Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy …

The Orthodox church that I attend is part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, which means that its ancient liturgical language is Arabic, even though our pan-Orthodox congregation uses English about 99 percent of the time.

However, during the years that I lived in South Florida — a period that including Sept. 11, 2001 — I attended a parish in which the majority of the members were of Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese descent. Obviously, the ancient, and often the daily, liturgical language of this particular parish was Arabic.

Thus, when we sang one of the most ancient hymns of Christianity, the English words were: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”

However, when we sang the same words in Arabic, they sounded something like this: “Quddouson Allaah, Quddouson ul-qawee, Quddouson ulladhee la yamout, Irhamna.”

Note the presence of the word “Allaah.” That is the Arabic word for God and, in Orthodox circles, there is no doubt about that when services are sung in Arabic. The language is the language and the ancient churches of the East are older than Islam.

It is interesting to note that, here in the West, there have been lively discussions of whether — when speaking English — Muslims should simply say “God,” instead of continuing to substitute “Allah.”

In other parts of the world, tragically, these kinds of debates are literally causing riots. Here is the top of a relevant New York Times piece from the other day:

BANGKOK – An uproar among Muslims in Malaysia over the use of the word Allah by Christians spread over the weekend with the firebombing and vandalizing of several churches, increasing tensions at a time of political turbulence.

Arsonists struck three churches and a convent school early Sunday, and black paint was splashed on another church. This followed the firebombing of four churches on Friday and Saturday. No injuries were reported, and only one church, Metro Tabernacle in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, had extensive damage.

The attacks, unlike anything Malaysia has experienced before, have shaken the country, where many Muslims are angry over a Dec. 31 court ruling that overturned a government ban on the use of the word Allah to denote the Christian God.

Though that usage is common in many countries, where Arabic — and Malay — language Bibles describe Jesus as the “son of Allah,” many Muslims here insist that the word belongs exclusively to them and say that its use by other faiths could confuse Muslim worshipers. That dispute, in turn, has been described by some observers as a sign of political maneuvering, as the governing party struggles to maintain its dominance after setbacks in national and state elections in March 2008.

And there you have it. In this story, the entire conflict is about politics and Malay identity. If you are going to say you are truly Malay, then this means that you are Muslim. If you are a Muslim, God is Allah. If you are not a Muslim, you are (a) not worshiping Allah and (b) not truly Malay.

The story does, while offering detailed discussions of the political realities, pause to give us the crucial numbers on who is who in this increasingly tense nation.

The tensions are shaking a multiethnic, multiracial state that has tried to maintain harmony among its citizens: mostly Muslim Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population, and minority Chinese and Indians, who mostly practice Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. About 9 percent of Malaysia’s population of 28 million people are Christians, most of them Chinese or Indian. Analysts say this is the first outright confrontation between Muslims and Christians. …

The line between race and religion is blurred in a country where the Constitution equates Muslim and Malay identities, said Jacqueline Ann Surin, editor of The Nut Graph, an analytical Malaysian news site.

“Malaysia is peculiar in that we have race-based politics and over the past decade or so we have seen an escalation of this notion that Malay Malaysians are superior,” she said.

What the story never does is give the reader any clue as to how the word “Allah” is used in worship or in religious education by different flocks of Christians and others who use the word “God.” What does this law require people to do, insert the English word “God” into texts written in Arabic or Malay? Could we have at least one practical example of what is at stake here? Is it illegal to carry a Bible containing the proper “Allaah” language?

I have more questions. Is this an issue in Catholic rites performed in Malay? Does it affect any Orthodox Christians who worship in Arabic or Malay? Is this violence targeting churches that are especially evangelistic? How many Protestants are in Malaysia? What about other religious groups that use God language?

Once again, the story does a fine job of handling the political details, but there is more to this story than politics. What are the details on the ground, in terms of how this affects the actual religious groups whose sanctuaries are being burned? How does the current law affect their lives? Are they rebelling against it in their pews and at their altars? How?

Just asking. This story is not going away.

