announced, until everyone who wants to view it has done so.

It was revealed amid some embarrassment that the dignitaries expected to file past the casket on Sunday morning will include Mr Mugabe. His presence, explained a Vatican spokesman, was a “function” of the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Zimbabwe, “so there is nothing to hide”.

Mr Mugabe is the subject of an EU-wide travel ban and the Vatican had to obtain special permission for him to be allowed to enter the pocket statelet. It will be at least the third time that Mr Mugabe has taken advantage of the Vatican’s and/or Italy’s diplomatic largesse since John Paul’s death.

He was present at the pope’s funeral, where he contrived to shake the hand of Prince Charles and again at the World Food Summit in 2008. Zimbabwe’s is one of 87 foreign delegations attending the beatification, which will place the only Polish pope in history one step away from sainthood.

Britain’s royal family will be represented by the Duke of Gloucester. There was intense speculation about whether Tony Blair would attend, but as of last night there was no confirmation.

Up to a million Poles are expected to arrive in Rome by Sunday morning, adding their considerable weight to a temporary doubling of the city’s population. Rome is already festooned with portraits of the most media-friendly pope in history and newsstands groan under the weight of souvenir books and knick-knacks.

The former pontiff’s remains will be reinterred in St Peter’s, close to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding Christ’s lifeless body, La Pieta. A notably belligerent 17th century pope, Innocent XI, will be displaced to make room for him.

Pope leads faithful in Palm Sunday outdoor Mass

Pope Benedict XVI holds a symbolic palm branch

VATICAN CITY—Pope Benedict XVI led a crowd of faithful in Palm Sunday Mass and lamented that man’s amazing achievements have increased the possibilities for evil as well as good.

Waving palm fronds and olive branches, tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists packed St. Peter’s Square on a sunny, breezy day for the start of Holy Week ceremonies.

Benedict, wearing crimson-and-gold colored robes, silently observed a long and solemn procession of prelates and rank-and-file faithful as a choir’s voices rang out across the square, and he blessed the palms and olive branches.

Palm Sunday’s liturgy recalls Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

After clerics sang a nearly hourlong recounting from the Gospels of the events which led to Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, Benedict delivered a homily invoking people’s fragility when faced with suffering and limitations.

“Mankind has managed to accomplish so many things: we can fly! We can see, hear and speak to one another from the farthest ends of the earth,” the pope told the faithful.

“And yet the force of gravity which draws us down is powerful,” Benedict said.

“With the increase of our abilities there has been an increase not only of good. Our possibilities for evil have increased and appear like menacing storms above history,” he added.

Benedict also referred to recent natural disasters that man has been unable to control.

“Our limitations have also remained,” the pope said.

Benedict, who turned 84 on Saturday, was beginning a busy week of public appearances, including a nighttime Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum on Friday. Crowds of pilgrims and tourists have been arriving in Rome for the week, which will culminate in Easter Sunday Mass on April 24.

Even bigger crowds are expected for May 1, when Benedict will beatify his predecessor Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.


US preacher burns copy of the Koran

A CONTROVERSIAL US evangelical preacher oversaw the burning of a copy of the Koran today in a small Florida church after finding the Muslim holy book “guilty” of crimes.

The burning in Gainesville was carried out by pastor Wayne Sapp under the supervision of Terry Jones, who in September drew sweeping condemnation over his plan to ignite a pile of Korans on the anniversary of September 11, 2001 attacks.

Today’s event was presented as a trial of the book in which the Koran was found “guilty” and “executed”. The jury deliberated for about eight minutes. The book, which had been soaking for an hour in kerosene, was put in a metal tray in the center of the church, and Sapp started the fire with a barbecue lighter.

The book burned for around 10 minutes while some onlookers posed for photos.  Jones had drawn trenchant condemnation from many people, including US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, over his plan to burn the Muslim holy book in September.

