Religion


The following video clip did not take long to go viral. Rightly so, I myself laughed my brains out and watched it a dozen times:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euXQbZDwV0w

If I was gay and living in Uganda though, I wouldn’t find it that funny. The Evangelical Pastors featured in the clip are not joking. This is actually propaganda to introduce the death penalty for homosexual “repeated offenders”

, the offence being having sex with a same-sex partner. Even more sinister, the proposed bill will also make not-reporting homosexual activity a crime punishable with imprisonment. Even if one of the homosexuals involves happens to be your own son or daughter. (By the time of writing the bill has not been approved, but there is serious risk it will with some minor modifications).

Thankfully in Malta religious leaders don’t indoctrinate their followers that homosexuals eat each other’s shit. However while our local human rights activists are concerned about the rights of Uganda’s homosexuals, an Evangelical Pastor is preaching smaller scale but equally hateful propaganda to his followers – homosexuals can be cured. (Most probably he’s not saying that they “eat the poo poo” here in order not to make himself a laughing stock.)

The Pastor, Gordon Manche was strongly condemned by most Maltese on online media. I am also sure that even most conservative Catholics and Muslims in Malta disagree with Mr Manche, and more so with the Ugandan preachers (though both Catholic and Muslim authorities in Malta have used the rhetoric of “living in sin” when referring to homosexuals).

My fear is however that a group of people are suffering in silence because of Mr Manche. I am referring to those gays and lesbians in the Pastor’s own community. Homosexuals who have no other choice then denying who they really are from others and many times also from themselves.

Homophobia – fear and/or hatred for homosexuals – is mainly caused by such religious zealots. Though they will never admit it, most homophobes are homosexuals themselves who can’t come to terms with their own sexuality. In a way, one can’t blame them. Imagine the psychological harm on these people who have been indoctrinated since young age that “God hates gays” only to grow up and realize they have feeling for people of the same sex. That what they feel is a result of a disease and is disgusting. The truth is so hard that these people enter into an extreme self-denial and go to the other extreme – blame those who are like them but have managed to accept their reality. Sometimes these people resort to violence towards homosexuals, and even murder, the most prominent case of which is that of Matthew Shepard:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Shepard

Only one thing can end this madness – education, compulsory if need be. Those children attending Pastor Manche’s hate speech need to know the other reality, the truth. Same goes for those coming from conservative Catholic or Muslim families. They need to know that whatever the Pastor, priest or Imam says, they are lovable human beings as they are.

Because no, homosexuals don’t eat the poo poo. Neither can they be cured from a disease that doesn’t exist.

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I come from a very devout Catholic family which has also accepted the fact that after I started asking questions and not given the desired answers I moved towards agnosticism and eventually atheism.

If I say I have suffered a lot of discrimination because of my lack of faith I would be lying. There have been some nasty comments and attitudes such as that of a priest who told a friend of mine that I’m not really an atheist but “supperv” (proud), and a guy who refused to play music with me after he learned I was not Catholic. However, nothing devastating.

Right now, I see a lot of intolerance towards Muslims, many times by people who never even bothered talk to a Muslim unless there was no other option (such as at the place of work).

This isn’t new.

When I was in Primary school, this same kind of intolerance (or even worse) was directed towards Jehovah Witnesses. The worst victims of this ignorance were the kids. For many they were considered a little more than lepers, waiting for the right moment to convert you towards their perverted beliefs. Nearly every house used to have a yellow sticker prohibiting people from these “sects” from knocking on the door. Our house had one too, however, at least I was never told these people are “evil” or “doing it for money” like many fellow kids in school were told. For me they were presented as “wasting your time” (which up to a certain extent was true since no one in my family had any intention of changing their religion).

Growing up and changing my own beliefs helped me get rid of my own prejudices (learned mostly from school) on people of this “sect”. So did my interest in learning about different religions. I must also admit that I prefer the attitude of Jehovah Witnesses than some Catholics. The few people I know who are members of this “sect” are true believers that do not follow the Bible only when it suits them.

While the stigma of being a Jehovah Witness has decreased (though definitely not abolished), today Muslims are the main victims. Like the case with Jehovah Witnesses, the main offender is prejudice, coming not only from parents and kids at school but international media. I won’t delve into that like I did in other blogs, but one thing all Muslims I’ve talked to about their beliefs and attitudes that seem to agree in is that “terrorists aren’t real Muslims, they can’t be. What they do is in direct opposition of the teachings of the Koran”

P.S When I’m using the word sect here it has nothing to do with the possible negative connotations of the word. A sect is nothing more than a religious minority within some particular religion.