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Mary Daly: R.I.P.

MaryDalyMary Daly, who died Sunday Jan. 3 at age 81, was “a Positively Revolting Hag.” At least that’s what she called herself on the back cover of her 1987 book, Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, which defined “hag” as: “a Witch, Fury, Harpy who haunts the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women into the Wild.”

Daly, who earned three doctorates in theology and philosophy, also referred to herself as a “radical lesbian feminist,” and her radicalism was revealed in both her ideas and her actions, as we can see in the contrasting openings of obituaries that appeared in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

The Globe began with Daly’s ideas:

Fiercely and playfully — often at the same time — Mary Daly used words to challenge the basic precepts of the Catholic Church and Boston College, where she was on the faculty for more than 30 years.

Dr. Daly emerged as a major voice in the burgeoning women’s movement with her first book, “The Church and the Second Sex,” published in 1968, and “Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation,” which appeared five years later. That accomplishment was viewed, then and now, as all the more significant because she wrote and taught at a Jesuit college.

“She was a great trained philosopher, theologian, and poet, and she used all of those tools to demolish patriarchy — or any idea that domination is natural — in its most defended place, which is religion,” said Gloria Steinem.

The Times began with one of her most controversial actions:

Mary Daly, a prominent feminist theologian who made worldwide headlines a decade ago after she retired from Boston College rather than admit men to some of her classes, died on Sunday in Gardner, Mass.

Both obits did a good job of placing Daly’s writing in the context of contemporary feminism (both quoted Robin Morgan, a former editor of Ms. Magazine). And both praised her unique approach to language.

Only The Globe quoted theologians, but these experts don’t really help readers grasp Daly’s theology, which evolved throughout her life. The theologians’ comments have that vague, eulogistic quality that obscures as they summarize.

Daly’s journey took her from being a practicing Catholic to describing herself as “postchristian” (she didn’t capitalize the “C”) to embracing a more non-doctrinal spirituality that, to some, sounded increasingly New Age.

She clearly rejected anything that might be labeled the “faith of our fathers” (all fathers were assumed to be fixtures of the “Cockocratic State”). And she boldly embodied the “Courage to Leave” (“virtue enabling women to depart from all patriarchal religions and other hopeless institutions”).

But readers of these obituaries don’t know precisely what she believed at the end?

In life Daly was a restless thinker and agitator. Now, may she rest in peace as she seeks to journey to the “Otherworld” (“Realms of Metamorphosis, true Homeland of all Hags, Crones, Furies, Furries, and their Friends…the Real World.”)

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In Philly: Sunrise, sunset, sunrise …

andrewsAnyone who has, for the past 20 years or so, followed the joys and sorrows of Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States knows that at least two important trends can be seen, all at the same time.

The story that has received the most media attention is the rise of the “evangelical Orthodox” and others who are converting into this ancient faith. I have been part of that story, of course, on both sides of the notebook. This is a story of the slow growth of an American expression of Orthodoxy, a process both painful and encouraging.

The other trend, however, is linked to the struggles of many — but not all — Orthodox parishes in the United States that are defined, for the most part, in terms of ethnicity and their ties to the “old country,” whatever that old country might be. This story has received little media attention.

But if you want to start somewhere to understand this second, painful, trend — click here, sit down and read. This will take you to a news feature in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the struggles of several Eastern Christian churches, not all of them Orthodox, in the old, hip, resurgent neighborhood known as Northern Liberties. The writing by David O’Reilly is quite good and I only have one major complaint about the reporting, which I will mention later. You must read the whole story.

Let it sink in, in all of its sadness. Here’s a crucial chunk of this long feature, near the top:

The ages-old glow of Christendom’s most elaborate, enigmatic liturgy no longer is a guiding light for the community. But inside St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, beneath four blue onion domes, the sanctuary is as luminous as the day it opened in 1902, if not nearly as brimful of youth and hope.

