The other day a friend of mine, Jesse Anderson, posted a video of a speech that was recorded three years ago at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, given by a Syriac priest from Mosul, Iraq, Fr. Bashar (it’s unclear to me what his last name is; it sounds as though he is introduced as Fr. Bashar al-Sham Sham Shamadi, but it’s possible that the person introducing him is stuttering). Although the video is three years old, it deserves to be watched; it is a powerful statement of what the Christians of northern Iraq have had to endure under the hegemony of the Islamic State. Although I do not usually post videos on this website, I will make an exception here, because I think Fr. Bashar’s speech deserves a wide audience.


Copts fear Islamic drift

February 9, 2011

Translated from the article, “I copti temono la deriva islamica,” posted earlier today on the website Oriente Cristiano.

ALEXANDRIA. From our correspondent

The record of that tragic night is still seen on the facade of the Church of the Saints, and the faces of the faithful turn aside from it while leaving mass. All depart in a hurry; away from the walls that are still chipped, from the partly-mutilated statue of the Madonna, from the danger that lurks around every corner. The entrance is blocked by a gate. Inside the courtyard there is an ambulance; “We do not want terrorists to use one for another massacre,” confides a guardian. Before the entry to the church there is a large poster depicting Jesus Christ, with a golden crown on his head and the faces of 23 people; they are the 24 victims of the New Year’s Eve massacre, when a car bomb struck the faithful as they left mass. It was the fiercest of the many attacks against the Copts. To the cry of “down with Mubarak,” thousands of young Copts took to the streets and clashed with police. They accused the president of having failed to protect them; someone called him complicit in the massacre.

It’s been only a month, and now the Christians of Alexandria are caught in a dilemma: participate in the revolt, and demand an end to a regime that has lasted 30 years, or stay home, as called for by their Pope Shenouda III, hoping that the president acts. The very thought that the Muslim Brotherhood could take over is seen as a nightmare. Faced with such a threat, the Copts, 10% of the population, are paralyzed. Aware that they may have to pay a heavy price for having not joined the rebellion (at least 50 people died here).

The archbishops and priests are impenetrable. The pope has forbidden communication with the media. The priest of the Church of the Saints mutters a few words, then disappears. A script that is repeated in five other churches. Ramy, 25, warden of the Church of the Saints, admits: “I am not attending the event. None of us did. Mubarak’s worst is better than the best of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It’s Sunday; a few kilometers away a huge event is taking place; thousands of people are shouting slogans against Mubarak. The climate, however, is different from that of Cairo’s joyous Tahrir Square. Here the site of the event, which continued yesterday but with fewer protesters, is the ancient Ibrahim mosque. It is easy to guess who holds the reins of the revolt: the Muslim Brotherhood, who have created here their stronghold. “This is the people’s revolution; we are organizing jointly with the April 6 movement and other organizations. We are a single entity,” explains Saber Abu el-Fotouh, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman and former member of parliament. We look for Christians, in vain. In front of the mosque, members of the Brotherhood frisk us several times. “We are and will be respectful of our Coptic brothers,” said Medhat al-Hadad, director of the Brotherhood, from his office. “In two or three months Mubarak will be gone. We will organize free elections. We hope to get 25-35% of the seats. If we are in the government we will allow everyone freedom to profess their faith.”

On the situation in Egypt

February 3, 2011

As the world watches events unfold in Tahrir Square, I will add my own brief comment. The people who have gathered there this week to demand Hosni Mubarak’s resignation have done a very simple but profound thing: they are asserting their human dignity, their right to live as free human beings under a government of their own choice. Some of them are now paying for that assertion with their lives, as Mubarak’s hired thugs spray the square with machine-gun fire. The courage displayed by the Egyptian people during the past few days will not be forgotten. And their assertion of their right to political freedom poses a question to the rest of us: do we support that right? The tepid response of the American government to what is happening on the streets of Cairo is shameful; our hypocritical inaction in this crisis will also not be forgotten. President Obama needs to tell Mubarak to leave Egypt, now.

