Tag Archives: Poland

Did Guru Nanak travel to Rome and meet a pope?

Although lots of people are trying without success to make sense of the latest Islamic State truck bomb to claim many innocent lives (on 24th November 2016, at least eighty Iranian and Iraqi Shia Muslims were murdered in Shomali in Iraq when returning from the Arbaeen ceremony in Kerbala), it is time to turn our attention from such Sunni-sourced prejudice and blood-lust, for now at least.

The post that follows is purely for light relief. For about three years, a growing number of Sikhs have got excited because evidence is said to exist to prove that Guru Nanak travelled all the way to Rome where he had a fruitful encounter with a pope. Below is the text of an email I sent to a good Sikh friend whose wishful thinking may be getting the better of him.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

All this speculation about whether Guru Nanak visited Rome and had an encounter with one of the popes is very interesting, but I am not sure how seriously we should take it. Also, based on Sikh sites devoted to the matter, I am getting confused: is it being suggested Guru Nanak actually met with Pope Paul III? Most Sikh sites/articles devoted to the matter suggest the visit to Rome took place in 1520 (or 1518).

Paul III was on the papal throne from 1534 to 1549. Guru Nanak died in 1539. This means that overlap in their lives when Paul III occupied the highest office in the Roman Catholic (RC) Church was only five years’ maximum. It is possible they met, but not probable. I say this partly because of Guru Nanak’s age at the time when the meeting could have taken place (1534 to 1539). He would have been very old and, even if unusually fit and healthy for someone of such advanced age in the early 16th century, unlikely to undertake long, dangerous and expensive journeys far from home. 

Although some Sikhs suggest Guru Nanak may have travelled as far as Italy, is this really likely? If he undertook such a journey, where is the evidence for the visit in Sikh/Indian records? It is unlikely he got even as far as Istanbul/Constantinople (another place some Sikhs believe he may have visited) in Ottoman Turkey (where it is almost certain he would have encountered an extremely hostile reaction. In fact, his religious message would have been thought so bizarre that, if not murdered for his beliefs, he would probably have been imprisoned), but to have travelled so much further to Italy/Rome seems inconceivable. Surely, if travelling so far, Sikh/Indian records must exist that provide evidence for a time when he was absent from Punjabi/Indian soil for a great length of time. Two to three years? Five years? Perhaps even longer? Moreover, such records would probably confirm, or at least speculate about, where he went.

Even if Guru Nanak had travelled to Italy, what common language would he and members of the papacy have shared/spoken so that he could express his thoughts?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Stories about Nanak’s highly improbable visit to Italy have interested a growing number of Sikhs since 2013 or 2014, when text in an old book was unearthed purporting to confirm Nanak had visited Rome (and other towns in Italy?), but, in most descriptions of the text, this is said to have happened in 1520 (or 1518). On the internet I find no confirmation for the visit from RC sources, whether in 1520 or any other year, which surprises me. If Guru Nanak is described in positive terms by one/more popes, why is there no evidence for this in papal records? The RC Church has in recent years tried to confirm its commitment to interfaith dialogue; a visit to Rome by Guru Nanak would be something to shout about/celebrate.

Note that Paul III was one of the popes whose condemnation of heresy was unequivocal. He set up bodies to suppress people who subscribed to beliefs which did not conform with RC orthodoxy. Would such a person (or any earlier pope, for that matter) have celebrated Guru Nanak in the way being suggested? In all probability he would have regarded Guru Nanak with much the same distrust that Guru Nanak might have encountered in Ottoman Turkey. Pope Paul III established the Inquisition in Italy, imposed censorship, commissioned the infamous Index of forbidden books and approved the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), all of which were designed to suppress heresy, so it is very unlikely he would have looked kindly on Guru Nanak, someone the Church would probably have dismissed as a pagan. Earlier popes would have had very similar attitudes toward manifestations of faith diverging from RC orthodoxy. At the time, the Church was vehemently opposed to Protestants (who emerged on the scene from 1517), Jews and Muslims, all of whom were Abrahamic in common with the RC Church, so why suddenly be so accommodating about/sympathetic toward a strange person from a distant land subscribing to a religion extremely alien to Roman Catholicism in its beliefs and practices because of its Indian origins? 

I tracked down an interesting document released by the Vatican to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak in November 2014, but totally absent from the text is any suggestion that Guru Nanak visited/may have visited Rome in 1520 or any other year. This would have been the ideal opportunity for the Vatican to offer confirmation about the story, but it fails to do so. 

We must not forget that the founders of a number of religions are said to have engaged in long journeys from home to suggest, among other things, that a particular expression of faith might have universal applications/relevance (note the Buddha, for example). My guess is that many of these stories about long-distance travel are fabrications/wishful thinking dating from long after the founder’s death. That Guru Nanak might have got even as far as Ottoman Turkey (and survived) is in itself incredible, but to have got so much further to Rome (whether by sea or overland) almost impossible to envisage. Travel in the early 16th century was slow and very dangerous, especially for those far from home without knowledge of the local language and originating from a land about which people in the West knew very little (such people from distant and largely unknown lands were often regarded as threats by the people said to be their hosts). Also, how would Guru Nanak have funded such an expedition? The cost would have been prohibitively high.

Anyway: one Sikh source about the matter cannot agree whether it is 1520 or 1518 when Guru Nanak visited Rome. And when I typed “The Vatican confirms that Guru Nanak visited Rome” into my search engine, not one RC source came up (as indicated above). All the links listed were to Sikh sources. I also typed the name of the archbishop (Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro) said in some Sikh sources to have confirmed the visit, but, again, nothing of substance came up relating to the story.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

An early inspiration for the story derives from an article dated 23.11.13 in the “Jakarta Times” in Indonesia (of all places). At least the article is written with clarity, but no reference is made to a text or document to support the story (although the name Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro crops up again).