He did not carry out his plan then and vowed he never would, saying he had made his point. But this time, he said he had been “trying to give the Muslim world an opportunity to defend their book,” but did not receive any answer.  He said he felt that he couldn’t have a real trial without a real punishment.

The event was open to the public, but fewer than 30 people attended.  Life in the normally quiet city of Gainesville is centred  around the University of Florida. And while there were public protests against Jones’ 9/11 activities, this event was largely ignored.  Jadwiga Schatz, who came to show support for Jones, expressed concern that Islam was growing in Europe.

“These people, for me, are like monsters,” she said. “I hate these people.”  Jones said he considered this event a success.  “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

Vatican praises EU decision on crucifixes in class

ROME—Crucifixes in public school classrooms do not violate a student’s freedom of conscience, a European high court ruled Friday in a verdict welcomed by the Vatican in its campaign to remind the continent of its Christian roots.

The case was brought by a Finnish-born woman living in Italy who objected to the crucifixes in her children’s classrooms, arguing they violated the secular principles public schools are supposed to uphold. The debate divided Europe’s traditional Catholic and Orthodox countries and their more secular neighbors that observe a strict separation between church and state.

Initially, the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights sided with the mother. Italy appealed, supported by more than a dozen countries including the late Pope John Paul II’s predominantly Catholic Poland, and won.  Friday’s reversal has implications in 47 countries, opening the way for Europeans who want religious symbols in classrooms to petition their governments to allow them.

It was not immediately clear how the ruling would affect France, a traditionally Catholic country with a strictly secular state that does not allow crucifixes or other religious symbols in public schools, including the Muslim headscarf.  The court’s Grand Chamber said Italy has done nothing wrong and it found no evidence the display of such a symbol on classroom walls “might have an influence on pupils.”

“The popular sentiment in Europe has won today,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.  The Vatican, which had unsuccessfully sought include mention of Christianity’s role in Europe in a European constitution, hailed what it called a “historic” decision.  It said the court recognized that crucifixes weren’t a form of indoctrination but rather “an expression of the cultural and religious identity of traditionally Christian countries.”

Spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the court also recognized that each country should be granted “a margin of judgment concerning the value of religious symbols in its own cultural history and national identity, including where the symbols are displayed.” The ruling overturned a decision the court had reached in November 2009 in which it said the crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian or atheist pupils.

The case was brought by Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born mother who said she was shocked by the sight of crucifixes above the blackboard in her children’s public school in northern Italy.  Massimo Albertin, Lautsi’s husband, said Friday the family was disappointed and “disillusioned” by the ruling, saying it showed that the court didn’t respect the principles on which Italian society is built.

“Freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, freedom of choice are fundamental principles and in this case they weren’t respected,” Albertin said by phone from Abano Terme near Padua, where the family lives.  A self-described atheist, Albertin said he didn’t think the family had any further recourse, saying the ruling showed “the Vatican is too strong for individuals.”

The court said “Ms. Lautsi had retained in full her right as a parent to enlighten and advise her children and to guide them on a path in line with her own philosophical convictions.” The children, who were 11 and 13 at the time the case began, are now 20 and 22 and in university. The father said while Lautsi’s name was on the court documentation, it was very much a joint initiative.

New York University legal scholar Joseph Weiler, who argued the appeal, said during the hearing last year that the case for secularism taken to the extreme could endanger Britain’s national anthem “God Save the Queen.” Crucifixes are on display in many public buildings in Italy, where the Vatican is located. In Poland they are displayed in public schools as well as the hall of parliament.

These countries were joined by Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, which, like Poland, lived through religious persecution under communism. “The message of the court is that in Christian tradition societies, Christianity has a special legitimacy that can justify a different treatment,” said Gregor Puppink, director of the pro-Christian European Center for Law and Justice.

The ruling came as Vatican officials announced the Holy See is reaching out to atheists with a series of encounters and debates aimed at fostering intellectual dialogue and introducing nonbelievers to God. The first one begins next week in Paris.

