In an absolutely blinding example of how religion fosters peace, goodwill and harmony, part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre , Jerusalem - revered by Christians around the world as the alleged site of Jesus' Crucifixion and burial, is close to collapse because the six rival Christian denominations who have a presence there cannot agree about the nature and form of essential repair work.
The whole of the church is in need of renovation, but engineers who recently examined the small Deir al-Sultan monastery, perched on the roof of the church, declared it to be extremely dangerous, and quite likely to collapse through the roof. "The structures are full of serious engineering damage that creates safety hazards and endangers the lives of the monks and the visitors. This is an emergency." Said Yigal Bergman, the engineer who led the investigation.
The six denominations concerned - the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian - have all taken joint responsibility for the church since an agreement was drawn up under Ottoman rule in 1757. The Ottoman empire held sway over most of the Middle and Near-East and north Africa for the better part of five hundred years, and was one of the most successful and wealthy empires in history. It could not have prospered for so long in the birthing ground of so many faiths and sects if its rulers had not taken the pragmatic approach of, for the most part, allowing its subjects to believe whatever they liked, so long as they obeyed the law and paid their taxes. I can almost imagine a smile of faintly amused incomprehension touching the lips of the Muslim official sent to broker the deal between the shouting, indignant denominations, all ranting about their particular version of the same nonsense.
The factions apparently constantly vie for the use of space and facilities, and there is distrust, acrimony and occasionally violence between them that goes back centuries. The keys to the church's main entrance have been held by a Muslim family since the 12th century; such is the level of distrust between these practitioners of the same faith that they would rather entrust the keys to the most holy shrine of their religion to members of a rival and often hostile faith.
The dispute over the critically endangered monastery dates back a little more recently, to 1970. Coptic monks who had control of the area went to pray in the main church, leaving the monastery empty; Ethiopian monks grabbed their chance and changed the locks! In response, the Copts refused to recognise this quick-thinking, still claiming control of the monastery, and posting a single monk on guard duty at all times. In the particularly hot summer of 2002, the monk on duty moved his chair from its agreed position to a slightly shadier spot. Unfortunately the Ethiopians saw this as a potentially hostile move, and eleven monks required hospital treatment after the ensuing scuffle. This stuff is pure comedy!
Here are four more examples of this childish comedy, shamelessly lifted word-for-word from my newspaper:
In the 19th century, a ladder was placed on a ledge above the main entrance to the church. A priest from another denomination accused the man of trespassing and a row began that has yet to be resolved. The ladder is still there.
In 1995 the church announced that it had reached a decision on how to paint a part of the dome in the central part of the structure - but only after 17 years debate.
In 2004 during Greek Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Greek Orthodox faction and a fight broke out. There were several arrests.
Another fight broke out on Palm Sunday this year when a Greek monk was ejected from the building by a rival faction. Police were attacked by the feuding monks [shades of Monty Python here - "Brothers, Brothers! We should be fighting the common enemy!" "The Judean People's Front!!?" "No no, the Yiddish boys in blue!"] and several people were taken to hospital.
There are calls for the Israeli government to mediate in the dispute. Although it has agreed to fund part of the works, it is, quite understandably, reluctant to get too involved in petty, centuries-old spats between rival denominations.
All of this stuff is great comedy, but on a more serious note, whatever one thinks or feels about the claims made by the faithful about this building and the site on which it stands, it cannot be denied that it is a structure of great cultural and historical significance, that must be saved for the world. If part of this wonderful building, commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in 326 and maintained ever since, is allowed to collapse because of petty differences in scriptural interpretation, it will be forever to the shame not only of Christians around the world, but also to the Israeli authorities who have ultimate responsibility. Agreement must be reached and repair work begun before this site of incalculable importance falls into complete disrepair, and we're left with the sad spectacle of six ancient factions fighting over a pile of rubble.
View blog reactions
Why are stories that interest me enough to write about rather like buses? On my days off last week, when I had the opportunity to blog as much as I liked, there was hardly anything in my newspaper that I felt like writing about. Next day (Thursday), when I was back at work with no chance to blog until today, I found three stories that I wanted to discuss. You wait for ages and then three come along, hey-ho.