The fact that the actual words of the archbishop said to confirm the visit appear in NONE of the many Sikh, etc. sources for the story, and the fact that such evidence cannot be gleaned on the internet, worries me immensely. But even more worrying is the apparent silence from the Vatican itself. Surely at least one person associated with the Vatican must have spoken about this to confirm that the text/story has some substance.

In the text meant to confirm the visit, Nanac’s (as the name is spelled) religion is not identified. Thus, he is described as neither a Hindu nor a Sikh. Nor is he called a guru. There appears to be no indication of the land from which he came, but surely this, at least, would have been recorded, no doubt to considerable wonder. In other words, there is simply nothing in the text to suggest Nanac is Guru Nanak! There is not even the suggestion that he wore a turban or had a long beard, things which one might expect to be mentioned because both would have been deemed oddities in Rome in the early 16th century.

A general point. While claims are made for the Buddha, Muhammad and Guru Nanak (and, to some extent, Abraham and Moses) undertaking journeys of epic proportions (note Muhammad and his “miraculous night journey” to heaven/paradise), it is interesting that, as a general rule at least, no such claims are made on behalf of Jesus (whose wanderings were confined more or less to modern-day Israel, a very small nation state. Yes, I know all about the claims made on his behalf about visits to Glastonbury, but let’s get real, shall we?). But which founder today has the most followers globally? Yes, Jesus. And Hinduism, a religion devoid of a known founder (no doubt because the religion is so old and has evolved/changed so much over time), has the third largest number of followers globally. Founders travelling vast distances do not guarantee a religion’s numerical popularity. Or, to put this another way, does it matter whether a founder has travelled far from home or not?

Another point. The text accompanying the photos in the last email you sent me say Nanac “had more human qualities than any Christian can think of”. This does not necessarily mean Nanac is not a Christian (and it definitely does NOT confirm that Nanac was either a Hindu or a Sikh); it could mean he is a Christian manifesting more human qualities than Christians can identify. And what exactly is the “part of Sikh doctrine” said to be painted on the dome of St. Peter’s? If it is known about/so easy to see, why are we not told what it is? I cannot find evidence for it in any Sikh, etc. source.

Oh yes: as far as I can see, only one Sikh source identifies some documents said to “prove” the story: shabad.co.uk In one such document, reference is made to “Sanctus Nanacus Di Indi”, which, far from being a reference to Guru Nanak, may refer to a highly respected Christian of Indian origin (perhaps even to a Christian saint of Indian origin). Could Sanctus Nanacus be a member of one of the ancient Christian churches in India considering affiliation/unity with the RC Church, perhaps because the ancient Indian church feels vulnerable in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment? Such a situation would justify/explain a visit to Rome so Sanctus Nanacus could discuss the matter with the head of the RC Church.

Anyway, this is all interesting stuff! My conclusion? Possible, but not probable. And the evidence for the visit is so far extremely weak.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

P.S. One somewhat confused and confusing Sikh source about the story implies that Guru Nanak told a pope that no person has the right to enslave another person, and that this rather unexceptional bit of advice (even by the standards of the early 16th century when slavery was a common practice in most parts of the globe) was in some way enlightening for the pope who heard it. This got me thinking about all the time Guru Nanak spent, or might have spent, on his travels to distant lands (some Sikhs now make a case for him travelling as far as West Africa). If he had spent extra time in the Punjab/India, perhaps he could have done more to rid his homeland of slavery. I do not know how many slaves existed in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when Guru Nanak was alive (the number of enslaved people will no doubt have been very large), but today in India alone there are eighteen million slaves. Needless to say, no other nation state has such a large population of slaves.

How depressing that India, a nation state with one of the highest levels of commitment to religious faith, is also the nation state with the most people living in slavery. Is this further evidence that religion is often a barrier to people securing the basic human rights that everyone ought to enjoy (please examine the previous post for more information about how the basic human right to express your religion and belief is denied to countless millions of people)?       

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Islam and the consumption of alcohol.

In a rare instance of the dictatorial and brutally oppressive regime in Saudi Arabia manifesting some compassion and common sense, a British grandfather called Karl Andree (no relation, I promise) has been released from prison without having to suffer 350 lashes for making wine in a nation state where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. That thousands of Saudi Muslims (the great majority of whom are male) consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) when living or holidaying outside Saudi Arabia is another matter altogether, of course, but that they do consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) suggests hypocrisy, at the very least.

The case of Karl Andree inevitably raises the question, “What does the Qur’an actually say about alcohol consumption?” Mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims insist that the Qur’an forbids the consumption of alcohol, and this assumption about the Qur’an underscores the punitive line that many nation states with Muslim majorities take in relation to the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating drinks. It will surprise no one that what the Qur’an says is far more interesting and sophisticated than this, thereby confirming once again that Muslims have a very shaky grasp of what the Qur’an actually says.

Below is one of the best analyses of the (most) relevant qur’anic verses that I have found in recent times. I have slightly edited it, but only in the most cosmetic manner to ensure it is accessible to a literate audience, or to emphasise a point that the original fails to do.

Spain.

Spain.

Does Islam really define alcohol as haram, or forbidden? Let us examine the evidence in the Qur’an and keep the Hadith out of the equation (this is sensible, given that the content of the Qur’an always takes precedent over the content of the Hadith).

Things identified as haram (forbidden or prohibited) in the Qur’an usually begin with the expression “forbidden for/unto you”. Sometimes the Qur’an warns that those who ignore such injunctions will suffer in hell or hellfire. Consequently, in relation to the injunction not to consume pig meat, the Quran says, “Forbidden unto you are carrion and blood and swine flesh (5:3),” and in relation to the injunction not to murder the Qur’an says, “Whosoever slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is hell (or hellfire) forever (4:93).” I assume the phrase “a believer of set purpose” refers to Muslims alone.

