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Monday, January 30, 2012

Mormonism besieged by the modern age

REUTERS

Special report: Mormonism besieged by the modern age

Photo

By Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Reuters) - A religious studies class late last year at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, was unusual for two reasons. The small group of students, faculty and faithful there to hear Mormon Elder Marlin Jensen were openly troubled about the future of their church, asking hard questions. And Jensen was uncharacteristically frank in acknowledging their concerns.
Did the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints know that members are "leaving in droves?" a woman asked.
"We are aware," said Jensen, according to a tape recording of his unscripted remarks. "And I'm speaking of the 15 men that are above me in the hierarchy of the church. They really do know and they really care," he said.
"My own daughter," he then added, "has come to me and said, 'Dad, why didn't you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?'" For the younger generation, Jensen acknowledged, "Everything's out there for them to consume if they want to Google it." The manuals used to teach the young church doctrine, meanwhile, are "severely outdated."
These are tumultuous times for the faith founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, and the rumbling began even before church member Mitt Romney's presidential bid put the Latter-Day Saints in the spotlight.
Jensen, the church's official historian, would not provide any figures on the rate of defections, but he told Reuters that attrition has accelerated in the last five or 10 years, reflecting greater secularization of society. Many religions have been suffering similarly, he noted, arguing that Mormonism has never been more vibrant.
"I think we are at a time of challenge, but it isn't apocalyptic," he said.

The LDS church claims 14 million members worldwide -- optimistically including nearly every person baptized. But census data from some foreign countries targeted by clean-cut young missionaries show that the retention rate for their converts is as low as 25 percent. In the U.S., only about half of Mormons are active members of the church, said Washington State University emeritus sociologist Armand Mauss, a leading researcher on Mormons.
Sociologists estimate there are as few as 5 million active members worldwide.
In Africa and Latin America, however, Jensen said that interest in the LDS was so strong that the church has cut back baptisms in order to better care for new members.

THE RESCUE

With defections rising, the church has launched a program to staunch its losses. The head of the church, President Thomas Monson, who is considered a living prophet, has called the campaign "The Rescue" and made it his signature initiative, according to Jensen. The effort includes a new package of materials for pastors and for teaching Mormon youth that address some of the more sensitive aspects of church doctrine. "If they are not revolutionary, they are at least going to be a breath of fresh air across the church," Jensen told the Utah class.
All this comes as the public profile of America's Mormons had been raised by two pop-culture hits: the recent TV series "Big Love" and the current Broadway hit, "The Book of Mormon." The attention, says church spokesman Michael Purdy, is a "double-edged sword."
It has been an opportunity to educate the public about Mormonism and fight misconceptions. For example, the "I am a Mormon" ad campaign, which features stereotype-busting Mormons who are black or single parents, helped boost chat sessions on the church's website to more than a million in the last 12 months.
The curious find a family-focused church with socially conservative values that teaches Christian principles and believes Christ appeared to founder Joseph Smith in America, where Smith established the new religion.
Church members are satisfied with their lives, content with their communities, strongly see themselves as Christian and believe acceptance of Mormons is increasing, a recent Pew Research poll of people who describe themselves as Mormon found.
But on Broadway, the church's gospel and missionary zeal are mocked. And the Web has intensified debate over the truth of the history the church teaches.
Not since a famous troublespot in Mormon history, the 1837 failure of a church bank in Kirtland, Ohio, have so many left the church, Jensen said.
"Maybe since Kirtland, we've never had a period of - I'll call it apostasy, like we're having now," he told the group in Logan.
Then he outlined how the church was using the technologies that had loosened its grip on the flock to reverse this trend.
"The church has a very progressive research and information division, with tremendous public opinion surveyors," he said. Among other steps, it has hired an expert in search-engine optimization to raise the profile of the church's own views in a web search.
Researchers note a rising tide of questions from church members about the gospel according to Joseph Smith's The Book of Mormon, the best known of the Latter-day Saints' scriptures. Over the years, church literature has largely glossed over some of the more controversial aspects of its history, such as the polygamy practiced by Smith and Brigham Young, who lead the Mormons to Utah.
The church denied the higher priesthood to blacks until 1978 and still bars sexually active homosexuals from its temples. The church's active role in promoting California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage, drove away some its more liberal members.
Moreover, church leaders have taught that the Book of Mormon is a historical document -- not a parable -- so the faithful are startled to find articles on the internet using science to contradict it.
For example, the book describes Israelites moving in 600 BC to the Americas, where they had horses and other domesticated animals. But Spaniards introduced horses to the New World many centuries later, and extensive DNA studies have failed to find any genetic link between Israelites and Native Americans, suggesting instead that North America's indigenous population came across the Bering Strait from Asia many thousands of years ago.
"I think you can find scientific studies coming down on both sides, but the Book of Mormon doesn't live or die on scientific evidence," Jensen said.
But Christian Anderson, 41, a non-practicing Mormon in Columbia, South Carolina, for years filed away on a mental "shelf" concerns about the historical veracity of the religion's central text and its socially conservative views. "It came to a point where the shelf was too heavy," he said. He quit attending service, telling himself, "Ok, I'm done."
That's a common story to PhD student John Dehlin, who conducts conferences nationally for "unorthodox Mormons" wrestling with doubts and has a podcast, mormonstories.org.
"I think this is an epidemic for the church," said Dehlin. "Most of the people we cater to have been life-long members."
The church is particularly concerned, however, about its younger members -- the ones who are asked to dedicate two years of their life to spreading the Mormon gospel.
"It's a different generation," Elder Jensen told the group in Logan. "There's no sense kidding ourselves, we just need to be very upfront with them and tell them what we know and give answers to what we have and call on their faith like we all do for things we don't understand."