Well, I've a bit more time this week, so lets begin with this one...
A man by the name of Timothy Brown, from Woodbridge, Suffolk, pleaded guilty on Thursday to racially aggravated harassment, after subjecting his Christian neighbour, Ms Helen Watson, to a year long campaign of abuse.
The problems apparently began after Ms Watson put one of those fish stickers on her car. Mr Brown, it seems, took exception to this, and started a campaign of increasingly deranged harassment.
Mr Brown began his campaign by covering her sticker with others such as "myth", "sucker" and "fiction". When this inexplicably failed to alter Ms Watson's beliefs, he progressed to allowing his dog to foul her lawn, urinating on her doorstep and rubbing dog-shit onto her car. Still Ms Watson refused to relinquish her faith, and Brown was arrested after police installed secret CCTV cameras.
In his police interview he said that he was an atheist and wanted Ms Watson to change her religious beliefs. Well, great way to go about it laughing-boy; smearing shit on someone's car is of course a tried and tested way of making them see an argument from your point of view.
His own lawyer, in defence, told magistrates "It is utterly bizarre. He ought to see his doctor."
Clearly a bit of a nutjob, but you all know how this kind of thing can play into the hands of purportedly 'moderate' theists. Tarred with the same brush, etc... The story has been covered by a Christian site (link in title).
My verdict? What a wanker.
View blog reactions
When you get into a debate with a believer, and I mean a moderate or devout but not fanatical or fundamental one, what are the top 10 questions or statements that really get under your skin? We've all heard some ridiculous retorts, fallacies and self-contradictions, but what are the ones that make you think "What's the point? This person is never going to get it."? Here are 10 teeth-grindingly irritating examples, in no particular order, that I've faced.
1. If you don't believe in God, where did you come from?
2. You don't believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus? No?! So you believe in Satan?
3. I don't believe in evolution.
4. So you really think we descended from monkeys?
5. I know there is no obvious evidence for God, that's why we have to have faith.
6. God loves you.
7. How do I know God is real? Because I can feel Him.
8. The fact that the World has so many religions is evidence that God exists! If there was no God, why would people have this need to believe in things?
9. People who use their religion as an excuse to hurt others are not religious at all, they're just perverting their faith.
10. Evolution is just a theory, it hasn't been proven.
My favourite one from this list is number 2, for sheer comedy value. It was asked without a hint of irony, the person concerned was quite serious. At that point I realised I wasn't going to get anywhere and spared myself the effort. Number 10 is the one most likely to make me scream with anguish and need a few very deep breaths before I can respond with anything approaching civility. It is a lamentably common statement, always said with a sort of flat finality as though its a knock-down argument.
If you've got 10 examples, why not write a post and I'll link up to it from here. Feel free to link up to this post.
View blog reactions
A few days ago I wrote about the rampant hypocrisy spouted by the leaders of the Anglican church, in regard to the current financial crisis. Hypocrites? Of Course not, They're our Spiritual Leaders!
Not to be out-done, the Pope had a few things to say about the evils of wealth too.
Well, lets not kid ourselves here. We all pretty much know that every time the Catholic church says anything at all, it will include at least a smidgen of hypocrisy, but for that organisation to talk about the evils of wealth is going way beyond the pale.
The Pope said that the global financial crisis is proof that that the pursuit of money and success is pointless. He also said that the disappearance of money as banks collapsed showed that wealth meant nothing.
This is taking the argument a little too far, though I partly agree with the second statement. The pursuit of wealth can hardly be pointless, and worked a dream for the Catholic church. Irresponsible management and poor foresight have brought us to the current banking problems; a responsible pursuit of wealth and success would bring just that, in smaller quantities but more sustainably, surely.
He then went on to say that people should instead base their lives on God's word (as interpreted by yours truly, naturally).
So, people should give up all ambition, all desire to enrich themselves, and instead crawl at the feet of your merciful God.