Malaysia agrees to release 35,000 seized Bibles

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Malaysia’s government agreed Tuesday to release some 35,000 imported Bibles seized by customs officials amid a dispute over their use of the word “Allah” as a translation for God.

The decision was a major step by the Muslim-dominated government to soothe frustrations among religious minorities. Last week, Malaysia’s main Christian grouping said it was fed up and disillusioned with authorities’ refusal to allow the distribution of the Malay-language Bibles.

The Prime Minister’s Department said in a statement that the government was releasing the books, which have been held for months at two ports, because it was “committed to resolve amicably any interfaith issues.”

But the statement also assured Muslims that the announcement would not jeopardize their interests in an ongoing court case on whether non-Muslims have the constitutional right to use “Allah.”

Authorities have long placed restrictions on the distribution of Malay-language Bibles, mainly imported from Indonesia. Such Bibles must be stamped with the words “For Christians Only,” which is generally meant to prevent anyone from trying to convert Muslims, who comprise nearly 60 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people.

Authorities say they fear that Malay-language Christian texts using the word “Allah” for God will confuse Muslims.

The Rev. Hermen Shastri, an official with the Council of Churches of Malaysia, welcomed the government’s decision but stressed that Christians should be guaranteed the right to obtain the Bible in any language.

A court ruled in December 2009 that Malaysia’s religious minorities—mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus—have the right to use “Allah.” The government has appealed the verdict, but no hearings have been scheduled.

The dispute caused a brief surge in tensions in January 2010, when 11 churches were attacked by firebombs amid anger among some Muslims over the court ruling.

Berlusconi scandal embarrasses the Vatican top brass

An annual celebration of the 1929 treaty that governs relations between Italy and the Vatican took an awkward turn yesterday, when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is engulfed in a prostitution scandal, attended a ceremony with the Vatican’s No 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Berlusconi has come under criticism from the Catholic church over the scandal, which centres on his alleged encounters with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl. The 74-year-old leader was recently indicted on charges that he paid for sex with the girl, and then abused his influence in an attempt to cover it up. He denies the charges.

In comments last month, Bertone said the Vatican was concerned about the scandal and following its developments attentively. He called for a “more robust morality, a sense of justice and legality” among everyone, particularly those in public office.

Pope Benedict XVI has not mentioned the scandal directly, though he did say last month that public officials must “rediscover their spiritual and moral roots.”

The Vatican’s criticism will be widely interpreted as a blow to Berlusconi, whose conservative coalition had gained the church’s favour thanks to its pro-church positions on social issues.

Still, Berlusconi has so far survived a scandal that would have forced most European leaders to step down. He insists he will finish his term, which ends in 2013.

The premier has improved his parliamentary majority, which was eroded after a split with a longtime ally, Gianfranco Fini, who commands a few dozen parliamentarians.

SBY pressured over sect killing

CIVIL and religious rights group have demanded the dismissal of Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister.

Suryadharma Ali is under fire after the mob killing of three devotees of Ahmadiyah, a sect he wants banned.

A coalition of NGOs yesterday called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to get rid of Mr Suryadharma, criticised often for failing to differentiate his ministerial responsibility to protect the religious rights of all Indonesians from his leadership of the Islamic United Development Party (PPP).

“The quality of democracy in Indonesia is decreasing, religious harmony is reducing and the pity is the minister, Suryadharma Ali, is not neutral or objective, in building religious harmony,” said Usman Hamid, director of Kontras, the commission for the disappeared and victims of violence.

The House of Representatives religious affairs commission moved to summons Mr Suryadharma, national police chief Timur Pradopo and possibly Islamic religious leaders to account for attacks on the Ahmadiyah Muslim Community’s estimated 500,000 Indonesian adherents.

A heterodox movement ruled heretical by the conservative Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), Ahmadiyah has been subjected to increased violence in the past 12 months and Sunday’s incident was the worst so far.

