Vatican: The Pope, the Virgin and the Devil
Catholic occultism has boom time. Not in some pockets of central Africa, but in Vatican itself, right in the middle of St. Peter's Square. It happened during the Pope's weekly audience: just when he rose his hand to bless the crowd of thousands, Satan managed to take possession of 19-year-old Valeria and had her scream furiously and behave rather improper for the occasion. A bishop, hastily flashing a cross and trying to cool her down with holy water, had a narrow escape. But the Pope, defying old age and bad health, decided to personally dare the Devil. In a private encounter with spitting and beating Valeria, swearing like a trooper, he tried to perform an exorcism. Though witnesses admitted that the Holy Father had not been very successful in his endeavor (this was his third attempt during his papacy to subdue the Devil), the episode left Father Gabriele Amorth rejoicing. Amorth is president of the International Association of Exorcists. "His action is wonderful news because most bishops and priests who have never done an exorcism don't believe they are any use", he said. The Pope's interest in exorcism has given a boost to the business. He has ruled that every diocese should appoint at least one exorcist, but now a days there is more demand than supply of exorcists in some countries, says Father Amorth.
Britain: Spotlight on religious schools
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken a cue from Pakistan's President Musharraf. After Musharraf's announcement on 12 January in his address to the nation that he will bring all of the thousands of madrassas (Muslim religious schools) in his country under control of the education ministry, Blair has decided to follow this example and take religious schools out of the dark.
Some religious schools in Britain are functioning outside the state education system and follow their private syllabi. In the aftermath of September 11, public sensitivity about the possible danger that obscure religious schools turn out to be fundamentalist hotbeds is growing. The British government has started to keep a close watch on unchecked religious schools and is, according to a statement of the Foreign Office, preparing measures to integrate them and bring them under the umbrella of the national syllabi.
Philosophical dilemma: Are Humanists "religious non-believers" or "atheistic believers"?
The latest issue of International Humanist News left some of its readers in a philosophical dilemma. A report about the UN Conference on School and Education in relation with Freedom of Religion and Belief in Madrid informs that the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) participated "on behalf of the community of religious non-believers". The IHEU has been able to influence the final declaration of the conference in a way that - for the first time in history - the rights of "religious non-believers" were explicitly recognized. Fruit of such efforts is the following sentence: "Freedom of religion or belief includes theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religious belief." Humanist success? Yes, asserts International Humanist News.
Turkey: The dawn of gender equality
With the beginning of this year, a quiet revolution has started to change the Turkish society. As a part of the country's bid to enter the European Union, its Civil Code was subjected to sweeping reforms in order to meet European standards. There have been appreciable results regarding the legal position of women: The century old gender inequality has lost its legal backbone.
Though Islamic law had been abolished decades ago, when Turkey adopted a secular civil code, gender inequality had remained engraved in the base of its legal system as well as in its social structures. But now, long overdue, has come into reach what women's rights groups have been fighting for during the last 50 years.
Turkish men have lost the legal backing for their traditional patriarch's position in the family. The husband no longer decides alone about the couple's place of stay, his permission is no longer needed if his wife wants to take up a job, in case of divorce, the couple's joint assets are shared equally etc. The heart piece of the legal revolution are the divorce rulings, because they open the possibility for a dignified life beyond marriage where earlier was nothing but darkness and existential fear. Women got the right to sue under certain circumstances for divorce (for example if their husband commits adultery) and are entitled to compensation and alimony. A grave limitation of this new law is, however, that it is not applicable in retrospect: 17 million women who married before the cut off date remain deprived of its benefits.
The new progressive laws stand in contradiction with widespread deep conservatism, especially in the rural areas, and are bound to create tension and back lashes. Significantly, protest against the government's ban of head scarves in schools and universities has flared up again. In a recent huge demonstration in Istanbul, more than 50 students have been arrested by police. The hijab (head scarf) is the classical symbol for the conflict between secularism, modernity and women's emancipation on one side and religious traditions on the other. Understanding it as the flag of political Islam, threatening the secular fabric of modern Turkey, the government banned the wearing of hijab as a "statement of political intent" in campuses and parliament buildings, long before the new laws came into effect. In April 2000, thousands of students were stopped at university and college gates, because they refused to remove their head scarves. Many missed their exams. There had been huge demonstrations under the banner of freedom of expression and freedom of religion for the right to wear hijab in universities and schools, supported by international Human Rights groups, but the government did not go back. Those who insist on the right to wear the traditional religious headgear in state institutions, intend to campaign for Islam, they argued, and in a secular state religion was to be strictly confined to private life.
To realize their new legally protected freedom in their daily lives, Turkish women may have to go a long way. But private prisons will finally get empty, once the legal doors are pushed open.