REACHING OUT TO GAYS

Certainly the church can change, as it did a generation ago in admitting blacks to the higher priesthood. And it has now reached out, quietly, to the gay community.
LDS support of Prop 8 became a lightning rod both inside and outside the Church. There were demonstrations in Salt Lake City, which is home to the Mormon tabernacle but was also just named the "the gayest city in America" by the Advocate magazine, crediting its numerous gay-friendly bars, book stores and neighborhoods. In the wake of the Prop 8 battle, Brandie Balken, executive director of gay rights group Equality Utah, was one of five gay advocates who met with three LDS officials to ease tensions.
What was supposed to be a half hour or hour meeting stretched to two hours. Participants took turns describing their background. Balken talked about her love of gardening -- and the pain infusing the family of her wife, who was the only gay child in a big LDS family.
Most of the church members present said they weren't aware of anyone they knew being gay, but they had heard from parents whose gay children were no longer speaking to them and who felt caught between their religion and their family.
There was no immediate agreement. But the Church did in 2009 support a job and housing anti-discrimination measure in Salt Lake City, saying that opposing discrimination was a separate issue from same-sex marriage. Now Utah Democratic Senator Ben McAdams and Republican Representative Derek Brown are proposing a similar statewide bill, and the Church's position on that will be significant.
I have never ever been associated with an organization that changes as fast as the Mormon church," said former church researcher Ray Briscoe, 79, whose investigations helped spur movement on issues such as the treatment of blacks.
"I don't think God was ever against blacks in the priesthood. We just had to grow up enough to accept it," he said. As for gays -- "it will get there, in my judgment."

PRESIDENTIAL ISSUE

This crisis of faith in the LDS church remains largely offstage in the race for the presidency. Mitt Romney's religion has been less of a prominent issue on the campaign trail this time around than in 2008.
Still, in heavily evangelical South Carolina, Romney won only one-tenth of the vote among those who said a candidate's religious beliefs mattered to them a great deal.
Many evangelicals say they do not consider the LDS church to be Christian.
And to some voters, Mormonism remains a complete enigma. During the South Carolina primary, one Mormon woman there said an acquaintance was surprised to see her driving a car, confusing Mormons with the Amish.
Individual Mormons are encouraged to participate in public life, including running for office and supporting candidates, but the church officially stays out of electoral politics. It won't allow its property to be used for polling, unlike many other churches, and has been careful not to run the "I am a Mormon" ads in early primary states.
But that's not to say church leadership isn't watching Romney's campaign with interest.
"There have been discussions at LDS church headquarters about both the positive and negative aspects of Romney's presidential bid," a person briefed on the talks said. "One concern is that Romney's campaign could further energize evangelical antipathy toward the church. Another concern is that he could take positions that would complicate the church's missionary efforts in the U.S. or other countries such as in Central and South America."
But on the positive side, the person said, "having a Mormon president could raise the church's profile and legitimize it in other countries."
(Reporting By Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke, editing by Lee Aitken)

Anti-Zionism in the 21st Century


Anti-Zionism in the 21st Century

By Tariq Shadid

52palestine_maps.jpg
The struggle of the Palestinians is a struggle against Zionism.

