USA: A courageous atheist strikes back
In a time when America is getting used to the increasing presence of God in public life, a courageous atheist has decided to strike back. Michael Newdow, practicing physician and studied lawyer from California, is determined to re-enforce the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees separation of church and state. His case against the Pledge of Allegiance sparked national fury.
Every morning, millions of school children in the USA are looking at Stars & Stripes, clutching their hearts with their right hands and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which refers to America as "one nation under God". Michael Newtow, who did not want his eight-year-old daughter to be forced to participate in any religious ceremony, filed a case against the school authorities. Representing himself in court, he argued that the pledge violated the Constitution. He won - at least for one day. The Ninth Circuit court of appeals in San Francisco ruled 2:1 that the phrase "one nation under God" implies a government endorsement of religion. It amounted to "a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism," wrote Circuit-Judge Alfred Theodore Goodwin on behalf of the panel of three judges. "Invoking God's name is not religiously neutral."
Following this decision, a wave of criticism and controversy swept the United States, including a resolution of the US Senate and a demonstration by House Republican members. A blitz poll of Newsweek showed that 87 per cent of the Americans want God to remain in the pledge. 54 per cent feel the government should promote religion, 60 per cent welcome politicians who publicly express their faith. President George W Bush, while attending the Group of Eight Summit in Canada, announced within hours that he would see to it that this "ridiculous judgment" was overturned.
"A declaration of God in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't violate rights. As a matter of fact, it's a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence," Bush said. "We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God," "Those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench."
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Department of Justice would defend the ability of the nation's children to pledge allegiance to the flag. He called the decision "directly contrary to centuries of American tradition", forgetting that it was only 48 years back that under President Eisenhower God was inserted into the patriotic pledge by Act of Congress. Composed by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy in 1892 for the 400 anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, the pledge first became famous without God.
Such pious storm blowing cold on his face, 79-years-old judge Goodwin stayed his own ruling the very next day, to let fellow members of the court decide whether to reconsider the case. The Justice Department has meantime demanded a review by the full 11-member circuit court. It is expected that Goodwin's ruling will not survive. But even otherwise, it would still have to take the hurdle of the Supreme Court.
Though for the time being, American school children will continue to think of God under Stars & Stripes, Michael Newdow's case has shaken foregone conclusions and unleashed an all-out discussion about the relation of church and state in media and public. And Newdow, despite receiving abuses and serious death threats, is not going to stop here. Calling himself "founding minister" of the "First Amendment Church of True Science (FACT)", he is full of ideas and plans, how to curb the influence of religion on public life, and full of energy and confidence. He has already some other interesting cases running. With one, he tries to stop the Congress from making religious references in official resolutions. With another, he wants to stop President Bush from including Christian prayers in his inauguration ceremonies. He also wants the inscription "In God We Trust" to vanish from the Dollar.
Besides all, he is fighting a child-support battle for his daughter with his former wife. He thinks of practicing as an attorney in family law, which he considers - besides religion - the "most arcane, counterproductive, harmful system in our society".
Pakistan: Blasphemy accused murdered in jail
Yousaf Ali, sentenced to death for blasphemy in Lahore, has been murdered in jail. While he was shifted from one barrack to another, a religious fanatic, jailed in a murder case, killed him with several shots from a pistol.
Yousaf Ali, a 62-year-old former captain of the Pakistani army, had been accused of blasphemy in 1997, after a fanatic Islamic group alleged, he had claimed to be Allah's prophet and to have divine revelations. The draconian blasphemy law of Pakistan is a deadly weapon in the hands of religious fundamentalists, whose testimony is usually taken as proof and base enough for condemnation of any of their victims. In August 2000, the Lahore sessions court sentenced Ali to death. He appealed the decision, but the Lahore High Court was yet to rule on his appeal. Awaiting his fate in the death cell, he fell victim to a religious fanatic, who made himself an instrument of "Allah's wrath".