There are five qur’anic verses (I have found a sixth and refer to it later) that deal directly or indirectly with alcohol. Selected in the order in which they appear in the Qur’an, the first verse probably contains the most interesting ideas, but it will be addressed at the end of the commentary.

The second verse (4:43) advises Muslims not to engage in prayer when they are under the influence of alcohol. The verse says, “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter.” The expression “forbidden for/unto you” is not found anywhere in or near the verse; nor is the threat of hell or hellfire. You are told merely to avoid prayer when intoxicated because, when intoxicated, you may not know what you are saying. 

Lithuania.

Lithuania.

The third verse (5:90) defines alcohol as “an infamy of Satan’s handiwork” and indicates to the believer that, to succeed in life, it is advisable to stay away from it. The verse says, “O you who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it (? them?) aside in order that you may succeed.”

Again, the verse does not say that alcohol is forbidden or that those who consume it will endure hell or hellfire. More to the point, the advice to “leave it aside” is provided to ensure nothing more ambitious than success in this life. In other words, the Qur’an suggests that a thing such as career success will be impaired or impeded because of the consumption of “strong drink (I interpret “strong drink” to mean wines or spirits)”. This, of course, is something most people would agree with (scripture so often deals with the obvious and fails to tell us anything we did not already know). But the verse can hardly be quoted as evidence that alcohol is haram, that it is forbidden, that it will lead to hell or hellfire, or that it should never be consumed (I sense here a warning that regular and excessive consumption of “strong drink” will impair or impede success, but the occasional glass of whisky or rum will do little or no harm). Moreover, what of weak drink, or drink with low alcohol content such as most beers? Consumption of such drink would appear to be acceptable, if the verse is interpreted simply as it is written.  

The fourth verse (5:93) relates to food and drink in general and assures believers that they should not to be too concerned about what they consume provided they do “good works”. The verse says, “There shall be no sin unto those who believe and do good works for what they may have consumed in the past. So be mindful of your duty and do good works; and again: be mindful of your duty, and believe; and once again: be mindful of your duty, and do right. Allah loveth the good.” Yet again, the suggestion that alcohol is forbidden, or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, does not exist. More to the point, those who do “good works” can consume whatever they wish (carrion, blood and pig meat excepted, I would imagine) without being regarded as sinful.

Romania.

Romania.

Because the fifth verse (16:67) says that alcohol provides “good nourishment” or “wholesome drink”, it is difficult to interpret alcohol in any way other than being beneficial. Yusuf Ali translates the verse as, “And from the fruit of the palm and the grapes, you get out wholesome drink and food: behold, in this also is a sign for those who are wise.” Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall translates the verse as, “And of the fruits of the date palm and grapes, whence you derive strong drink and good nourishment. Lo! Therein is indeed a portent for people who have sense.” I suspect that this verse must have been a major inspiration for Omar Khayyam’s eternally popular “Rubaiyat”.  

Now we come to the verse (2:219) that we skipped at the beginning. Here, Allah speaks to Muhammad and says, “They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say: In both is great abuse and usefulness for humankind; but the abusive side of them is greater than their usefulness.” In this verse the Qur’an acknowledges (the very obvious point) that alcohol has detrimental as well as beneficial characteristics, but that the detrimental outweigh the beneficial, which is something that most people would immediately agree with. Nonetheless, yet again there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it.            

There have been occasions when Muslims have translated the above to read, “In both is great sin and usefulness for humankind”, but “abuse” and “usefulness” are intended as opposites and “sin” is not a word that comes to mind as the opposite to “usefulness”. Pickthall falls into this trap when he renders this part of the verse as, “In both is great sin and utility for men; but the sin of them is greater than their usefulness.”  

Conclusion? Although the Qur’an recognises that alcohol in general, and “strong drink” in particular, can have detrimental effects on those who consume it, there is nothing that conclusively says it is haram or that it will result in those who consume it suffering forever in hell or hellfire. Moreover, if people have consumed alcohol in the past but engage in “good works”, the consumption of alcohol is not regarded as sinful. We also have the problem that weak drink with low alcohol content such as most beers does not seem to cause as much anxiety as “strong drink” with high alcohol content. Such ambiguity may help to explain why so many mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (and probably a majority of other Muslims) consume alcohol at home and abroad. But such scriptural ambiguity makes it utterly ridiculous that a nation state such as Saudi Arabia should co-opt the Qur’an as justification for outlawing the consumption of alcohol. Because the Qur’an is as confused as most people today about the consumption of alcohol, decisions about the legal framework as it applies to alcohol should be shaped by scientific and medical knowledge alone, and not by the ambiguous and contradictory ramblings ascribed to a god called Allah.

Spain.

Spain.

Prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol have more to do with traditions that have emerged within Islam than injunctions deriving from the Qur’an, and more to do with people who acquire leadership roles in Muslim societies misleading Muslims less well-educated than they are about the content of the Qur’an. However, given that every Muslim is urged to engage regularly with the content of the Qur’an, one is compelled to ask, Why have millions of ordinary Muslims not questioned the traditions that have grown up around the issue of alcohol consumption? And why do millions of ordinary Muslims not celebrate more enthusiastically one of the world’s most famous pieces of literature, Omar Khayyam”s “Rubaiyat”, which, among other things, explores the pleasures associated with responsible consumption of alcohol?

