Travel

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Each adult believer in Islam is required to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to the Prophet Muhammad’s holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, unless unable physically or financially.

Some believers repeat this unique experience. The media usually relegate the annual ritual to news features, but this year’s event August 9- 14 is laden with spot news significance.

That’s because ongoing tensions in the Muslim world have produced a campaign to boycott the current Hajj — a nearly unimaginable break with tradition that has received scant coverage in the West. Western reporters should pursue reactions to this in their regions with Muslim sources and agencies that cater to pilgrims. How many believers have postponed Hajj visits till future years after things calm down?

The boycotters are protesting the devoutly Sunni host nation of Saudi Arabia and its ruler since 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS”). The particular grievances are the Saudis’ prosecution of Yemen’s vicious civil war, ongoing hostilities with Iran and toward Islam’s minority Shia branch, and human rights violations, including the murder of a regime critic, The Washington Post ‘s Jamal Khashoggi.

An anti-Saudi analysis at foreignpolicy.com by Ahmed Twaij of Iraq’s Sanad for Peacebuilding notes that in April Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, Libya’s chief Sunni authority, declared that making a repeat Hajj visit or the Umrah (voluntary pilgrimage to Mecca at other times of the year) is “an act of sin rather than a good deed.”

In June, a senior official with Tunisia’s Union of Imams joined boycott calls, saying Saudi income from Hajj visits “is used to kill and displace people,” as in Yemen, instead of helping the world’s impoverished Muslims. Twaij reports that “Sunni clerics around the world have also called for a boycott,” whereas past enmity toward the Saudi regime has come largely from Shia Muslims.

Most remarkable of all was a fatwa last August from Qatar’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is very influential among Mideast Sunnis through his Al Jazeera TV appearances and Internet postings. His words could be interpreted as undercutting even the obligatory once-in-a-lifetime Hajj: “Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the Hajj and Umrah every year.”

Some of this campaign could be payback for the recent years when Saudi Arabia barred believers from Qatar and Iran from joining the pilgrimage, or helped repress a Shia uprising in Bahrain.

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Is the Crown of Thorns rescued from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire authentic?

Is the Crown of Thorns rescued from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire authentic?

THE QUESTIONS:

About the Crown of Thorns rescued from the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris: Is this the actual crown that Jesus Christ wore at the Crucifixion? Does authenticity matter? What’s the role of such relics?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Before Jesus Christ was crucified, the New Testament records, Roman soldiers “stripped him, and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (Matthew 27:28-9, similarly in Mark 15:17 and John 19:2-3).

More than 19 centuries later, a relic believed to be that humiliating crown was rescued from the disastrous fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is the most revered item in the cathedral’s collection, which also contains what are identified as one of the nails that pinned Jesus to the cross, and a wooden fragment from the cross itself.

In today’s supposedly secularized France, only 41.6 percent of citizens are baptized Catholics and a mere 12 percent tell pollsters they regularly attend Mass, well below numbers elsewhere in Europe. Yet the damage and substantial survival of the venerable cathedral, and the valiant effort that saved its treasured relics, roused fervent sentiment nationwide.

Is the celebrated Crown of Thorns, which goes on public display each Good Friday, authentic? There’s no way to prove it is, nor do the Bible or early Christian annals say the artifact was preserved. Here’s what we do know, courtesy of British historian Emily Guerry, writing for theconversation.com.

The earliest record dates from four centuries after the Crucifixion, when St. Paulinus instructed Christians to venerate a “holy thorns” relic at the Mount Zion basilica in Jerusalem.

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Pilgrimage: Normandy and Lourdes defy the stereotypes of France's ardent secularism

Pilgrimage: Normandy and Lourdes defy the stereotypes of France's ardent secularism

For such a secular country, there are certainly lots of religious symbols to be found in France and religious institutions and activities continue to make news.

The country and many of its citizens do pride themselves on the principle of laicite — French for secularism — but is there really an absence of religion in public life?

Not really. It’s true that Notre Dame, one of the biggest symbols of European Christianity for centuries, has been cordoned off for the past two months after a tragic fire, deemed accidental, destroyed the roof. The cathedral, which will undergo a major renovation, is off limits to tourists. Nonetheless, the towering house of worship remains a symbol of Paris and part of this beautiful city’s skyline. The city’s other churches worth a visit include the Church of Saint Sulpice and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, known as Sacre-Coeur.

Outside Paris, God’s visibility is even more pronounced. Two very different sites — Lourdes, one of the holiest in the world for Roman Catholics, and the U.S. cemetery at Normandy — have the ability to bring visitors closer to God in very different ways. There are reminders everywhere of the country’s religious past and how that symbolism continues to play a part in the lives of millions, both visitors and residents, who visit them. As a result, it’s not so unusual for tour operators to include packages to visit both sites.

It is worth noting that this notion of secularism, as it pertains to French government policies, was the result of a law passed in 1905 calling for this strict separation of church and state. While true that religious symbols have been removed from French public life (a possible reason why so many Muslims have found integration so difficult), Lourdes and Normandy may be the two places where this very human law seems to not apply.