Outrage was fanned by circulation yesterday of a video showing how police allegedly made minimal efforts to restrain the attack by more than 1000 people on a house in a village in Banten province, southwest of Jakarta.

The house was occupied by 25 Ahmadis, who had refused police orders to disperse.

As the house was overrun by a mob wielding machetes, bamboo staves and rocks, three men were fatally stabbed and beaten, five people were seriously injured and two young men were still missing yesterday.

Eight people were being questioned yesterday afternoon but no charges had yet been laid, said national police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar.

Dr Yudhoyono was “deeply concerned” and had instructed police to act against the perpetrators, “to capture them and haul them to court if need be,” senior adviser Daniel Sparingga told Agence France Presse.

However, the incident has again drawn attention to police failures to protect religious minorities, the President’s characteristic reluctance to speak out publicly on this issue and Mr Suryadharma’s conflicted role.

Last year, the minister called for all Ahmadiyah activities to be banned, prompting Human Rights Watch to accuse him of “playing with fire” by increasing the movement’s vulnerability to physical attacks by mainstream Islamists.

Now Mr Suryadharma and General Timur have been instructed by Dr Yudhoyono to make a public report on the Banten attack.

Mr Suryadharma yesterday called for an end to all “anarchic” actions, but questioned by reporters about his attitude and behaviour, he responded: “You can judge for yourself whether they are against Islam or not.”

Vatican to host AIDS prevention, care conference

VATICAN CITY—The Vatican will host an international conference in May on preventing AIDS and caring for those afflicted with it amid continued confusion over its position concerning condoms as a way to prevent HIV transmission.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers also said Thursday it was working on a set of guidelines for Catholic doctors, nurses and others who care for people with HIV and AIDS.

Pope Benedict XVI made headlines late last year when he said in a book interview that someone, such as a male prostitute, who uses a condom to prevent HIV transmission might be showing a first sign of a more moral sexuality because he is looking out for the welfare of another person.

The comments set off a flurry of confusion about whether the pope was justifying condom use in a break with church doctrine opposing contraception. The Vatican insisted he was not.

Monsignor Jean-Marie Mpendawatu Mate Musivi, undersecretary in the Vatican health office, told reporters Thursday that the Vatican’s position would be explained at the May 28 conference, to which the head of UNAIDS and other prominent AIDS researchers had been invited.

“There is a problem of comprehension, of explaining things well and what the pope really said,” he said.

UNAIDS said Thursday it was interested in attending, but that its executive director, Michel Sidibe, couldn’t commit at this point. Agency spokesman Edward Mishaud noted that Sidibe had

welcomed the pope’s comments back in November when the book came out.

Mate Musivi stressed that the church’s position about how to fight AIDS goes well beyond the question of condoms and focuses on prevention programs at the school, community and family levels. The church has long stressed that abstinence and monogamous marriages are the best ways to prevent HIV transmission.

As a result of that position though, Benedict’s comments surprised many since it marked the first time a pope had even acknowledged that condoms were effective in fighting HIV. In fact, during a trip to Africa in 2009, Benedict himself had said that AIDS couldn’t be resolved by distributing condoms and that on the contrary “it increases the problem.”

The pope’s new comments though, sparked such confusion that the Vatican had to issue three official clarifications, the last of which came Dec. 21 from the authoritative Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Vatican’s top doctrine office stressed that the pope was by no means saying condoms could be morally acceptable to avoid pregnancy. But it implied that the intention of a male prostitute to use a condom to prevent disease was less evil than infecting his partner.

Reports of the pope’s comments had been greeted with relief among AIDS activists and even among some church personnel working on the front lines in Africa, where UNAIDS estimates that 22.4 million people are infected with HIV.

The church’s long-standing opposition to condoms as a form of birth control has drawn fierce criticism given that 54 percent of infected Africans—or 12.1 million people—are women.