January 29, 2012

The essence of the Palestinian struggle is the battle against Zionism. It is a battle against its racism, against its murderous war crimes, against its insatiable territorial hunger, against its disdain for non-Jewish human rights, and against its devoted attempts to destroy Palestinian national identity. As voices of normalization are on the rise, and social media is invaded by paid pro-Zionist bloggers, there is an increased need for anti-Zionists to draw attention to the crimes committed by 'Israel', and to speak up against the ongoing media silence and the apologist activities of those misleadingly portraying themselves as 'peace doves'. Let us first look briefly at the history of the anti-Zionist struggle, and then see where we stand today.

The Ideology of Zionism
Years before the creation of the state of 'Israel', there was already a full-blown battle going on against Zionism. On one side, the Palestinians were resisting against the usurpation of their land, having grown aware of the far-stretching implications of the Balfour declaration of 1917, which laid the foundation for the mass-immigration of European Jews into Palestine. In those same decades, there was also an ongoing struggle within the Jewish communities in Europe, where many were opposed to the tenets of Zionism either on a religious basis, or on the realization that colonizing an inhabited land would inevitably cause an injustice that would continue to reverberate for many years to come. A famous example of this in that period of time was the famous genius Albert Einstein, who in 1938 already expressed his opposition to the creation of a 'Jewish state', and in a letter to the New York Times that he wrote together with a number of prominent Jews in 1948, strongly denounced the horrendous Deir Yassin massacre.
The ongoing struggle of the Palestinians against Zionism and the continuing expropriation of their land is well-known, but not everyone is aware that within Jewish ranks, true ideological opposition against Zionism still exists. The most well-known group among these is Neturei Karta ('Guardians of the City'), an organization of international Jews united against Zionism. On another note, within the current framework of the Zionist state, a coalition of groups that call themselves 'Campus Watchdogs' recently went as far as labeling 10 % of Israeli academics as 'anti-Zionist'. It is likely that this number is highly overrated, since this McCarthyism-like approach can be expected to have lumped together a wide variety of people who expressed criticism at their government's actions. In a similar way that outside criticism of 'Israel' quickly gets labeled as 'anti-Semitism', many of the one thousand mentioned academics, publicists and journalists are likely to have received the label of 'anti-Zionist' despite adhering to many of Zionism's principles.

Tribal, Religious, or Ideological?
For some, the ongoing misery is a war between two peoples, basically a 'tribal war'. Others prefer seeing it as a war between religions, with Judaism on one side and Muslims on the other side. Those who adopt this view are ignoring the pluralistic ethnic and religious composition of the Palestinian people, and are for instance ignoring the fact that many Palestinians are Christians, who have not been spared the gruesome fate of their Muslim compatriots. Thirdly, there are those who view the struggle as a battle between ideologies: Zionism on one side, and anti-Zionism on the other.
As the original PLO manifesto (28 May 1964) stated, the organization declared that "Palestine with its boundaries that existed at the time of the British mandate is an integral regional unit"  and that it sought to "prohibit the existence and activity of Zionism". It also contained statements calling for a right of return and self-determination for the Palestinians. When reading the manifesto, it becomes clear that the PLO, the first more officially organized Palestinian movement against the land theft and expulsion committed by the Zionist terrorist organizations that later declared the Zionist state, was an explicitly anti-Zionist movement. The PLO incorporated the various existing political movements in one body, and was declared to be the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This was widely accepted by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians.