Not long ago, I got into a debate on this blog with a man for whom I have a high regard, Dr. Michaël de Verteuil; I found it difficult to accept the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace. I still view that proposition, taken in the abstract, as dubious. Yet those of us who are Christians, who would like to think of Christianity as a religion of peace, are all the more obligated to acknowledge and encourage the aspirations for peace that we find in others; we betray our faith, we blaspheme our God, when we fail to recognize our common humanity in the face our neighbor. The Egyptian people are asserting that common humanity, and are asking to be treated, by their own government and by others, as human beings. Those of us who are Christians know that the source of that ineradicable sense of human dignity, the basis of all political freedom, is the image of God that exists in all of us, because of which the human person can never be made into a mere means to an end.

Egypt is a land that Jesus visited as a child; people there remember that fact. As that land gave him shelter when he was under persecution, may he now grant shelter and protection to the people who are being attacked in Tahrir Square by government thugs, and may he grant the people of Egypt a responsible, democratic government in place of the dictators they have had to endure for more than one generation.

Final exam

December 23, 2010

Last week, I gave my students at Seton Hall University their final exams. A couple of hours ago, I finally got their grades sent off to the university registrar. The long semester is, for me, officially over.

Because I thought some readers of this blog might be interested in seeing the text of this exam, I have placed it on-line below. I claim no great originality or profundity here; as will be evident to the reader, the test is mostly concerned with getting some very simple facts straight. But there is, I think, some value in doing that.

If nothing else, the following text will show readers what sort of thing my poor students have had to suffer through for the past four months.

Part One: Eastern Religions

A. Associate each of the terms in the left column with one of the definitions/descriptions in the right column.

1. Ahimsa a) Hindu god, “the preserver”
2. Amida b) Hindu god, “the destroyer”
3. Atman c) literally, the “wisdom” or “knowledge of hymns”
4. Bodh Gaya d) the founder of the Jain religion
5. Bodhisattva e) the individual soul
6. Brahman f) religion; custom; right; duty
7. Buddha g) the language of most Hindu scriptures
8. Dhammapada h) name literally meaning “Thus-Come” or “Thus-Gone” (a title of the Buddha’s)
9. Dharma i) an avatar of Vishnu
10. Karma j) ultimate reality
11. Krishna k) a Buddha-to-be
12. Lotus Sutra l) name meaning, “Enlightened One”
13. Mahabharata m) a sacred circle
14. Mahavira n) a Mahayana Buddhist writing
15. Mandala o) a Theravada Buddhist writing
16. Mantra p) non-violence
17. Pali q) a sacred syllable or phrase that is repeated
18. Parinirvana r) probably the world’s longest poem
19. Rig Veda s) place where the Buddha achieved enlightenment
20. Samsara t) language of most Theravada Buddhist scriptures
21. Sanskrit u) complete extinction
22. Siva (or Shiva) v) the round of rebirth
23. Tathagata w) a Buddhist sect known for its use of koans (spiritual riddles) and strenuous meditation
24. Vishnu x) action or the result of action (often in a bad sense)
25. Zen y) a Buddha who is worshipped in the Pure Land Mahayana sect

B. Answer, as best you can, the following questions.

1. What are the Four Noble Truths?

2. Name one of the main characters of the Bhagavad Gita.

3. Name one of the main characters of the Ramayana. (Hint: Why is the poem called this?)

4. Which of the following is a teaching of the Upanishads: (a) No-Self; (b) only matter is real; (c) Atman = Brahman; (d) all material things have soul; therefore one should not light matches unnecessarily or step on bugs.

5. Which of the preceding teachings was taught by the Buddha?

6. Which of the preceding teachings is a doctrine of Jainism?

7. What is a mudra? (a) A Hindu school. (b) A sacred water-buffalo. (c) A symbolic hand-gesture, characteristic of pictorial representations of the Buddha. (d) A short phrase or syllable that is repeated to produce higher states of consciousness.

8. What is Moksha? (a) a chocolate drink; (b) liberation from rebirth; (c) suffering.

9. If a person is given to singing love songs to the deity, which of the following would this person most likely practice? (a) Karma Yoga. (b) Jnana Yoga. (c) Bhakti Yoga.

10. If a person is given to non-pictorial meditation upon Being-in-Itself, which of the preceding three forms of yoga would this person most likely practice?