Those who think that "concrete things we can touch are the surest reality" are deceiving themselves, said the holy one, clutching his golden, jewel encrusted and probably priceless staff.
In a strong field, that ranks as the most laughable thing I've heard a spiritual leader say for quite some time.
There is no reality other than the one spoken of in this collection of ancient stories, the interpretation of which we've altered down the centuries to suit political needs or the whimsy of popes; this truth, that we have moulded and remoulded as occasion demanded, is what you really need to live your life. All this stuff, this apparently 'real' stuff you see around you, is mere illusion, not real at all. The real world is the spiritual one, with a God who looks after us all, if you grovel before him. Now, I know you can't see him or talk to him, but don't worry, I can! And I'll always interpret his wishes for you. Oh, and if you believe, I mean really believe that God is there, you'll be able to feel him. Now, about our fee...
As for the evils of money, I was unable to find a reliable estimate of the Catholic church's wealth, but the value of its property holdings, in the US alone, is estimated to be larger than the net worth of the three largest US corporations combined (the estimate was made before the current financial crisis). With a worldwide reach, you can perhaps imagine how much cash it must have locked away in buildings. It has many billions of pounds worth of gold, both in ornamentation and ingot and bullion reserves. Unregulated by any secular government, This immensely wealthy organisation holds power over the thoughts and actions of over a billion people worldwide. Don't know about you but that scares the shit out of me.
So just how did the Pope become (possibly) the richest man in the world?
The Catholic church has operated for more than 1500 years as an extremely successful business. It has raised taxes, demanded contributions from peasants and nobles alike, offered indulgences (go on then, do something unholy if you must, just slip us a bit of gold and I'll get God to turn a blind eye), demanded tribute from Kings and Emperors, (give us gold, lots of gold, and I won't criticise your rule; refuse and I'll excommunicate you, leaving you vulnerable to invasion by the 'faithful'), sold 'relics' to gullible people (if all the 'splinters of the one true cross' are genuine, Jesus must have been crucified on a cross more than 30 feet high), and in an absolutely blinding moment of inspiration, invented purgatory. What a winner that was! As I mentioned in The Road to Rationalism Part 2 , this made them an absolute fortune. In hitting on the idea of calculating how long an individual would spend in purgatory, and offering to reduce that time for a healthy amount of gold (the more you pay, the quicker you can go to heaven, sucker!) the church hit on what I think has to be the greatest confidence trick in history. Until quite recently, the church had more wealth than all of the European empires, kingdoms and principalities combined.
Stalin once sarcastically asked of the Pope, in a typical example of his bullish stupidity, "How many divisions has he?" He completely underestimated the power of the church's wealth and influence over its followers.
So how has the church used its massive wealth and power for the good of the people its god loves so much?
By torturing and burning countless people who disagreed, by ordering and funding wars against 'infidels' and political rivals (using the trump card of excommunication) Seeking control and dominion over every person alive, and for all time after their death, sending out hordes of psychopathic inquisitors to root out 'heresy' and witchcraft, happily burning people for the merest whiff of non-conformity, demanding that everyone obeys its pathological rules and condemning all who don't, and generally making everyone know just what a load of worthless, miserable sinners they all are. Oh, and of course more recently exacerbating the population problem and spread of AIDS by refusing to allow the use of contraceptives.
So, Cardinal Joseph multi-billionaire Hitler-youth Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, you delusional old hypocrite, how dare you lecture the world about the evils of wealth, when your organisation has used its fortune to cause misery and death to countless millions of people for more than 1500 years.
View blog reactions
You really couldn't make this stuff up.
Muslims from around the world can now phone a helpline in Abu Dhabi to ask that a fatwa - a religious edict - be issued on their behalf, and for general queries relating to their faith.
I recommend checking out this article from The Times , where I first encountered this heartwarming little story.
Apparently this helpline, set up 3 months ago and staffed by 48 Muftis, takes up to 3,700 calls a day, and is open from 8am to 8pm on working days. They even have a 'skeleton staff' at night-time to deal with 'religious emergencies'.