P.S. There is one additional qur’anic verse that relates to the matter. 5:91 says, “Satan seeketh only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of strong drink and games of chance, and to turn you from remembrance of Allah and from worship. Will you then have done?” As always, there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, and, as always, the problem seems to lie with “strong drink” alone. Moreover, there is a lot of evidence that many Muslims have extreme levels of “enmity and hatred”, not least for fellow Muslims, even without “strong drink” or “games of chance” contributing to both. Note how Muslims engaged in war with fellow Muslims has caused the death of 200,000 Syrians, the displacement from their homes of millions of other Syrians, and the destruction of substantial areas of almost every major and many minor Syrian population centre. Muslim “enmity and hatred” for fellow Muslims in Syria has destroyed vast swathes of what was once perhaps the Middle East’s most interesting and beautiful nation state. As for the uncounted millions who have been murdered past and present because of the ludicrous division between Sunni and Shia Muslims, one can only ask, How is it that Muslims can allege that Islam is, at its heart, a religion of peace? A substantial body of evidence past and present suggests that Islam is more akin to a religion of war and conflict, and, without question, a religion that discriminates against and persecutes people who differ from the Muslim group that dominates power. In other words, it is a religion inspired more by the lesser than the greater jihad.

Poland.

Poland.

But I stray from the main thrust of the post, which is to establish why Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Clearly, the prohibition is not predicated on the content of the Qur’an. Instead, the prohibition is predicated on particular Hadith (statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his closest companions, but statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his companions long after their death, which makes them of doubtful reliability) and, more specifically, particular Sunnah (practices attributed to Muhammad, again, invariably long after his death, said to have found favour among his closest companions). The Hadith and the Sunnah are therefore at best attempts by mere human beings who lived long ago to give expression to what they believed Allah required of them. But we are constantly told by Muslims that everything Allah requires of humankind is to be found in the Qur’an. We are also told by informed Muslims that the Hadith and the Sunnah can never be more than mere interpretations of what Allah wants. Such interpretations can never usurp the primacy of the Qur’an itself.

In Islam, the prohibition on the consumption of alcohol is at best nothing more than a tradition associated with Muhammad and his closest companions. Allah does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol can be harmful, of that there is no question, but under certain circumstances the Qur’an indicates that its consumption is acceptable and beneficial.

My thanks to some of the many Muslims who have written about this matter in an informed and informative manner. I have found their discussions invaluable while completing the post.

Religious people still behaving badly (and far, far worse), four.

One.

A halal abattoir at the centre of horrific animal cruelty allegations has gone into administration, six months after covert footage of practices in the slaughterhouse were revealed. The move came as the UK’s Food Standards Agency announced it was close to concluding an inquiry into how animals were treated, an inquiry which will be handed to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider launching criminal charges.

An international furore erupted and protests were held outside the abattoir in Thirsk after film obtained by Animal Aid was released showing a worker hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, in direct contravention of Islamic practice. It took workers up to five attempts to sever blood vessels. Other film included sheep being kicked in the face; lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs; thrown into solid structures; and a worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep and jumping up and down. Also, staff are shown laughing while a sheep was bleeding to death with green spectacles painted around its eyes.

The film drew widespread condemnation because the law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, although there are exemptions for meat producers supplying the Jewish and the Muslim markets. Under the halal code of practice, animals are supposed to be killed quickly with a single sweep of a surgically sharp knife.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Two.

The Sikh Federation UK, said by some to be the leading Sikh lobbying organisation in Britain, has so far failed to condemn the actions of a group of Sikhs who disrupted a wedding between a Sikh and a non-Sikh in a gurdwara in Southall, west London.

A group of about twenty Sikhs arrived at the gurdwara on Friday 9th August while final preparations were taking place for the wedding of a Sikh woman and a white, non-Sikh man. The couple were forced to cancel their wedding after the gang stormed into the gurdwara.

Sohan Singh Sumra, vice-president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, told a leading UK newspaper that the men “were all thugs” who objected to the ceremony simply because it was a “mixed marriage”. Mr. Sumra said the group wanted to “intimidate” the bride and groom and that the police had to be called.

The journalist Sunny Hundal later confronted the Sikh Federation UK on Twitter about the incident and asked it to condemn the actions of the gang, but representatives of the federation refused, stating only that what happened at the gurdwara “should be avoided”. A representative of the federation said that those who “understand” and “respect” the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony) will “realise it is more important” than the couples’ “‘big day'”.

Mr. Hundal warned that “gang-mentality puritanism” would lead to a “Sikh version of the Taliban”. He also posted comments made against him by “fundamentalist Sikhs” who objected to his criticism of the Sikh Federation UK. He went on to allege that instances of “hypocritical and fanatical thugs” arriving to disrupt “interfaith weddings” are becoming more common.

When asked by Sunny Hundal if they “support or condemn these thugs going around disrupting interfaith marriages at gurdwaras?”, a representative of the Sikh Federation UK replied obliquely that they “stand by and defend” the tenets of the “Sikh faith”.

A letter published in “The Times” newspaper on 21st July warned of a “recently placed” ban on gurdwaras “solemnising marriages between Sikh and non-Sikh”. Moreover, advice from 2007 stipulates that the Anand Karaj should only be between two Sikhs.

Guidelines published by the Sikh Council UK in October 2014 state that “Any person wishing to exercise the choice to marry in a Gurdwara Sahib through the Anand Karaj ceremony must sign a declaration” that “he or she is a Sikh, believes in the tenets of the Sikh faith and owes no allegiance to another faith”. Such people must also pledge to “endeavour to bring up any children from his or her marriage as Sikhs”.

National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said, “This kind of fundamentalism is very dangerous. It may amount only to bullying at the moment, but as fanaticism increases it can escalate to frightening levels of violence. The government should stamp down on this now before it gets out of control. They must learn from the experience with Islamism that ignoring the problem on grounds of political correctness will only allow it to fester and get worse.”