The Oslo Disaster
As illustrated above, the foundations of the Palestinian struggle were based on the territorial integrity of Palestine (i.e. the one state solution) and the right of return of all expelled Palestinians. These original foundations became embedded in an entire generation of Palestinians worldwide. In 1993, the leadership under Yaser Arafat adopted the two-state solution instead, which largely happened in a top-down manner and led to the Oslo accords, However, it soon became clear to all that the Oslo accords were only accepted by 'Israel' as a deceptive method to hypnotize the Palestinians as well as the masses of the world into an illusion of Israeli willingness for territorial concessions, while in truth confiscating huge swathes of land, building a separation wall and almost tripling the settler population (from 250,000 to 700,000). It should be no surprise that even early on, as the scam became blatantly clear to all except seemingly to the leadership of the newly created Palestinian Authority, the original tenets of the struggle were yet again embraced by many Palestinians inside of Palestine as well as in the diaspora.

Return to the Struggle
As the state of confusion created by the Oslo accords lingered on, some defeatist voices however also turned to normalization, instead of returning to the basics of the struggle. It is not to be wondered at that disillusion and opportunism play their role in such a complex situation, wherein many lose hope when faced with the overwhelming military, economical and strategic dominance of the Zionist state. Nevertheless, youth movements that are currently active in keeping the struggle for Palestinian rights alive, predominantly see anti-normalization as one of their main strategic goals. They adhere to the above-mentioned basic tenets of the struggle, and reject the failed formula of negotiations that is still pursued by the Palestinian Authority, despite its lack of popular mandate for it. For most Palestinians it is blatantly clear, that the so-called 'Peace Process' has only caused damage to their cause and has not brought even the slightest prospects of a better future, let alone of self-determination or independence.
Internationally, pro-Palestinian activists also largely adhere to the basic tenets of the Palestinian struggle, namely the one-state solution and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.  There are other issues as well that are deemed non-negotiable to the majority of Palestinians, such as strong opposition against the Judaization of Jerusalem (Al Quds) which is projected as the future capital of liberated Palestine, and the release of all thousands of Palestinian political prisoners.
There is definitely also a group of 'two-staters', but their numbers are dwindling fast, and they rarely engage in activism since their views are largely represented by the Palestinian Authority. The strongest cure for the fallacy of the two-state solution was seeing the Palestinian side of that solution being gobbled up by the Zionist state over the years, faster than one could issue statements of protest against them.

New Shape of the Struggle: Back to Anti-Zionism
It is clear nowadays that the Palestinian Authority is not a useful apparatus for waging any form of struggle, but an administrative body that functions mainly as an extension of the Israeli security apparatus, in a framework inherited directly from the Oslo agreements. This does not mean that the people have stopped struggling. The modern Palestinian struggle has moved towards preferring popular resistance over armed struggle, and employing BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) as a main strategy of generating pressure against the Zionist state. What has also changed, is that this struggle has gained large numbers of international supporters all over the world, who support the Palestinians in their pursuit of freedom from Zionist oppression.
These changes have also brought anti-Zionism back to the forefront, and this has far-reaching implications. Whereas a two-state solution almost automatically implies the undertaking of steps towards normalization, since it implies an acceptance of Zionism and relinquishing the claim of 78 % of Palestinian territory to it, a one-state solution which aims to create a state for all of its inhabitants that does not discriminate on the basis of race of religion, requires a strong and uncompromising return to anti-Zionism as a unifying strategy.

Anti-Zionism versus Normalization
In a struggle that aims to achieve this, normalization is an extremely damaging concession that can never be combined with the dismantling of Zionism, which is the ultimate goal of its strategy. After all, a struggle against racism cannot be successful if the inherently racist tenets of Zionism are accepted. The 'Oslo-period' has however sown its sorrowful seeds in more places than may directly become apparent. The vast majority of the Arab masses have not accepted Zionism in their midst, but there are stubborn strands of normalization that seem to be enjoying an increasing momentum within 'progressive' ranks of various Arab communities.
Two Egyptian examples can be mentioned in this context. One is Mona Eltahawy, who seems to consider 'Israel' to be a civilized state and refused to condemn the genocidal massacre in Gaza that claimed the lives of 1,400 Palestinians (including at least 300 children) by massive attacks from drones, tanks, Apaches and F-16's - on a population that possesses no bombing shelters or anti-aircraft artillery. Another even more mind-blowing example is Maikel Nabil, an Egyptian blogger who enjoyed wide campaigns for his release when he was arrested for criticizing the SCAF military junta of post-Mubarak Egypt. He expressed his love for Israel on his blog and in Israeli media with an enthusiasm rarely ever seen before in the Arab world. There are other examples too, such as Arab-American comedian Ray Hanania of Palestinian origin, who proclaimed himself a candidate for Palestinian presidency in a video that he posted on Youtube, wherein he called for an acceptance of Israeli settlements, and an end to the Right of Return.