The Rev. Mark Shinn, bearded and gold-caped, appears through the “royal door” before the altar, an ornate chalice in each hand. Murmuring a prayer, he raises the goblets toward the worshipers, who bow and make the sign of the cross under the wide-eyed gaze of saintly icons. In a gesture of humility, some sweep their fingertips across the oak floor. A few prostrate themselves to kiss it.

They do not retake their seats. There aren’t any. The congregants stand for a candlelit service lasting at least two hours and celebrated almost wholly in Old Church Slavonic, an archaic Eastern European tongue.

On a typical Sunday, about 80 people attend. For that, the archpriest is grateful.

“We keep no rolls and collect no dues,” Shinn said. “If you come, you’re a member.”

If you come.

The neighborhood used to be the safe, transforming landing place for immigrants. Now it is emerging as the spiritual home of young urbanites who define themselves as, yes, “spiritual,” but not “religious.” Who wants to go to church, let alone one in an ancient tongue? This is life in the post-denominational, post-doctrinal world. The only creed is that there are no creeds, unless they focus on the environment or other worthwhile causes.

One pastor sadly quips, “We’d probably do better if we had a doggy day care.”

O’Reilly does a stunning job of painting the historic context for what is happening now, flashing back into the good old days when the churches were full and pastors knew that their mission was to provide a home to those who were settling so far from home.

So what is missing?

OrthodoxCandlesWhat is missing is the broader picture of what is happening in Orthodoxy elsewhere in greater Philadelphia, in areas where multi-ethnic and pan-Orthodox parishes are greeting newcomers with open arms, when, of course, the newcomers come seeking a place to practice the faith of Eastern Orthodoxy.

There is one nod to small changes in a few of the Northern Liberties parishes. At least two Russian heritage churches switched to English liturgies and some new members arrived. However, the older members of the parish are not sure that they want to allow these newcomers to threaten what one pastor calls “their authority, their prestige.”

It’s a sad story, but an important story. A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a national assembly of Orthodox laypeople on this topic — “What do the converts want?” Here is one pivotal part of my address, which may or may not be linked to what is happening in this one corner of Philadelphia.

America is all about assimilation. But I need to stress that Orthodox believers face two different forms of assimilation. One asks them to assimilate into America at the level of culture and language. The other tempts them to assimilate on the level of doctrine and practice.

I believe that Orthodox Christians have divided into two different camps, whether this choice is conscious or unconscious. In many parishes, we see people who are struggling to assimilate into American culture, but don’t know what parts to accept. They are struggling to retain their language and to some extent their art. But on the level of faith and practice, they have already assimilated and their children have as well. You walk into their homes and you see little or no iconography. Yet when you walk into their church, they are not speaking English.

It’s an interesting mix of what they’ve given up and what they’ve chosen to cling to. As an Orthodox priest of an ethnic parish once told me: “Most of the members of my congregation have never been to confession in their lives. They have no idea that this even exists as a part of our church. They see no connection between confession and the life of our parish and the sacramental reality of our parish.”

So, let me offer some sad, but sincere, applause for O’Reilly and the team that produced this deep, vivid story. I hope they explore some other sanctuaries, looking for the other side of the Orthodox equation here in the “new country.”

Top photo: From the “Weekend in Philadephia” page at Cgunson.com.

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Another dangerous Christmas in Iraq

ChristmasParadeInIraqTimes continue to be tough for Christians who live and who attempt to worship in Iraq. As you would expect, several mainstream news outlets used Christmas as a hook for updated reports about this issue, which touches at the heart of human-rights concerns about the plight of religious minorities in Iraq.

How tough did things get this Christmas? Here’s the top of a Washington Post report on the subject:

Christians in Iraq are preparing for a muted holiday season, with one bishop in the southern city of Basra calling for a ban on public festivities while other congregations across the country have canceled services and cautioned worshipers to keep their celebrations private.

The Chaldean bishop of Basra, Imad al-Banna, is asking Christians “not to display their joy, not to publicly celebrate the feast of Nativity” to avoid offending Iraq’s Shiite community, whose Ashura holiday falls two days after Christmas this year. According to Louis Sako, chief archbishop of Kirkuk for the Chaldean Christians, a Catholic sect that originated in Iraq, none of the northern archdiocese’s nine churches has scheduled a Christmas Mass this year.