P.S. This is not a new problem. The BBC website has an article dated 11th March 2013 about the disruption of “interfaith” marriages at gurdwaras. The article concludes by mentioning that a documentary called “The Sikh Wedding Crashers” could be heard on the BBC Asian Network on Monday 11th March 2013 at 5.00pm, or listened to thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Three.

Despite the growing popularity of secularism and Protestantism in recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church is still a major social influence in Latin America, so much so that the Vatican’s hostility to abortion is enshrined in the legislation of most Latin American nation states. Chile is said to have the legislation that is most hostile to abortion in that it is presently illegal without exception. The Chilean abortion law is therefore considered one of the most restrictive in the world.

However, this dire situation for women may at last be about to change, and it may be about to change because of what follows, a case of sexual abuse that came to light in 2013:

The case of a pregnant girl aged eleven who was raped in Chile by her mother’s partner set off a national debate about abortion in one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America. Chileans were outraged after state TV reported that the child is fourteen weeks pregnant and was raped repeatedly over two years. Police in the remote southern city of Puerto Montt arrested her mother’s partner, who reportedly confessed to abusing the girl. The case was brought to their attention by the pregnant child’s maternal grandmother.

Doctors say the girl’s life and that of the foetus are at high risk. But in Chile ending the pregnancy is not an option.

Chile allowed abortions for medical reasons until they were outlawed in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The current government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has opposed any loosening of the prohibition.

Many Chileans vented their outrage on social media. Some started an online campaign to demand legalisation of abortion in cases of rape or health risks for the mother. “When I heard about this little girl, my first reaction was to support abortion because I think it’s the best option in this case,” said Eduardo Hernandez, a web designer aged thirty. “It’s the first online petition I’ve signed in my life, but I think this case really deserves it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We should have a change of law. I hope this case serves as a precedent to have a serious discussion about abortion.” The Chilean Senate rejected three bills in 2012 that would have eased the absolute ban on abortions.

“Chile is a country that has modernised when it comes to its economy, but when it comes to its social and political culture, it has become stagnant and this is seen with the abortion issue,” said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori. “It’s a country that is opposed to change, that panics with any change, which is seen as a threat,” Lagos said. “The weight of Catholicism is still a major issue and we also have an indigenous culture that always lived alienated from the rest of world.”

The Roman Catholic Church retains a strong influence over society, although it has lost credibility since 2010 when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile’s most revered priests when they were between fourteen and seventeen years-old.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, the frontrunner in the November 2013 presidential election, favours legalising abortion in cases of rape or risks to the health of the mother or the child. She has spent the past two years heading the UN agency for women.

Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, was close to Pinochet. He opposes the legalisation of abortion and the morning-after pill.

The following is part of a recent article in “The Guardian” newspaper:

The debate about abortion comes as Chile, one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, grapples with shifting views on once-taboo issues. The mostly Roman Catholic country began to allow divorce in 2004. This year, Congress recognised civil unions for gay couples and, recently, a pilot programme in Santiago harvested the country’s first legal medical marijuana.

The changing attitudes mark a generational shift as young people born after the 1973-1990 military dictatorship come of age. The trend has accelerated since a wave of student protests demanding educational reform began in 2011 in the wake of Catholic priest sex abuse scandals that have provoked questioning of Church doctrine.

A recent discussion on abortion at Santiago’s Diego Portales University drew a packed audience with many students forced to sit on the floor.

“As a country we are behind,” said Fernanda Saavedra, a student who attended. “We need to evolve and think more about women.”

Chile legalised abortion for medical reasons in 1931, eighteen years before it allowed women to vote. But during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, abortion was banned under all circumstances. Today, women found guilty of having abortions face prison terms of up to five years.

Still, an estimated 120,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, according to the Miles Group. Most women use the drug misoprostol, buying it on the black market, to end first-trimester pregnancies. Others undergo conventional abortions in secret. Those who can afford to travel seek abortions in neighbouring Argentina or beyond.

And this suggests that change for the better is not far off:

Chileans online are engaging in heated debate over abortion, twenty-six years after the procedure was completely banned in the country. In August 2015, the Chamber of Deputies’ health commission is set to vote on a new bill that will decriminalise abortion under three circumstances: in a case of rape, when a mother’s life is at risk, or when a foetus will not survive the pregnancy. The proposed law is backed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Four.

Evidence grows suggesting that the Islamic State has used chemical weapons (mustard gas, in all likelihood) against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Chemical weapons have already been used by the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al-Assad that clings to power in parts of Syria. Inevitably, the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds reminds those of us with long memories about how Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime used such weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 killing about 5,000 men, women and children.

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

A Kurdish family, Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Five.

In August 2015, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Scotland, Philip Tartaglia, said to the victims of historic child sexual abuse, “The bishops of Scotland are shamed and pained for what you have suffered. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We apologise to those who have found Church reaction slow, unsympathetic or uncaring and we reach out to them as we take up the recommendations of the McLellan Commission.”

Published in August 2015, the report by the McLellan Commission makes for harrowing reading, this despite the fact that It is merely the latest such report to confirm how widespread child sexual abuse has been within the Roman Catholic Church and how inadequate the response of the Church has been when such abuse is confirmed.

Dr. Andrew McLellan was commissioned in November 2013 to undertake a review of all aspects of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice within the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. 2013 had been a difficult year for Scottish Roman Catholics. Early in 2013, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, had sent shock waves through Scottish congregations when he resigned following inappropriate sexual conduct toward his own priests. A few months later, allegations of historic child sexual abuse were made involving Fort Augustus Abbey School, an exclusive Roman Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands.