11. If a person is a Brahmin, this person would likely spend his/her time: (a) digging ditches; (b) waiting on tables; (c) buying and selling real estate; (d) engaging enemy forces in hand-to-hand combat; (e) writing exalted poetry on union with the divine.

12. If a person is a member of the Vaishya caste, which of the above options would most likely apply?

13. The name “Mahayana” literally means: (a) great vehicle; (b) white elephant; (c) true doctrine; (d) big umbrella.

14. What sort of clothes did Mahavira wear?

15. How did Mahavira die? (a) He didn’t die, but was translated into heaven. (b) He was run over by an elephant. (c) He stopped eating. (d) He was killed by a Hindu nationalist.

16. The author of the Tao Te Ching was: (a) Confucius; (b) Mencius; (c) Lao Tzu; (d) Chuang Tzu.

17. The author of the Analects was: (a) Confucius; (b) Mencius; (c) Lao Tzu; (d) Chuang Tzu.

18. In Ancient China, during the Shang Dynasty, people practiced divination using: (a) Sudoku puzzles; (b) animal bones; (c) Urim and Thummim; (d) all of the above.

19. The name “I Ching” means: (a) Yin and Yang; (b) the Way and its Power; (c) the Book of Changes; (d) “My Name is Ching.”

20. Confucius was: (a) a successful merchant; (b) a Chinese warlord; (c) the son of the Duke of Zhou; (d) a frequently unemployed scholar.

21. Which of the following is not a doctrine of Confucius? (a) filial piety; (b) love all people equally; (c) maintain proper ritual; (d) be a gentleman.

22. “Wu wei is a characteristic doctrine of Confucianism.” True or false?

23. “Wu wei is a characteristic doctrine of Taoism.” True or false?

24. Wu wei means: (a) non-action; (b) emptiness; (c) right mindfulness; (d) the Mandate of Heaven.

25. A person with a lot of Yin would likely be: (a) quiet and passive; (b) loud and confrontational.

26. “The Way that can be known is not the eternal Way; the Name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” Which of the following books is the source of this quotation: (a) the Analects; (b) the I Ching; (c) the Tao Te Ching; (d) Mencius.

27. “In Taoist thought, the Yin/Yang distinction is equivalent to the distinction between good and evil.” True or false?

28. If you had a friend who was a practitioner of Shinto, which of the following would your friend be unlikely to do: (a) make frequent pilgrimages to mountain shrines; (b) pay respect to the Japanese emperor; (c) pay offerings to ancestral spirits; (d) keep an untidy house.

29. The word “kami” means: (a) a Communist; (b) something powerful; a nature-spirit; (c) a medieval Japanese warlord; (d) a Shinto priest.

30. A “torii” is: (a) a ceremonial wand; (b) a fox, sacred to the Shinto religion; (c) a gate in front of a Shinto temple; (d) a monster from the ocean depths.

Part Two: Western Religions

A. Associate each of the terms in the left column with one of the definitions/descriptions in the right column.

1. Bethlehem a) Abraham’s first son
2. Christ b) king who built the first Temple in Jerusalem
3. Easter c) name meaning “Savior”
4. Good Friday d) name meaning “Anointed One”
5. Hagar e) name meaning “Praised”
6. Hegira f) most sacred site of Islam; a cubical building
7. Hijaz g) most sacred site of Judaism
8. Hillel h) received the Law on Mount Sinai
9. Ishmael i) wife of Isaac; mother of twins
10. Jesus j) wife of Abraham
11. John the Baptist k) handmaid of Abraham
12. Ka’ba l) Muhammad’s first wife
13. Khadija m) Muhammad’s move from Mecca to Medina
14. Moses n) the “Tetragrammaton”; a divine name
15. Mount Tabor o) a famous rabbi who died when Jesus was young
16. Muhammad p) acronym, signifying the whole Hebrew Bible
17. Pentecost q) part of Arabia in which Muhammad lived
18. Peter r) a day on which Christ’s crucifixion is especially remembered
19. Qur’an s) Christian feast that celebrates the resurrection of Christ
20. Rebecca t) Christian feast the celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit
21. Sarah u) name meaning “Rock”
22. Solomon v) city of Jesus’ birth
23. Tanakh w) a slightly older relative of Jesus’
24. Wailing Wall x) word meaning “recitation”
25. YHWH y) probable site of the Transfiguration

B. Answer, as best you can, the following questions.

1. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” In what book of the Bible is this sentence found?

2. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In what book of the Bible is this sentence found?

3. What was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah? (a) circumcision; (b) a rainbow; (c) two doves and a raven

4. Jacob had two wives, and two concubines. Which of the following were not wives, or concubines, of Jacob (choose more than one): (a) Jane; (b) Rachel; (c) Leah; (d) Betty

5. Why did Joseph’s brothers envy him? (a) Because of a coat. (b) Because of his dreams. (c) Because his father loved him best of all. (d) All of the above.

6. What event does Passover commemorate?

7. When Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 587 B.C., where were the Jews carried away to? (a) Assyria; (b) Babylon; (c) Spain; (d) Arabia

8. When the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 A.D., where did Jewish scribes regroup? (a) Rome; (b) Athens; (c) Constantinople; (d) Jamnia

9. Which of the following early Jewish sects was especially connected with the Temple at Jerusalem: (a) Pharisees; (b) Sadducees; (c) Essenes; (d) Zealots.

10. Which of the foregoing sects was the predecessor to rabbinic Judaism?

11. Which of the foregoing sects was probably connected most closely with the Dead Sea Scrolls?

12. Of the following modern Jewish sects, which is most strict in its observance of the Jewish law: (a) Orthodox; (b) Conservative; (c) Reformed.

13. Which of the following men was a medieval Jewish philosopher: (a) Edmund Husserl; (b) Johanan ben Zakkai; (c) Maimonides; (d) Spinoza.

14. Were any of these men modern Jewish philosophers? (If so, name one.)

15. “Jesus was an observant Jew.” True or false?

16. In what language did Jesus normally speak? (a) Latin; (b) Greek; (c) Hebrew; (d) Aramaic.

17. What promise did Jesus give St. Peter? (a) I will build you an everlasting house. (b) I will multiply your seed like the stars of heaven. (c) I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. (d) I will grant you to sit on my right hand in the kingdom of heaven.

18. Which of the foregoing promises was actually a promise to Abraham?

19. Who appears with Jesus at his Transfiguration? (Name two) (a) Abraham; (b) Moses; (c) David; (d) Elijah

20. Where was Jesus crucified? (a) Gethsemane; (b) Golgotha; (c) the Mount of Olives; (d) Mount Tabor

21. When one first meets St. Paul in the New Testament, what is he doing? (a) Preaching that Jesus is Lord. (b) Selling tents. (c) Arguing with Pharisees and Sadducees. (d) Standing around approvingly while people stone St. Stephen.

22. “The Gospel of John teaches that Jesus is truly the Son of God, and that God is truly Father.” True or false?

23. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma of: (a) the Orthodox Church; (b) the Catholic Church; (c) the Protestant Churches; (d) all of the above.

24. “The Qur’an affirms that Jesus was the Son of God.” True or false?

25. “The Qur’an affirms that Jesus was crucified.” True or false?

26. “The Qur’an affirms that Mary was a virgin.” True or false?

27. Where did Muhammad travel to in his “Night Journey”?

28. During what month did Muhammad begin receiving his revelations? (a) Ab; (b) January; (c) Ramadan

29. Which of the following is not one of the Five Pillars of Islam? (a) Prayer. (b) Fasting. (c) Almsgiving. (d) Jihad.

30. Who was the first Caliph? (a) Ali. (b) Abu Bakr. (c) ‘Umar. (d) ‘Uthman.

Part Three: Essay Questions.

Please answer at least two of the following.

1. In this course, we have studied nine different religions. What are some of the things they all have in common? (And don’t tell me that they are all religions.) Or, if there are no things that they all have in common, then why are they all called by the same name, “religion”?

2. Christianity and Buddhism are two great world religions. How do they differ, or how are they alike, in their approach to the problem of human suffering?

3. Christianity and Islam agree on some fundamental things, and disagree on some fundamental things. What do you see as the possibilities for their coexisting peacefully in the years to come?

4. What is the most important thing that you have learned during this course?