The Only Ziocracy in the Middle East
It is true that these examples do not represent the sentiments of the majority of Palestinians and other Arabs, whether in the Arab world or outside of it, but these voices cannot be ignored either. The main reason for this is that voices of normalization like the ones mentioned above often receive disproportionate attention in Western-dominated mass-media, and thereby have a number of insidious destructive effects upon the struggle.
First of all, they make those who are true to the anti-racist struggle against Zionism seem extremist, by offering alternatives that at first sight strike the general public as being more inspired by peaceful motives. This is a distortion of reality: support for 'Israel', the most belligerent state in the Middle East, the only state in the region in possession of (over 300) nuclear arms, and the only 'Ziocracy' where ones ethnic background automatically categorizes one as having less rights than others, can never be truthfully designated as 'peace-loving'.
Secondly, the apparently human inclination of the masses to flock around the famous without delving deeply into their philosophies, brings multitudes of people close to positive truth-distorting evaluations of the Zionist state. For example, progressive Arabs who embrace Mona Eltahawy's feminist activities, are inclined to also automatically defend their idol's views on 'Israel', simply because they are already in a state of adoration of her person. Another example involves Maikel Nabil: when progressive activists rallied for him due to his unjust incarceration by SCAF, his shocking pro-Israel views seemed to be lumped together with his anti-SCAF views under the label of 'freedom of speech', effectively paving the way for the perceived 'right' of Egyptians to view 'Israel' in an undeservingly positive and gruesomely distorted loving manner.

The Struggle Goes on
The true and original struggle of the Palestinians is a struggle against Zionism, and this is entirely incompatible with the views mentioned above. Normalization must therefore be opposed, vocally, directly, loudly and clearly. There is definitely a need for increased activity on this front, since anti-normalization and BDS do not enjoy the support of mass media, unlike the voices of normalization.
If this means that these voices need to be confronted even on a personal level, then so be it. It may not be a pleasant thing to do, and some might argue that it distracts from calling attention to the continuing atrocities that the Zionist state is inflicting on a daily basis upon the defenseless Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. However, as has been argued in the article "Anti-normalization: an necessary part of BDS campaigning", calling attention to these injustices will remain highly ineffective if the public is simultaneously exposed by mass media to Arab voices that aim to paint a misleading image of 'Israel' as if it were a beacon of civilization, and a saviour for mankind.
In other words: if you value BDS and wish it to be effective, and if you believe in opposing the racist ideology of Zionism, one of your tasks is also to confront those who suck up to power for their own personal gain. And since their number is increasing, it looks like you have work to do.
- Tariq Shadid is a Palestinian surgeon living in the Middle East, and has written numerous essays about the Palestinian issue over the years.

THE END OF MANDAEANS

The Ancient Wither in New Iraq

By Karlos Zurutuza

BASRA, Jan 29, 2012 (IPS) - "I’d say there are around 5,000 of us in the country, but if you ask me next week we may well be under 3,000. After twenty centuries of history in Mesopotamia, we Mandaeans, are about to vanish." Anxiety about the future of his people is more than evident in the figures given by Saad Atiah Majid, chairman of Basra’s Mandaean Council.

Dubbed "the Christians of St. John" by the Portuguese who arrived in Basra in the 17th century, Mandaeans follow the teachings of John the Baptist. Baptism - their central ritual - has been held on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates for almost two millennia.

"It’s true that we had our share of pain and misery during Saddam’s times but then our people would leave the country mainly due to economic reasons. By contrast, after 2003, following the brutal harassment by radical Islamists, Mandaeans began to flee en masse to Kurdistan, Syria, Europe," says Majid.