First stop on this countrywide pilgrimage is Lourdes. A six-hour train ride (fares range from $134 to $193 roundtrip) from Paris gets you to Lourdes, a southern trip through the French countryside until finally pulling into the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. While many take trains into Lourdes to embark on their pilgrimage, many from across Europe (particularly those from neighboring Italy and Spain) board coach buses to get there.

Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site after a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to see the Blessed Virgin Mary on Feb. 11, 1858 through a vision. Soubirous would see Mary another 17 times near a grotto over the course of five months. Unaware she was having a vision, Mary told the girl: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  

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Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

Middle East images: Week in Israel gives correspondent a different perspective on news (updated)

The New York Times had a front-page story this week on the strong partnership between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Times described Trump as Netanyahu’s secret weapon in his “increasingly uphill re-election battle.”

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that Trump sees advantages in the current American debate over Israel and anti-Semitism.

I read both stories with a different perspective — and a heightened interest — after spending the past several days in Israel, my first visit ever to the Middle East.

I’m typing this post from my hotel room in Jerusalem. I’m here with a group of about a dozen U.S. religion journalists as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. The project aims to give participants an enhanced understanding of issues in this part of the world and make them think about tough questions. For me, it certainly has done that!

Rather than do a normal post while I am traveling, Terry Mattingly invited me to share a bit about the trip. Honestly, I’m still processing much of what I have seen. But I’ve learned so much as we’ve traveled via helicopter and bus to visit key sites all over Israel and heard from speakers representing a variety of perspectives.

We’re still in the middle of our itinerary — with a trip to Ramallah on today’s agenda — but here, via Twitter, are a few virtual postcards:

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Merry Christmas to media critics: Elite German reporter visits American heartland and ....

Merry Christmas to media critics: Elite German reporter visits American heartland and ....

The following post doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas.

Well, wait. I can imagine that there are conservative critics of the mainstream press — especially in its most elite forms — who would see the following headline as a kind of Christmas present. And later on in this post, there will be a religion-and-politics angle to this scandal. So hold that thought.

But let’s start with the end of tale, care of this NBC News headline: “German reporter stripped of CNN 'Journalist of the Year' awards for fabricating stories.”

Hey fans of great journalism movies: We are talking about a kind of sequel to “Shattered Glass,” only with a reporter who was working for an elite news publication — Der Spiegel — as opposed to a liberal journal of editorial opinion, commentary and news. Here’s the top of that Associated Press, as featured by NBC News:

BERLIN — A German journalist who was found to have fabricated numerous articles is being stripped of two awards he received in 2014 from CNN International, the broadcaster said Thursday.

In a statement to The Associated Press, CNN International said the independent panel of judges who awarded Claas Relotius the Journalist of the Year and Print Journalist of the Year awards four years ago decided unanimously to remove them following revelations about his fraud.

German magazine Der Spiegel, where Relotius worked as a freelancer and later full-time, said Wednesday that he had fabricated interviews and facts in at least 14 articles.

The publication, one of Germany's leading news outlets, said the 33-year-old had committed journalistic fraud "on a grand scale" over a number of years, including fabricating elements of an article about an American woman who he said volunteered to witness the executions of death row inmates.

Now it’s time for the flashback to a feature at Medium that got lots and lots of attention — in America and, perhaps, in Germany. The headline: “Der Spiegel journalist messed with the wrong small town.”

The key is that one of the most celebrated newsrooms in Europe decided to probe the dark heart of Middle America in the age of Donald Trump. You know: How do solid, faithful, ordinary Americans in the heartland make peace with their support for a demon? That sort of thing.

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'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

So it is Thursday afternoon. And next Monday is Christmas Eve, which will be a holiday for gazillions of people.

In front of that Monday, we have an ordinary weekend. #DUH

That means that lots of folks can skip work on Friday, as in tomorrow, and end up with how many days off in a row? Five or six — for the cost of one vacation day — depending how their office managers handle The Holidays?

So that sound you keep hearing outside your window, this afternoon, may be car doors slamming as people toss packages (or their suitcases, if headed to the airport) in the back of cars as they prepare to head hither and thither and yon. Some of us older folks, of course, will be joyfully preparing for cars to pull into our driveways containing loved ones — some wearing tiny shoes, in which to dash around the house.

So, what’s the point of this meditation?

Some of your GetReligionistas are already on the road and others will soon depart. Work here at the website will slow down, but our cyber-doors will not be locked tight. You can expect, as usual, a post a day, or maybe two, during the Christmas-New Year’s Day season.

I will be at home near a keyboard most of the days between now and, oh, Jan. 2 or thereabouts — but will have a chance, as always, to flee to the mountains of North Carolina, where Wifi and strong cellphone signals are often a matter of theory, rather than reality.

Let me stress, that we still want to hear from readers!

This is, after all, a time of year in which even the most cynical editor/producer has been known to gaze at the newsroom and mutter, “Somebody get out there and do a story about Christmas. I hear that has something to do with religion, maybe.”

The results are can be glorious or fallen. We are interested in both. Please keep sending us URLs for news that caught your eye.