Catherine Deveney is one of the many people who provided evidence to the McLellan Commission. In late August 2015 she wrote in the following manner in a national UK newspaper:

What did I tell McLellan? As much as possible, while protecting my sources. The decades of abuse; of cover-up; of moral and financial corruption. The enormous gulf between what the Church said publicly and what it did privately. Its ruthless dismissal of victims and of criticism. The fact that it failed to have coherent, consistent policies because each bishop was deemed autonomous in his own diocese. McLellan had produced reports on the Scottish prison service in the past and was neither delicate nor faint-hearted. “I am shocked,” he told me. “And I am not easily shocked.”

 In the same article Deveney refers to:

Father Patrick Lawson, an Ayrshire priest who had been speaking out against abuse for almost twenty years after exposing a fellow priest, Father Paul Moore, for sexually assaulting him and abusing two altar boys. Father Lawson, who was forcibly removed from his parish and is now involved in an industrial tribunal against the Church, also appeared before the commission and the final report recommends a policy protecting whistleblowers.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

 Six.

Palmyra in Syria is one of the Middle East’s most remarkable ruined ancient cities, partly for the magnificent ruins that survive, and partly for the magnificent artefacts kept in the nearby museum. However, the Islamic State now (mid-2015) controls the region around Palmyra. In August 2015, Islamic State militants beheaded a renowned antiquities scholar and hung his mutilated body on a column in one of Palmyra’s main squares because the scholar refused to reveal where valuable artefacts had been moved for safekeeping.

The brutal murder of Khaled Al-Asaad – he was aged eighty-two – is the latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State, which has captured a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and declared a caliphate on the territory it controls. The atrocity has also highlighted the Islamic State’s habit of looting and selling antiquities to fund its activities or destroying them.

Al-Asaad, who had worked at Palmyra for fifty years, had been held for more than a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Islamic State militants about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

The Islamic State captured Palmyra from government forces in May, but so far has not damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite a reputation for destroying artefacts it describes as idolatrous. This said, it is very likely that damage will now be done to the ruins.

Palmyra is one of Syria’s six UNESCO world heritage sites, but five of them have been severely damaged by the war because of airstrikes, mortar attacks and extensive looting. The old city of Aleppo (once, along with the old city in Cairo, the most beautiful and intriguing old city in the Middle East) is largely in ruins. So far the old city of Damascus has been spared, but fierce fighting rages not far away and mortar shells occasionally fall within it. Government airstrikes have turned many of Damascus’s suburbs, once a short minibus ride from the old city’s Roman-era eastern gate, into rubble.

P.S. Just prior to publishing this post, news broke that Islamic State militants have destroyed part or all of the magnificent Baal Shamin Temple at Palmyra, which dates from 17 CE. The reason for destroying the temple? One or more of the following would seem to provide an explanation. Baal Shamin Temple is pre- or non-Islamic. It is a product of pagan piety. It is where people once engaged in practices that mainstream Muslims define as idolatrous. It provides humankind with an insight into the divine that conflicts with the view of the divine thought by mainstream Muslims to be true. Its destruction enrages public opinion globally.

None of the above are reasons that justify the temple’s destruction. Recent events at Palmyra confirm that the Islamic State must be resisted wherever it seeks to gain a foothold.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Seven. 

Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national, had his August 2015 plan to murder passengers on an Amsterdam to Paris high-speed train thwarted by the intervention of two American servicemen, their American civilian friend and a UK businessman. El-Khazzani, known to the authorities for links with jihadi groups, is believed to have travelled through Europe to Turkey between May and July 2015, from where he may have crossed the border to spend time with Islamic State militants. He may also have links with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student who was arrested in April 2015. Sid Ahmed Ghlam is charged with planning to attack churches and other targets in Paris.

But…

The nuclear deal framework with Iran dating from April 2015 has resulted in the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic on the one hand and nation states such as the US and the UK on the other. Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war. How sad, therefore, that those who are most vocal in their opposition to the deal are Israel, Saudi Arabia and a majority of Republicans in the US. As unholy alliances go, the one that (sort of) exists between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans takes some beating. I wonder to what degree religion has influenced Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans to oppose and/or regret the deal with Iran?

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Is religion a force for good in the world?

On 26th November 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist, and Tony Blair, the one-time British prime minister and Roman Catholic, took part in the Munk Debate addressing the question, “Is religion a force for good in the world?” The debate resulted in a Black Swan book entitled “Hitchens vs. Blair” published in 2011.

Sadly, Tony Blair’s contribution to the debate amounted to little more than a lot of hot air and wishful thinking, so much so that, below, I do not quote from his contributions (those of you keen to find out what he said will have to access the Black Swan book itself). Instead, I quote from Hitchens who had far more compelling things to share with the audience.

What is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality… is… its consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity. Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes humans objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that: created sick and then ordered to be well. And a celestial dictatorship is installed over us to supervise this, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy and exigent. Greedy for uncritical praise from dawn to dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there is no cure. Salvation is offered. Redemption, indeed, is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties…

Religion… makes extraordinary claims. Though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly religion provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore we might begin by asking… is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, and to appeal to our terror of death? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship – is it good for the world?… (Should religion) terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just for themselves, but for their parents and those they love? Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation – is that good for the world?…

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord.” As the great American physicist Steven Weinberg has very aptly put it, in the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion… 

The Middle East is the birthplace of monotheism, so you might think it was filled with refulgence and love and peace. Everyone is roughly agreed… that there should be enough room for two states (Israel and Palestine), for two people (Jews and Arabs) in the same land… Why can’t we get it? We can’t get it because the parties of God have a veto on it and everybody knows that this is true. Because of the divine promises made about this territory there will never be peace, there will never be compromise. There will instead be misery, shame and tyranny, and people will kill each other’s children for ancient books and caves and relics, and who is going to say that this is good for the world?… 