Behind him, a tiny white cloth and an olive branch hang from a wooden cross. They call it drabsa – it’s the closest thing to a flag Mandaeans have. At the centre where this community gathers in Iraq’s southern oil hub, walls are covered with pictures of bearded men dressed in white robes, celebrating collective baptisms in the river.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch released in February 2011, 90 percent of Mandaeans have either died or left the country since the invasion by the U.S.-led forces in 2003. Mandaeans have repeatedly called for evacuation of their entire people.

The head of the cult, Sheikh Sattar Jabbar al-Hulu, is now based in Australia. For the time being, Mazin Rahim Naif still remains in his native Basra. This young man in his late twenties is the local spiritual leader.

"Until 1991 we would conduct our ritual in the river, but the dire security situation and pollution have forced us to improvise our worship in these small pools inside our temples," Rahim tells IPS. The priest adds that the local council has repeatedly denied them access to an area by the river, a refusal particularly painful ahead of an imminent and important religious event.

"On March 17, for five days, we celebrate each year the 'Pronaya’ to recreate the making of the world of light. Do you think this is an appropriate place for it?"

Later, the young priest hands us the 'Treasure of God’, the sacred book of this community written in the Mandaean-Aramaic language.

"We translated it into Arabic because there were rumours among Muslims that it incited to apostasy," recalls Rahim. "We wanted to show everybody that we also believe in one god, that we pray and that we also practise zakat (charity)."

But the effort does not seem enough to avoid increasing discrimination.

"With his student record, my son should be eligible for a good position as an engineer in the local petrochemical industry, but he has been unemployed since he graduated three years ago," complains Tahseen, a local Mandaean. "The best jobs are given to those families who lost a member in the war against Iran, or during Saddam's repression. The privileges are for those who have 'martyrs’. Ours do not count according to their standards."

The five-hour drive from Basra to Baghdad goes upriver with the Tigris and Euphrates. It’s a road often overloaded with oil trucks and cars with coffins strapped to their roof racks. These are bound for Najaf, the place where every Shia Muslim dreams of being buried.

Once in the capital, the checkpoints multiply as we approach the main centre of the Mandaeans in Qadisiyah neighbourhood on the western bank of the Tigris. Surrounded by concrete walls, the headquarters are protected by soldiers from the Ministry of Interior. Inside we meet Toma Zekhi, the local Mandaean head.

"It is not only religious persecution," he explains. Traditionally, the Mandaeans have been goldsmiths and silversmiths, and this, during the last few years, has become a nightmare given the levels of criminality. An Amnesty International report of April 2010 corroborates Zekhi’s words, describing the dangers inflicted on Mandaean jewellers in post-Saddam Iraq.

Zekhi chose to stay, but many of his fellow believers fled after receiving 'convert or die’ letters, also recurrent among the decimated local Christian population. Although attacks have decreased in the last three years, the road to harmony and coexistence among the peoples of Iraq is still full of obstacles.

"Religion and ethnicity go hand in hand Iraq and, unfortunately, that is also reflected in the Constitution," says Saad Salloum, university professor and editor of Masarat, the only magazine on the minorities issue in Iraq, from his office in Baghdad.

"The Mandaeans are often included in the sub-group of 'Christians and other ethnic groups’, so they lack certain privileges such as quotas of representation in Parliament and local councils."

Not far away from there, Hassam Sapty Zaroon runs a small shop in Karrada neighbourhood southeast of Baghdad. He is carefully engraving a silver medallion with a bee, a lion, a scorpion and a snake around them. It is the amulet which, in Mandaean tradition, protects against evil.

During a break, Zaroon proudly produces a yellowed old document - a thank you letter addressed to his grandfather and signed by Winston Churchill to acknowledge the present of a cigar box engraved in silver with the profile of the British prime minister.

"Ours is a family tradition that goes back 400 years. We are all goldsmiths and silversmiths," says Zaroon, the last of an illustrious line of craftsmen.

The artisan is using exactly the same tools as his grandfather, but Hassam Sapty stopped looking wistfully at the Tigris since he converted to Islam several years ago.

Even if urgent measures are enforced, his traditional Mandaean motifs engraved in black silver might soon be among the last vestiges left of an ancient culture about to wither away forever. (END)