“This is the first time we have had to cancel our celebrations,” he said.

Conditions continue to worsen for the Christian minority there and the report has the sad numbers to illustrate that. Here’s a sample:

Hundreds of thousands of Christians remain in Iraq, but many live in isolated enclaves, according to church officials. … (The) Chaldean archbishop, said that 10,000 Christians have fled Kirkuk in the past three months, and church officials in Basra have reported that the Christian community there has halved to about 2,500 people because of militia attacks.

The United Nations reported over the summer that 12,000 Christians had left Mosul and recently called for a “redoubling of efforts” to protect the besieged minority. Many Christian families have sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where church services and festivities are held with no apparent security problems.

You can read many of the same facts in this Los Angeles Times report, as well, which includes details from Dec. 25th events.

The news is especially bleak since there were signs of hope not that long ago. Thus, we read:

Only months ago, there was optimism that Iraq might be on the verge of stability, but after weeks of rising bloodshed, many churches closed their doors … or hosted few guests for a late-afternoon Christmas Eve Mass.

Most Christians fled Baghdad in 2006 and ’07 at the height of the sectarian violence when Islamic militants branded them U.S. collaborators, attacked their churches and gave them an ultimatum to either convert to Islam or pay a religious tax. A year ago, some returned triumphantly to their neighborhoods. But now they again are alarmed by the security situation in the city and nervous about drawing attention to themselves.

I really only have one concern about these reports, which are gripping — but incomplete.

To see what I am talking about, click here.

You would think, if you read the Christmas news reports, that all Christians in Iraq are in Eastern Catholic churches linked to Rome, such as the Chaldeans. Let me state right up front that it is understandable that these larger groups, especially those with ties to the West, would dominate reports in Western media.

Still, are there no Protestants in Iraq? There used to be a few. What about the Orthodox Christians, in a number of different Eastern and even Oriental traditions? There are Orthodox Christians in the Middle East (think Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, for example) who continue to celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7, according to the ancient Julian calendar. Are they being forced to close their doors this year, as well?

Again, I understand that the Chaldeans are the dominant church. Still, I think it would have been good to include some material on how the current crisis is affecting other bodies. Are some being hurt worse than others?

Just asking. Yes, as an Orthodox Christian I admit that I am sensitive on this issue, in large part because of the years I spent worshiping in an overwhelmingly Arab parish in South Florida. All of the Christians in the Middle East feel abandoned and the realities on the ground are quite complex and, yes, they deserve coverage.

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Crusading through history

Christians Gather In Bethlehem To Celebrate Christmas

How do you sum up how billions of Christians across the world observe the birth of Christ? It’s difficult to do. This Associated Press round-up begins with a completely unfazed Pope Benedict being knocked down by a deranged woman and ends with 47,000 Filipinos, displaced by an erupting volcano, eating Christmas dinner at shelters. It includes the sad news that some Christians in Pakistan fear marking the day, still scared by the Muslim riots targeting them from earlier this year.

A major chunk of the report looks at Bethlehem, where thousands of pilgrims have come from around the world to be in same town where Jesus was born. That town has seen strife over the years. A reader pointed out this section:

Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements — the troops of Palestinian boy scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town’s holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.

Jeffrey Lynch, 36, a sanitation worker from New York City, was taking a tour through the Church of the Nativity, the fourth-century Crusader era structure built atop the grottos that mark the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

“It’s a miracle being here on Christmas Eve. It’s a lifetime opportunity. I wish everybody could be here,” he said.

So the Church of the Nativity is a fourth-century Crusader era structure? What does that mean? As the reader who submitted the item notes, it can either be 4th-century or it can be Crusader-era. But it can’t be both.

The Crusades went on over a period of about 200 years, beginning around the end of the 11th century and extending until the end of the 13th century.