No one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world. All I’m arguing is that it would be better of there was a great deal more by the way of an outbreak of secularism… 

Name me one religion that stands for the empowerment of women or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease and stupidity for women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way…

I would hope (Roman) Catholic charities are doing a lot of work in Africa. If I was a member of a church that had preached that HIV/Aids was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa… 

The injunction not to do to another what would be repulsive if done to yourself (an injunction so often thought to lie at the heart of the monotheistic religions of the Middle East) is found in the analects of Confucius… But that truth is found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong…

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

Could religion sometimes be a good thing after all?… What would religion have to do to get that far?… It would have to give up all supernatural claims… the threat of the reward of heaven or the terror of punishment in hell… miracles… the idea of an eternal, unalterable authority figure who was judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal and who wasn’t finished with you even when you died. 

There’s something about religion that is, very often in its original monotheistic, Judaistic form, actually an expression of exclusivism. “This is our God. This is a God who has made a covenant with our tribe.” You’ll find it all over the place… It’s always struck me as slightly absurd for there to be a special church for the English people. It strikes me as positively sinister that Pope Benedict should want to restore the (Roman) Catholic Church to the claim it used to make, which is that it is the one true church and that all other forms of Christianity are, as he still puts it, defective and inadequate. How this idea helps to build your future world of co-operation and understanding is not known to me.

Religion… is a surrender of reason in favour of faith. It’s a fantastic force multiplier, a tremendous intensifier of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive, and that’s why its history is so stained with blood – and not just with crimes against humanity, but with crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, or attacks upon medicine and enlightenment.

Four hundred years and more people (in Northern Ireland)… have been killing each other’s children based on what kind of Christian they were and sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell… Northern Ireland… the most remarkable place in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty and for, I would say, stupidity too…

Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa… Genocide was actually preached from the pulpits of the (Roman) Catholic Church. Many of the people we are still looking for, who were involved in that genocide, are hiding in the Vatican along with a number of other people who should be given up to international justice right away.

The United States has a unique constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter or to sponsor the church or adopt any form of faith itself… Thomas Jefferson wrote… “Rest assured that there will ever be a wall of separation between the church and the state in this country.” The maintenance of that wall, which people like me have to defend every day against those who want garbage taught in schools and pseudo-science in the name of Christ… is the guarantee of democracy…

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

 (We can all get along fine) as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy or imposed on me by violence… They say it (religion) is the way to happiness. Why doesn’t it make the religious happy?… Because they won’t be happy until you believe it (their religion) too. And why is that? Because that’s what their holy books tell them… Do these texts say that until every knee bows in the name of Jesus there will be no happiness? Of course it’s what these texts say. It isn’t only a private belief.  It is, and always has been, a threat to the idea of a peaceful community and very often, as now, a palpable one…  

The Methodist Church of the United States adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, and the Vatican adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, as it had the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It wasn’t the first time that a sort of sickly Christian passivity has been preached in the face of fascist dictatorship… Given the number of Muslims put to the sword by Saddam Hussein’s regime, it’s quite extraordinary to see the extent to which Muslim fundamentalists flocked to his defence… It’s those who would have kept a cannibal and a Caligula and a professional sadist in power who have the explaining to do (about the second Iraq war)…

(The Israeli and Palestinian problem is so complicated because of) the idea that God intervenes in real estate and territorial disputes… This is what I mean when I say that religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation, and that it makes this banal regional and national dispute, which, if reduced to its proportions, is a nothingness. (Religion) makes that (problem) not just lethally insoluble, but is drawing in other contending parties who openly wish for an apocalyptic conclusion to it, as also bodied forth in the same scriptural texts – in other words, that it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity, the end of the whole suffering veil of tears, which is what they secretly want. This is a failure of the parties of God, and it’s not something that happens because people misinterpret the texts. It happens because they believe them, that’s the problem…

If we give up religion we discover what we know already, whether we are religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of the solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions… are a great deal more awe-inspiring than what’s contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any of that. It’s a great deal more awe-inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope…

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

The question is how to keep the numinous, the transcendent, I’ll go so far as the ecstatic, in art and in our own emotions and in our finer feelings, and to distinguish it precisely from superstition and the supernatural, which are designed to make us fearful and afraid and servile, and which sometimes succeed only to well… 

(Why is it that many renowned people embraced and then rejected communism – André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, etc. – despite its admirable aspirations?) Because it’s not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that great things can only be done if you’ll place yourself under an infallible leadership, and once a decision has been made you are bound by it. You might conceivably notice where I’m going here… It (communism, and the same can be said about religion) wasn’t worth the sacrifice of mental, intellectual and moral freedom…

I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen – in other words, the supernatural  or supervising deity, presence, force, who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation.

A religious person… (has) special permission… to talk nonsense.

Mother Teresa… her teachings and entire lifetime of work were exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d spent the money she raised on charity – which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway… And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion – and not just a monotheistic one – that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

What one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know.

What I think would be nice is if people realised, for example, that a lot of devotional music is written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example.

There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason.

I think part of having being a marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive… My attitude toward Zionism had always been… that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

The reason for (anti-Semitism’s) virulence is religious… If the events (leading up to Jesus’ execution) as described took place at all – and I think that something like that did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy – then the Romans did it, but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant (saying they are the messiah).” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the (Roman Catholic) Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible (for Jesus’ execution)… It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews, and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for… and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

2,700 people listened to the debate. The pre-debate vote was 25% in favour of the resolution and 55% against, with 20% undecided. The final vote was 32% in favour of the resolution and 68% against, with no one undecided.