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A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

Here’s the must-read religion story of this past weekend: the New York Times’ front-page treatment Saturday of the tragic death of missionary John Allen Chau.

I’ll offer a few quick grades (on a report-card scale of A to F) on the in-depth piece before urging you to read it:

• Readability: A.

Filled with “astounding details,” this is an exceptional read that immediately draws in readers.

The compelling opening anecdote (my apologies for copying and pasting so much text, but it’s crucial information):

Just months before undertaking the most forbidding journey in his life as a young missionary to a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau was blindfolded and dropped off on a dirt road in a remote part of Kansas.

After a long walk, he found a mock village in the woods inhabited by missionaries dressed in odd thrift-store clothes, pretending not to understand a word he said. His role was to preach the gospel. The others were supposed to be physically aggressive. Some came at him with fake spears, speaking gibberish.

It was part of an intensive and somewhat secretive three-week missionary training camp. Mary Ho, the international executive leader for All Nations, the organization that ran the training, said, “John was one of the best participants in this experience that we have ever had.”

For Mr. Chau, 26, the boot camp was the culmination of years of meticulous planning that involved linguistics training and studying to become an emergency medical technician, as well as forgoing full-time jobs so he could travel and toughen himself up.

He did it all with the single-minded goal of breaking through to the people of North Sentinel Island, a remote outpost of hunters and gatherers in the Andaman Sea who had shown tremendous hostility to outsiders.

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What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

Well, it seemed like a delightful story. 

A New York Times freelancer decided to visit contemplative sites and institutions in greater Los Angeles and make a travel story out of it.

I was in LA for few days in January. And after experiencing the region’s numbing traffic several days in a row, I hid out at a friend’s home in a gated community in Buena Park. I was thanking God that I had never gotten a job in this region. I thought commuting in DC was rough. This was the Beltway on steroids.

But this writer gave a positive spin to all the craziness. Thus, we follow him as he explores what Los Angelenos do to escape the maddening crowd.

The key: Finding vaguely spiritual sites that help people calm down and deal with stress. But are all "spiritual" places created equal? Are some "spiritual" activities linked to, you know, religion?

This meditative mind-set was fitting for my 3 p.m. appointment, which I was now 45 minutes late to. I was supposed to be visiting the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens as part of a larger quest to seek out spaces of refuge and retreat across the city’s endless suburban sprawl. I wanted to find the quiet, contemplative Los Angeles, the hidden pockets of reverence, reflection, silence; places Angelenos repair to in order to recharge their batteries so that they are ready to face another day, another traffic jam, another screaming child, another vindictive boss. A city is not necessarily defined by its landmarks or its flashiest moments but by all the subtle ways its citizens forge the necessary solitude that allows them to live in proximity to their neighbors. ...

He showed me how to walk the labyrinth, a circular pathway of travertine marble. Have you ever walked a labyrinth? Labyrinths, unlike mazes, are unicursal -- they have only one way in and one way out. Each step becomes a purposeful movement. They are an ancient form of meditation; this one is based on the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France, built in the early 13th century. As you walk, the city becomes a distant dream, a movie half-remembered. In a way, it is bit like the festina lente of Interstate 10, but without the cars, the smog, the man in the neon-yellow Dodge Charger listening to Whitesnake’s “Here I go Again” at peak volume. One way in, one way out.

The writer introduces the reader to the concept of shinrin-yoku, which is immersing oneself in greenery, as in a forest. Stay with me for the next lengthy passage:


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The politics -- ancient and modern -- that surround the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The politics -- ancient and modern -- that surround the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The other day, I pointed readers toward a piece of student journalism from the famed Columbia University School of Journalism -- a kind of a "Religion Beat: The Next Generation" nod. Click here to see that post: "Meet the Muslim Man Who Rents Crosses in Jerusalem."

Several readers asked if this was new territory for GetReligion, since we are not critiquing these pieces. In a way, it is new ground. However, readers should consider this part of our years of work trying to show newsroom managers that there are young journalists in the pipeline who want to cover this important beat.

The faculty member behind this project is the great religion-beat pro Ari L. Goldman, formerly of The New York Times, who serves as director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. With his cooperation, The Media Project website is running some student stories reported and written in Goldman's "Covering Religion" seminars -- with hands-on reporting work overseas.

This story by reporter/photographer Augusta Anthony is about one of the most famous and sacred sites in global Christianity. The headline: "Unity in the Divided Church of the Holy Sepulchre." The symbolic-detail lede:

JERUSALEM -- There’s a ladder in the Old City of Jerusalem. It perches on a stone ledge beneath the second floor window at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. According to local lore, the ladder has been there since at least 1852 and it is not to be moved.

The “immovable ladder,” as its known, symbolizes the complications that arise when six different Christian denominations occupy one of the holiest sites in their theology. Someone -- no one knows who -- left it there in the mid-19th century and to this day none of the churches has agreed who the ladder belongs to. So it sits there, on a ledge above the sturdy wooden doors, a reminder of the contested ground beneath it.

“They are always asking about the ladder,” said Archbishop Hierapolis Isidoros with a sigh.

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