Theologians have debated for years whether it could be morally acceptable for HIV-infected people to use condoms to avoid infecting their spouses. The Vatican’s health care office years ago was reportedly preparing a document on the subject, but it never came out.

Mate Musivi suggested the guidelines under study wouldn’t go beyond what had already been discussed by Benedict in his book “Light of the World” and the Vatican’s subsequent clarification, though he said the results of the May 28 conference would also be taken into account.

“The church has to let this mature, it must digest and reflect on this,” he said, adding that he didn’t know when the guidelines would be released.

Tibetans in shock after Lama said to be Chinese spy

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist community is in turmoil at the questioning of one of its most important religious leaders by Indian police after large sums of Chinese currency were found at his monastery, forcing him to deny claims he is an “agent of Beijing”.

Police in northern India interviewed Ugyen Thinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa and Tibetan Buddhism’s third most important figure, after about $1 million of cash in two dozen denominations was found at his Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala.

Police have arrested a number of the Karmapa’s aides and are investigating what they believe may be an illegal attempted land purchase.

The Karmapa, 25, told police the money was given by supporters. “All our dealings across the world are honest and completely transparent – anything else would be contrary to the Buddhist principles that we live by,” his office said.

K.G. Kapoor, the officer heading the inquiry, said: “We are not happy with his replies and he is likely to be questioned again.”

The incident has sent shockwaves through the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile. Even the Dalai Lama has been drawn in.

“There should be a thorough investigation into the cash dealings of the Karmapa as he is an important Lama,” he said.

Many among the 200,000-strong community of exiled Tibetans in India and beyond are distraught. In Majnu-ka-Tila, a narrow maze of dusty alleyways that is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees in Delhi, three grey-haired women were openly weeping.

“We don’t believe he is a Chinese spy,” sobbed one woman, Taushi, who fled from Tibet in 1959. “We have not been able to sleep since we heard this. Food has had no taste.”

Controversy has followed the Karmapa since he escaped from Tibet in 2000 and crossed into India. While he was widely acknowledged as the successor to – and reincarnation of – the 16th Karmapa, not everyone supported his claim and some backed another candidate.

As he was recognised by China, his supporters have often had to defend him against whispers that he has links to the authorities in Beijing.

But the profile of the Karmapa, whose dramatic escape took place when he was just 14, has steadily grown. While he is from the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism rather than the Gelug school of the Dalai Lama, many have suggested the Karmapa may be able to fill the political void within the Tibet autonomy movement that will be created upon the death of the 75-year-old.

Pope: Marriage is not an absolute right

VATICAN CITY—Pope Benedict XVI told priests Saturday to do a better job counseling would-be spouses to ensure their marriages last and said no one has an absolute right to a wedding.

Benedict made the comments in his annual speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal that decides marriage annulments. An annulment is the process by which the church effectively declares that a marriage never took place.

Benedict acknowledged that the problems that would allow for a marriage to be annulled cannot always be identified beforehand. But he said better pre-marriage counseling, which the Catholic Church requires of the faithful, could help avoid a “vicious circle” of invalid marriages.

He said the right to a church wedding requires that the bride and groom intend to celebrate and live the marriage truthfully and authentically.

“No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony,” he said.

Benedict has used his annual speech to the Rota to impress on its members the indissolubility of marriage and that they should avoid the temptation of granting annulments on a whim. Last year, he urged the tribunal to work harder to encourage couples to stay together and not confuse “pastoral charity” with the need to uphold church law.

On Saturday, Benedict said priests had an important pastoral job to discern whether would-be spouses are prepared and able to enter into a valid marriage.

“The church and society at large place too much importance on the good of marriage and the family founded on it to not make a profound commitment to it pastorally,” Benedict said.

The Vatican’s concern about marriage annulments is largely directed at the United States, which in 2006 had more annulment cases launched than the rest of the world combined.