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Ukraine’s Orthodox Church dissent is on edge

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The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has blamed Vladimir Zelensky for pressure by the authorities. Its followers hoped to end persecution with the new Ukrainian President coming to power. Yet, Zelensky who stayed away from the Church affairs during the first months of his presidential term is taking on the course on further Church dissent started by the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, writes Olga Malik.

Back in 2019, 49 parliamentarians requested from the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to cancel the controversial draft law "On renaming the Ukrainian Orthodox Church". This religious organization was obliged to change its name to "Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine" in order to indicate that it was allegedly "governed by an aggressor country".

This bill was passed two years ago. The document was part of a larger strategic plan by President Petro Poroshenko to create an "independent church." He won the support of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and then gathered the dissenters together, promising them the role of the leading religious group in the country. This explains why the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has become so powerful.

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But the majority of Ukrainians, followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, did not want to join the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, so the government organized persecutions against them and the canonical church. Moreover, it legalized the takeover of its temples widely known in the world.

In October 2020, Vladimir Zelensky with his spouse made a visit to Istanbul to hold a meeting with Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The Ukrainian President made it clear that the Ukrainian authorities will support further expansion of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The reaction of dissenters was swift: they announced a new wave of temple seizure making everyone believe that the power was again on their side. The courage that Ukraine has not seen since Poroshenko’s days in the office.

According to local Ukrainian experts, Bartholomew, who officially calls himself a peacemaker of all Christian world is in fact supporting the religious dissent in Ukraine.

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The Ukrainian authorities, who claimed that the index of religious freedom in the country is equal to the one in Belgium (according to Andrei Yurash, the head of the Religion Division of the Ministry of Culture, this indicator was 3,2 in February, 2021, that points to the high level of religious tolerance), are also fueling the national protests in the country with their hypocritical and at times irrational policy.

Italy

Pope Francis launches consultation on Church reform

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Pope Francis (pictured) has launched what some describe as the most ambitious attempt at Catholic reform for 60 years.

A two-year process to consult every Catholic parish around the world on the future direction of the Church began at the Vatican this weekend.

Some Catholics hope it will lead to change on issues such as women's ordination, married priests and same-sex relationships.

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Others fear it will undermine the principles of the Church.

They say a focus on reform could also distract from issues facing the Church, such as corruption and dwindling attendance levels.

Pope Francis urged Catholics not to "remain barricaded in our certainties" but to "listen to one another" as he launched the process at Mass in St Peter's Basilica.

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"Are we prepared for the adventure of this journey? Or are we fearful of the unknown, preferring to take refuge in the usual excuses: 'It's useless' or 'We've always done it this way'?" he asked.

The consultation process, called "For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission", will work in three stages:

  • In the "listening phase", people in parishes and dioceses will be able to discuss a wide range of issues. Pope Francis said it was important to hear from those who were often on the fringes of local Church life such as women, pastoral workers and members of consultative bodies
  • The "continental phase" will see bishops gather to discuss and formalise their findings.
  • The "universal phase" will see a month-long gathering of the bishops a the Vatican in October 2023

The Pope is expected then to write an apostolic exhortation, giving his views and decisions on the issues discussed.

Discussing his hopes for the Synod, Pope Francis warned against the process becoming an intellectual exercise that failed to address the real-world issues faced by Catholics and the "temptation to complacency" when it comes to considering change.https://emp.bbc.co.uk/emp/SMPj/2.44.0/iframe.htmlMedia caption,"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

The initiative has been praised by the progressive US-based National Catholic Reporter newspaper, which said that while the process might not be perfect "the Church is more likely to address the needs of the people of God with it than without it".

However, theologian George Weigel wrote, in the conservative US Catholic journal First Things, it was unclear how "two years of self-referential Catholic chatter" would address other problems the Church such as those who are "drifting away from the faith in droves".

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Much of the reporting of this two-year consultation has focused on some of the issues that often appear to dominate reporting on the Catholic Church: the role of women for example, and whether they will ever be ordained as priests (the Pope says "no").

While those topics are often of concern to some Catholics, other areas which traditionally dominate Catholic social teaching, such as alleviating poverty, and increasingly, climate change, will likely play a greater part, as will how the Church is run. In reality, any issue can be raised.

Don't expect any sudden changes to Church rules though. It's true that some Catholics do want to see a different kind of institution, but for Pope Francis, allowing ordinary worshippers to have their concerns (eventually) raised at the Vatican - even if their bishops disagree with them - is a huge step change for this 2,000 year-old religion.

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Religion

Report on Catholic Church in France finds extensive child abuse

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Today (5 October) Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE), shared his findings, estimating 216,000 children were victims of abuse by clergy since 1950. 

The 2,500 page report sadly reflects a well-known phenomenon of child abuse within the Catholic Church. Scandals in Ireland, the United States, Australia and elsewhere have confirmed that this is a more widespread phenomenon. 

Jean-Marc Sauvé is a specialist in public law and former senior French civil servant. He was appointed by the French Bishops' Conference of France(CEF) to head CIASE. He found that abuse was systemic and that the church had turned a blind eye to the abuse and had done nothing to prevent it. 