There have been several cases during recent years, in which fanatics took law into their own hands. Before the end of the court hearing against him, blasphemy accused Majmat Ahmer was stepped to death in front of the sessions court in Faisalabad. Manzoor Masih was shot dead on the stairs of Lahore High Court, after appealing against his death sentence. Again in Lahore, High Court Judge Arif Iqbal Hussain Bhatti was shot dead in 1998, when he reversed the death sentence against two Christians. The frenzied mob does not tolerate acquittals.
Hundreds are harassed in Pakistan on the base of the blasphemy law. Several men are at present in the death row. One of them is rationalist Dr.Younus Shaikh, for whose release Rationalist International and several other organizations around the world are relentlessly fighting since years.
(See our web site http://www.rationalistinternational.net)
Nepal: Editor tortured to death
The Paris based international press watchdog “Reporters Sans Frontiers” informed that Krishna Sen, editor of the newspaper Janadisha daily “died under torture in a detention center of the Nepalese security forces. Sen had been arrested in May for his alleged links with the Maoist rebels. Now the authorities over handed his dead body to his family without giving any reason for his death. His body bore torture marks.
The Maoist rebels are fighting for the abolishing of the Hindu monarchy in Nepal, where the king is revered as an incarnation of god Vishnu. They want to establish a communist republic instead. Starting as an opposition in parliament, they tried to negotiate with the government for a peaceful transformation, before the "people’s liberation army" moved against the government.
On 26 November, the government declared Emergency, suspended civil rights and curtailed the media with strict censorship. Several journalists and editors were arrested. The rebels were branded terrorists and equaled with Al Qaeda in order to gain international support for a brutal destruction war against them. It is alleged that the government is using the cover of its war against the Maoists to eliminate all opposition forces, especially those, who have demanded an independent investigation of the mysterious palace massacre, which brought King Gyanendra last year on the throne. After more than half a year, Emergency is still persisting.
UK: Know-how to avoid cultural hostility
The British foreign office pioneers with a service, which is so far unique in the world – yet worth imitating. On its web site www.fco.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo, the ministry offers special advices and tips to gays and lesbians, who plan to travel abroad, how to avoid cultural hostility against same-sex relationships.
USA: “Operation World Peace” for one billion Dollars only
On the occasion of America’s first Independence Day after the terrorist attacks of September 9, which was celebrated nervously and under high security, a special jubilee offer came in. In his July 4 message, Beatles’ guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the inventor of Transcendental Meditation, announced that he could kill world terrorism with love – for just 1 billion Dollars only. The technique is simple: the guru plans to train 40,000 meditation experts (Vedic Pundits) all around the world to generate lots of “good vibrations”. This will, like a magic wave, stop bad guys from doing bad things, he hopes. 85 millions of the targeted 1 billion Dollars for the “operation world peace” have already been collected, said the Yogi, who claims to have six million devotees worldwide.
India: If you are not good at heart, you can burn your feet!
In the first week of July, the village Gunjur near Bangalore celebrated the Paatalamma temple festival after a gap of seven years. Thousands of villagers from the neighborhood were keen to participate in the traditional religious fire-walking exercise at night. There was pushing and pulling, a stampede in the heavily overcrowded fire pit. And suddenly wild cries of pain pierced through the dark. Within minutes, hundreds of people had badly burned their feet. More than 300 injured fire-walkers, mainly women and children, had to be hospitalized.
The temple’s chief priest Chennappa did not hesitate to gain religious profit from the accident. “Those who are not good at heart or do not have strong faith, have not withstood the test this time”, he preached to the shocked villagers. Since they couldn’t understand, what had happened, nobody dared to come up to beat him for this unwarranted sarcasm.
Convincing proof that it is for sure not faith in God, which protects the firewalker’s feet, was offered by way of “experimental theology“ at the second International Rationalist Conference at Trivandrum in February 2000. After a get-together dinner in the hills, most of the delegates including prominent rationalist, atheist and humanist leaders from all parts of the world felt courageous enough to dare a fire-walk at midnight - and nobody got the slightest blister! Thanks to a simple technique: the skin of our feet is thick enough to function as an isolator against the heat, but only for some seconds. If you go on walking without stop, you don’t feel the heat. But if you stand still for a moment only, you will burn your feet. Indian Rationalist activists use to go to villages, explaining this simple principle and demonstrating rationalist fire-walk.