The first basilica for the Church of the Nativity was begun by Constantine I’s mother and was completed in 333. After a fire during the Samaritan Revolt of 529, the church was rebuilt in 565. Even when various groups invaded or attacked in subsequent years, the structure was not destroyed. It has been expanded over the years and is quite large now.

Tmatt has written about media confusion over this church structure before. Back in 2002, Palestinian militants took over the building in an attempt to seek shelter from Israeli Defense Forces who were after them. The church has various parts operated by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities. All three have religious communities on site. TMatt wrote after a tour there:

The main lesson I learned was that the Church of the Nativity is not one building. Nevertheless, most news about the recent Bethlehem siege described it has one church served by 30 or more priests, monks and nuns. Sadly, the reality is more splintered than that and recent events may have deepened the cracks.

Journalists said Palestinians in “the monastery” exchanged fire with Israeli troops. Which monastery? There are separate Roman Catholic and Greek monasteries and an Armenian Orthodox convent. “The priests” said they were not held hostage. Which priests? Gunmen raided food supplies and trashed monastic cells. In which cloister?

It’s just a good reminder that there are two churches on this often tense and highly symbolic site, a key element that is missed in much media coverage. The facts, as always, matter in this kind of story.

And Merry Christmas everyone!

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’60 Minutes’ visits a persecuted patriarch

There is much to praised in the “60 Minutes” profile of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his tiny, yet historically significant, flock of persecuted Orthodox Christians in Istanbul. It’s worth watching, if only for the remarkable videos taken at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai in Egypt and the remarkable city of churches and monastic cells carved into the mountain cliffs in Cappadocia (video link here) in Eastern Turkey.

The report by correspondent Bob Simon also contains crucial details — with many missing, alas — about the political framework that surrounds the crushing of the ancient Orthodox Christian community in modern Turkey. The story covers the efforts to expel Christian believers from Turkey, but avoids issues linked to massacres and, yes, decades of verbal warfare about the use of the term “genocide.”

So, by all means, watch the report and then carefully read the text as it appears on the “60 Minutes” website.

However, please know that for most Orthodox believers this report is a good news-bad news situation. There are errors in the opening section that are painful — something like hearing very long, stiff fingernails scraped across a blackboard. Even though much of the content is solid, Simon and his writers have made a series of very basic mistakes, which I will underline shortly.

Here are some crucial pieces of the text:

(CBS) Would it surprise you to learn that one of the world’s most important Christian leaders, second only to the pope, lives in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim? His name is Bartholomew, and he is the patriarch of 300 million Orthodox Christians. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey, the latest in a line of patriarchs who have resided there since before there was a Turkey, since the centuries following the death of Jesus Christ.

That’s when Istanbul was called Constantinople and was the most important city in the Christian world.

But times change, and in modern Muslim Turkey the patriarch doesn’t feel very welcome. Turkish authorities have seized Christian properties and closed Christian churches, monasteries and schools. His parishioners are afraid that the authorities want to force Bartholomew and his church — the oldest of all Christian churches — out of Turkey.

His official title is impressive: “His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, Ecumenical Patriarch.” “Ecumenical” means “universal,” and worldwide, 300 million Orthodox Christians look to him for spiritual guidance.

OK, let’s start with that “second only to the pope” phrase, attached to the word “important” — a term that is vague to the point of being meaningless. All kinds of historical issues swarm around this statement, but the basic problem is one that runs through the whole report, which is a ongoing attempt to equate Patriarch Bartholomew with the pope.

The big problem is the article “the” in that statement, “he is the patriarch of 300 million Orthodox Christians.” For the world’s Orthodox Christians he is certainly “a” patriarch. He also is a first among equals, when it comes to gatherings of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs. He is definitely a significant spiritual leader, a symbolic leader in many ways, but he is not “the” patriarch of the Orthodox.

It cannot be stressed too strongly: Orthodox Christianity is a conciliar church and Bartholomew is the symbolic first among equals, equals who would make ultimate decisions as a council and part of a larger community of faith.