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The independent commission was created in November 2018, at the request of the French Bishops' Conference and the French Conference of Religious Men and Women. Its mission was to shed light on the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in France since 1950, to study how these cases were handled, and to assess the measures taken by the Church and to formulate recommendations. 

The CIASE is made up of 22 members with multidisciplinary skills including experts in law, medicine, psychology, social and child protection. It is estimated that it cost €3 million and was funded by the Church.

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French Muslims pay heavy price in COVID pandemic

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Volunteers of the Tahara association pray for 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Volunteers of the Tahara association bury the casket of 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga comes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to stand vigil at the grave of his father, one of the many French Muslims to have died from COVID-19, writes Caroline Pailliez.

Diagouraga looks up from his father's plot at the freshly-dug graves alongside. "My father was the first one in this row, and in a year, it's filled up," he said. "It's unbelievable."

While France is estimated to have the European Union's largest Muslim population, it does not know how hard that group has been hit: French law forbids the gathering of data based on ethnic or religious affiliations.

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But evidence collated by Reuters - including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and testimony from community leaders - indicates the COVID death rate among French Muslims is much higher than in the overall population.

According to one study based on official data, excess deaths in 2020 among French residents born in mainly Muslim North Africa were twice as high as among people born in France.

The reason, community leaders and researchers say, is that Muslims tend to have a lower-than-average socio-economic status.

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They are more likely to do jobs such as bus drivers or cashiers that bring them into closer contact with the public and to live in cramped multi-generational households.

"They were ... the first to pay a heavy price," said M'Hammed Henniche, head of the union of Muslim associations in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region near Paris with a large immigrant population.

The unequal impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities, often for similar reasons, has been documented in other countries, including the United States.

But in France, the pandemic throws into sharp relief the inequalities that help fuel tensions between French Muslims and their neighbours - and which look set to become a battleground in next year's presidential election.

President Emmanuel Macron's main opponent, polls indicate, will be far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning on issues of Islam, terrorism, immigration, and crime.

Asked to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on France's Muslims, a government representative said: "We don't have data that is tied to people's religion."

While official data is silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, one place it becomes apparent is in France's cemeteries.

People buried according to Muslim religious rites are typically placed in specially-designated sections of the cemetery, where graves are aligned so the dead person faces Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

The cemetery at Valenton where Diagouraga's father, Boubou, was buried, is in the Val-de-Marne region, outside Paris.

According to figures Reuters compiled from all 14 cemeteries in Val-de-Marne, in 2020 there were 1,411 Muslim burials, up from 626 the previous year, before the pandemic. That represents a 125% increase, compared to a 34% increase for burials of all confessions in that region.

Increased mortality from COVID only partially explains the rise in Muslim burials.

Pandemic border restrictions prevented many families from sending deceased relatives back to their country of origin for burial. There is no official data, but undertakers said around three quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad pre-COVID.

Undertakers, imams and non-government groups involved in burying Muslims said there were not enough plots to meet demand at the start of the pandemic, forcing many families to call around desperately to find somewhere to bury their relatives.

On the morning of May 17 this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a mortuary in Paris to collect the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died in March 2020 from COVID-19, with no family who could be traced.

Akrach, president of the Tahara charity that gives Muslim burials to the destitute, performed the ritual of washing the body and applying musk, lavender, rose petals and henna. Then, in the presence of 38 volunteers invited by Akrach's group, the Somali was buried according to Muslim ritual at Courneuve cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.

Akrach's group conducted 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. Around half had died from COVID-19. "The Muslim community has been affected enormously in this period," he said.

Statisticians also use data on foreign-born residents to build a picture of the impact of COVID on ethnic minorities. This shows excess deaths among French residents born outside France were up 17% in 2020, versus 8% for French-born residents.

Seine-Saint-Denis, the region of mainland France with the highest number of residents not born in France, had a 21.8% rise in excess mortality from 2019 to 2020, official statistics show, more than twice the increase for France as a whole.

Excess deaths among French residents born in majority Muslim North Africa were 2.6 times higher, and among those from sub-Saharan Africa 4.5 times higher, than among French-born people.

"We can deduce that... immigrants of the Muslim faith have been much harder hit by the COVID epidemic," said Michel Guillot, research director at the state-funded French Institute for Demographic Studies.

In Seine-Saint-Denis, the high mortality is especially striking because in normal times, with its younger than average population, it has a lower death rate than France overall.

But the region performs worse than average on socio-economic indicators. Twenty percent of homes are over-crowded, versus 4.9% nationally. The average hourly wage is 13.93 euros, nearly 1.5 euros less than the national figure.

Henniche, head of the region's union of Muslim associations, said he first felt the impact of COVID-19 on his community when he began receiving multiple phone calls from families seeking help burying their dead.

"It's not because they're Muslims," he said of the COVID death rate. "It's because they belong to the least privileged social classes."

White collar professionals could protect themselves by working from home. "But if someone is a refuse collector, or a cleaning lady, or a cashier, they cannot work from home. These people have to go out, use public transport," he said.

"There is a kind of bitter taste, of injustice. There is this feeling: 'Why me?' and 'Why always us?'"

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