The Times interviewed one of the Muftis, 48 year old Abdulrahman Ammoura, who said "I'm tired, so tired, I hear ringing in my ears." He was upset by his last caller, a woman whose husband was an alcoholic who became violent, beating her and forcing her to have sex (IE rape, if you're not a Muslim). The woman asked if she should try to divorce him. Mr Ammoura, one of the most learned and respected Muftis in the UAE, replied "No - it is better for him to find help. A woman living alone with children could face too many problems."
Perhaps the wife-beating rapist should 'find help' by calling the helpline to find out if God can forgive him - for drinking alcohol. Treating your woman like property is of course quite OK. I'm beginning to wonder how many Muslim women wear a full burkha or hijab just to cover up the bruises.
As for this poor woman, what on Earth would she do even if she did divorce? After all, there's no point in being property if you don't have an owner.
For all that this disgusts and amuses us, I do feel that the UAE government deserve some tiny amount of credit for setting up this helpline. Any fatwas issued by the staff are done so according to guidelines laid down by the government's General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments; any fatwas issued by unregulated clerics - which are more likely to be extremist in nature - are declared null by the government.
It's still completely bonkers though, don't you think?
If you're in need of some light entertainment and would like to get in touch with the helpcentre, you can call (+971) 8002244 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (+971) 8002244 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
If you can read Arabic, go to their website www.awqaf.ae
View blog reactions
Pope Benedict XVI opened a bishops Synod earlier this week with a warning that modern culture is pushing God out of people's lives. Cause for celebration, I feel.
"Nations once rich in faith and vocations are losing their identity under the harmful and destructive influence of a certain modern culture" he said, speaking at the synod, called to discuss the relevance of the bible to catholics - which strikes me as absurd, even by Church standards; rather like a shark calling a meeting to discuss the relevance of water to fish. I mean, come on, its just an excuse to have a bit of a get-together of Bishops isn't it? Fly the useless, pointless idiots half way around the world at great expense, have a bit of a bible reading session, argue about whose interpretation is right for a while, then have a good knees-up and play party games like pass the parcel ('What do I win? A bible again, hooray!') and pin the tail on the paedo.
So at least he feels that a 'certain' modern culture (drinking, drugs, godlessness and the 'worship' of celebrity and money, I suppose him to mean) is responsible for the decline in faith. I'd like to hope that it is greater education, knowledge, the application of reason and a willingness by the masses not to believe any old shite that comes from the mouth of some wilfully ignorant old man in a purple robe that is leading to a decline in faith. Maybe I'm just an optimist.
The holy one didn't say anything about Islam, though I dare say it gives him nightmares (or fits of jealousy - after all, the days in which people would happily murder thousands in the name of catholicism are, thankfully, long gone) but he did show how inclusive and tolerant the Church now is, by inviting a Rabbi to address the synod - the first time this has happened. Wow, all bow before the inclusive, modern, enlightened Church, as relevant today as it ever was.
What he didn't reveal is that one of his bishops - a crack shot - was armed with a water pistol full of holy water. A quick squirt on the Rabbi's head, a few mumbled words of latin and, hey presto, his soul was saved for Jesus without him even knowing.
View blog reactions
So I read in my paper today that good old Vlad is even more rugged and well-ard than I'd ever imagined. Turns out that he has a black belt in Judo.
Not content with posing for the cameras half-naked and wielding a fishing rod (note to Sarah Palin: have you considered this option yet?) like it was connected to a big red button, Russia's Presi... sorry, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has released a video entitled "Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin".
I wonder if it will be his Christmas present to the other G8 leaders?
View blog reactions
Pat Condell's video about the creeping influence of sharia law in the UK has been reinstated. It was removed after certain people complained that it might be offensive.
One of the most important things about the right to free speech is that somebody will always be offended. They have the right to be offended, and also the right not to listen, but nobody should have the right to ban opinion.
Pat does not incite anyone to violence or hatred - all he really does is take the piss. Keep up the good work Pat, and thanks to all those who petitioned YouTube about the importance of freedom of speech.
View blog reactions