And what about that claim that he leads the “oldest of all Christian churches”? That would make him the Patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem, correct? All kinds of issues swirl around that throne. And which came first, Antioch or Constantinople? Meanwhile, Roman Catholics would certainly believe that, since they claim the pope is truly the universal patriarch, Pope Benedict XVI is the leader of the “oldest of all Christian churches,” including the churches of the ancient Middle East.

So the basic problem with the “60 Minutes” report is one of storytelling as Simon & Co. try to find a way to let readers relate to the Orthodox crisis in Turkey. Note this statement:

60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon first met him in Istanbul. It was Easter, and worshipers from throughout the Orthodox Christian world had come to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on the holiest day of their calendar with the man who they see as their pope.

Phanar2That final blunt statement is simply wrong. There needed to be language added stressing that Patriarch Bartholomew is not the pope of the Orthodox, but he is a very important figure on the Orthodox world scene and that, yes, millions of Orthodox Christian believers are deeply concerned about his fate and the fate of his tiny besieged folk in Istanbul.

That isn’t hard to grasp, is it? Reporters — me included — have often resorted to the “spiritual leader of the Orthodox” language, to capture that “first among equals” reality. But Bartholomew is not the literal leader of the global church, in the same way as the pope is for Catholics.

So the report offers a fine picture of a large, important story. But the basic frame around that picture is warped, and that is sad. As you watch it, you will see that very little has changed since 2004, when I visited the Panar and wrote about some of these same, unchanging issues. I wish that Simon had mentioned the painful symbol of the two gates into the complex. The gates say it all:

ISTANBUL – There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older. What the Orthodox urgently need is an active seminary and patriarchate officials are convinced the European Union will help them get one, as Turkey races to begin the formal application process.

As I said, very little has changed. That is a tragic reality for the ancient church in Turkey.

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Memory eternal: The death of Job

BishopJOBofChicagoThe first time I saw Archbishop Job of the Orthodox Church in America, he was singing the simple, yet haunting, hymn that the Orthodox sing during funerals — Memory Eternal.

Of course, the fact that he was chanting this hymn while standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court made the scene especially poignant. Year after year, Archbishop Job was in the middle of throngs of people marching behind the “Orthodox Christians For Life” banner at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. He marched the march, led the prayers and was there for his people at an event that usually attracts very few bishops — Orthodox, Catholics, whatever.

But it seemed like Archbishop Job was always there, surrounded by people singing Memory Eternal. Now his flock will sing the hymn for him, after the monk’s stunning death this week at the age of 63.

There’s no particular reason for newspaper readers to know about Archbishop Job of Chicago, because he isn’t all that famous outside a national flock of Orthodox believers who are committed to (a) Orthodox unity, (b) integrity in church government and, of course, (c) the sanctity of human life.

In terms of hard news, he was a key figure calling for reform during the recent era of scandal in the OCA and many thought he would become the new Metropolitan. But Bishop Job really wanted to retire and focus on ministry — not administrative work. He was poised to retire, in fact. Click here for a podcast tribute to him.

As you would expect, mainstream press coverage of his sudden death has been light. However, the Chicago Tribune has now published a nice feature by religion-beat specialist Manya A. Brachear that captures why he was a symbolic figure. Here’s the top of the report:

Before Archbishop Job rose to national prominence for hastening reform in the Orthodox Church in America, the mild-mannered Chicago native earned acclaim for the twinkle in his eye and an ability to engage and entertain youth.

Fellow clergy and parishioners were astounded in 1996 when the Archbishop of Chicago and the Midwest accompanied a church youth group in Ohio on what was then the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster. That lighthearted act of courage illustrated how the soft-spoken bishop didn’t balk when it came to serving the church — an ironclad devotion that would serve him a decade later when he called for an investigation of church leaders accused of financial misconduct.

“He asked one simple question, four words that turned the church upside down, inside out: ‘Are these allegations true?’ ” recalled the Rev. John Adamcio, rector at Holy Trinity Cathedral, the seat of the Chicago diocese. “Everyone was skirting the issue. … He wanted to find the truth and make the church grow.”