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is now dead. His memory and work live on in many books and countless articles. Perhaps his most accessible (and controversial and entertaining) work is “God is not Great”, which dates from 2007.

I do not agree with everything Hitchens says in “Hitchens vs. Blair” – if he were alive today and knew I agreed with everything he said, Hitchens would have nothing but contempt for me – but most of what he says “is right on the money”, as our friends across the pond would say.     

HMD 2015: remembering the liberation of Auschwitz seventy years ago…

… and the “forgotten genocide” directed against the Armenians.

Here in the UK it’s the time of year when local authorities, groups subscribing to different religions and beliefs, voluntary organisations, schools and places of work organise events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. Yesterday (19th January) I attended the first of five such events this year, the “Keep the Memory Alive” commemoration at Northumberland CE Academy in Ashington. It was a very moving occasion, not least because of the presence of Zigi Shipper, a survivor of the Holocaust, or Shoah.

In 2015 we primarily remember the liberation of Auschwitz seventy years ago, but 2015 is also of profound importance because it marks the centenary of the so-called “forgotten genocide” directed against the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Please read on.

Last week I was in Newcastle’s branch of Waterstone’s where I saw a book of old photos entitled “Gateshead Remembered” by Anthea Lang. Toward the end of the book is the photo of a flier, and on the flier is a photo of children sitting and standing in the doorway to the courtyard of a house probably in a village in what is now eastern Turkey. The text on the flier says the following. Saturday 27th May 1916:

will be Armenian Day in Gateshead. Funds (are) urgently wanted for seed, implements, food and stock for restoring the starving Armenians to their homes. Offices of the fund: 96, Victoria Street. Reverend Harold Buxton, honorary secretary.

However, by May 1916 there was no way, for hundreds of thousands of Armenians living in what was then the crumbling Ottoman Empire, that they would return to their homes. Why? Because, by May 1916, the attempted genocide against the Armenian people had already been under way for over a year and thousands of Armenian men, women and children had been murdered.

At the beginning of 1915, the Ottoman Empire was a German ally at war with nation states such as France and the UK. Most subjects of the empire were ethnic Turks, Kurds and Arabs overwhelmingly Muslim by faith, but a substantial minority were Armenians and the great majority of Armenians were Christian. For many years already, the Armenian population had been stereotyped as a disloyal, non-Muslim minority who sought a land of their own so they could live in ways devoid of restrictions imposed from outside.

Ruined Armenian monastery near Tercan, eastern Turkey

Ruined Armenian monastery near Tercan, eastern Turkey

During early 1915, memos were sent from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, to governors and other officials informing them that it would be appropriate to take violent action against a supposedly disloyal minority in the empire. For reasons of war, confessional difference and stereotyping the Armenians as treacherous subjects, it was easy for such governors and officials to motivate Turks, Kurds and Arabs to “seek revenge” against their Armenian neighbours. By the end of world war one, between one and two million largely defenceless Armenians had been murdered or driven to their death during marches across barren or mountainous terrain, and thousands of women and children had been kidnapped and enslaved. Females, some as young as twelve, were exploited as sex slaves or forced into marriage with local Muslims, and male children were brought up as Turks, Kurds or Arabs.

Today, eastern Turkey, the area with the largest Armenian population in what had been the Ottoman Empire, has about 10,000 surviving Armenians. Not long after the war ended, efforts began to remove all physical evidence that there had ever been an Armenian presence in the region. Today, the policy of removing such physical evidence has at last concluded, but very few monuments remain. Turkish Armenia is a land full of Armenian shadows and ghosts, and ruined Armenian churches, monasteries and houses which once rang out with laughter and other expressions of joy.

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

2015 therefore marks the centenary of what became known as the “forgotten genocide” because, as early as the 1930s, non-Armenians began to forget what had happened during world war one. Moreover, with the Republic of Turkey by the 1930s welcomed into the family of nations (the republic is one of the Ottoman Empire’s successor states), “embarrassing” tragedies during warfare were conveniently ignored.

One of only two Armenian churches in eastern Turkey still used occasionally for worship. Kayseri

One of only three Armenian churches in eastern Turkey still occasionally used for worship. Kayseri

Are there connections between the “forgotten genocide” and other genocidal events such as the Holocaust, or Shoah? Yes. First, for the genocide in the Ottoman Empire to have been so “successful”, the victims, the Armenians, had first to be vilified and defined as the threatening and despised “other”. Second, many of the means used to murder the Jewish people were first applied against the Armenians. Third, even before the infamous Wannsee Conference in Nazi Germany (January 1942) sealed the fate of what remained of most of Europe’s Jewish population, Hitler had famously said, as a way of motivating people who might not otherwise think the extermination of the Jews should be undertaken, “Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

The Armenian equivalent to the term people use to describe the Holocaust, or Shoah, is “Metz Yeghern”, or “The Great Calamity”. At the same time that genocide was directed against the Armenians, massacres almost as catastrophic were directed against the empire’s Syriac Christian and Chaldean minorities. Syriac Christians call the massacres “Sayfo”, or “The Year of the Sword”.

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

We are told that, by remembering such enormous crimes against humanity, we ensure they never happen again. Well, today, as in years past, we remember the “forgotten genocide” directed against the Armenians, the Holocaust, or Shoah, directed against the Jewish people, and the Porajmos (“The Devouring” or “The Destruction”) directed against the Gypsies and Roma. But such remembering did NOT stop ISIS proposing just last year that all Yazidis should be murdered, and for reasons that have an echo with those used to justify action taken in the past against the Armenians, the Jewish people, the Gypsies and the Roma.

In the barracks in Auschwitz explaining about the Porajmos

In the barracks in Auschwitz explaining about the Porajmos

Conclusion? We learn nothing from history and, because we learn nothing from history, we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past.