I especially appreciated this glimpse into the life of the archbishop’s family, the kind of complicated history that is so typical for many Orthodox believers during this sometimes tense era in which so many people are converting into the faith.

Born Richard John Osacky in 1946 to an Orthodox Christian mother and a Roman Catholic father, Archbishop Job grew up on the Southwest Side. Although baptized Catholic, he became enamored during childhood with Eastern Orthodoxy. …

His father disowned him when, after graduating from St. Rita Catholic High School in 1964, the young Osacky declared that he wanted to become an Orthodox priest, Adamcio said. After completing studies at Northern Illinois University and St. Tikhon Orthodox Seminary in South Canaan, Pa., he was ordained in 1973. Decades later, he and his father reconciled. …

Read it all. And, if you wish, please join Orthodox believers in praying for this quiet, but courageous, monk, composer, iconographer, priest, bishop and archbishop. Memory eternal, indeed, for a man who suffered much while leading his flock.

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The universal problem of religious freedom

Christian Pilgrimmage In Egypt

We’ve looked at a bit of the coverage of the Swiss ban on the construction of minarets — the spires on mosques that are sometimes used for the call to prayer. Earlier this month, I noted a single story that looked at how religious freedom is handled in some Muslim countries. Many stories didn’t bother to mention the issue even while they covered the outrage toward the Swiss ban from various leaders in these Muslim countries. Reader Mike Hickerson asked:

Could this be a variation on the “hypocrisy is the only sin” meme that pops up whenever there’s a political sex scandal? Western countries say they value religious freedom, so they are held accountable when they fail to live up to their own standards. Meanwhile, countries that explicitly deny religious freedom are given a free pass because they’re only being consistent.

Well, the New York Times has a story by Daniel Williams — two weeks later — about how religious freedom is handled in Egypt:

On a side street in the far northeast Cairo suburb of Ain Shams, the door of a five-story former underwear factory is padlocked.

This is, or was supposed to be, the St. Mary and Anba Abraam Coptic Christian Church. The police closed it Nov. 24, 2008, when Muslims rioted against its consecration. Since then local Copts have had to commute to distant churches or worship in hiding at one another’s homes.

While Muslim leaders criticized the Nov. 29 vote in Switzerland that banned construction of minarets, the distinctive spires on mosques that are used for the call to prayer, they don’t support Christians who want to build churches in some Islamic countries. Restrictions in Egypt have exacerbated sectarian violence and discrimination, say Copts, a 2,000-year-old denomination that comprises about 10 percent of the population.

The story discusses what top Muslim clerics in Egypt said about the Swiss vote and how Copts felt about such outrage in light of their own situation. It discusses how non-Muslims are arrested for worshiping in Saudi Arabia, how citizenship in the Maldives is reservedfor Muslims and how Libya punishes conversion from Islam by death and limits churches to one per denomination in cities.

As if to speak directly to Mike Hickerson’s comment above, this story includes a quote from Harbi Muhammed Ali, a cafe owner who thinks that Copts don’t need more than one church. He adds:

As for Switzerland, “the West is always preaching human rights,” he said. “It’s their problem.”

I wonder, though, if this story isn’t just a continuation of the hypocrisy meme — the idea that the only sin a journalist can recognize is the sin of hypocrisy. The reason why this excellent story is written is because these Egyptians were hypocritical in their criticism (and that 2-week-old news hook). It’s hard to get a critical look at religious freedom in Muslim countries on the merits of the issue alone. And the kicker to the story is a quote from a Copt denouncing the Swiss ban on the grounds that all religious adherents should have the freedom to build.

Still, this story is very interesting. It looks at data from the U.S. State Department’s report on religious freedom — a fascinating, if sober, document released annually that is woefully under-covered. I do wish we’d gotten more perspective from those who deny religious freedom to the Copts. We get a lot of information about the situation on the ground but very little understanding as to how the government justifies — officially and unofficially — the repression.

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