A common argument against introducing divorce in Malta is that it is not compatible with our culture, or as many claim our predominant religion – Catholicism. I disagree. True, Catholicism plays a strong part in this mentality. However other countries which are strongly Catholics like Northern Ireland and Poland do have divorce. I do think what makes us different from these countries is our culture, but it hasn’t got anything to do with religion.

Many Maltese have a belief that they have a fundamental right (or even a duty) to interfere in the lives of others. Be it for religious, social, cultural or whatever purpose, we want to have control on anyone who dares to be different. Or in the case of divorce, needs to be different.

We take the notion of ‘when in Rome do what the Roman’s do’ to the extreme that one has to conform to the standard Maltese stereotype if he walks on this island. Religion is a case in point. For example during the crucifix issue that originated in Italy but caused a frenzy in Malta I frequently read comments such as ‘if you don’t like it, go back to where you came from’. What? With what arrogance are these people assuming that there are no Maltese people who have a different religion, or no religion at all? Will a person lose his ‘Malteseness’ if he is atheist, agnostic, Muslim or Buddhist?

I do not think introducing divorce in Malta goes against the Catholic faith. Whether divorce is condemned in the Bible or not is not the point. The main issue is the fact that the Bible does not put any obligation on anyone not to allow other persons not to sin (assuming the divorce is a sin). In other words, the most Catholic of our politicians are free to vote for the introduction of divorce without risking losing their souls.

Because something that according to a politician’s belief is a sin, it doesn’t mean he is morally responsible if he doesn’t use his authority to restrict it for others. If that was the case, why not criminalize condoms while were at it?

The fact that I am a hardliner when it comes to secularism does not mean I’m anticlerical. Yes, the Catholic Church does anger me when it expresses itself in ways that can (and do) harm minorities especially, but not exclusively homosexuals. However I also appreciate that on many things the Catholic Church has a positive impact on Maltese society.

Some 10 years ago I had the opportunity to work with the Sisters of Mother Theresa. I was already agnostic back then, but it didn’t seem to bother them at all. These amazing women dedicate literally their whole lives to others (as well as to God), especially the poor and the most vulnerable. They help the people in every sense of the word – spiritually, emotionally and also practically. I’ve seen them carrying boxes of vegetables to distribute them to the most needy, preparing meals for the homeless, helping kids with homework. They did anything possible that could help these people, both by giving them the fish to eat, as well as teaching them how to fish.

Then came the sex scandals. Probably the heaviest blow the Catholic Church has had to deal with in the last century. Needless to say, all the cases that came to light as well as the fact that many had been covered up, is shocking to say the least. However, I believe there is another reason why this blow was so heavy. A reason the Church seems to ignore.

There are many reasons why the Catholic Church (and other religious movements) maintains respect and power. One of them is fear of hell. Thankfully this is losing its effect. Another reason, probably the most important, is the fact that the church was (in some aspects it still is) near to the people, and not only the faithful. The sisters of Mother Theresa are a case in point. I am sure that in the communities they are present there are many devout Catholics who wouldn’t be as such hadn’t it been for these sisters. Fear of hell and dogmas do not attract many people nowadays. Unconditional love does.

Fr. Mark Montebello is controversial and in many communities also popular. However, except for a couple of radicals, I don’t think Fr Mark’s popularity is due to the fact that he is controversial. In ways similar to the Sisters of Mother Theresa Fr Mark has always been there for those who are really in need in our society. Especially those whom parts of our society has refused, especially prisoners. Giving a voice to these people is sometimes considered controversial. I consider it Christian.

Fr Mark Montebello has been deemed controversial, and subsequently reported to Ecclesiastical Authorities, because he spoke our for paedophiles and migrants. All that he said is that these are human beings and their rights and dignity should be respected. That, in the case of paedophiles, there are more effective ways to deal with this crime than to keep a register of whoever committed such a crime. Or that, in the case of a Nigerian person, if this person claims he was unjustifiably arrested, it does not mean he is lying, just because he’s an African. Or maybe some took offence when he said that the crucifix, a reminder of the person whose path he tries to follow, should not be flaunted and used as a means of dividing people.

I have met people from the clergy that have beliefs similar to Fr Mark’s. They do not say them in public (I definitely don’t blame them) but live them. Those who refuse to put people into categories, judge others and go about throwing stones forgetting that they too have sinned.

Whether as outspoken as Fr Mark or not, these are the members of the clergy that attract people towards the Catholic Church. At the rsk of sounding controversial, I think that what makes such people different from others in the clergy is that they consider Christ at their true leader, rather than the Pope.

The way this is written I might have given the impression that such priests and nuns are a minority. In reality, I believe that they are actually the silent majority.

As an environmentalist, as well as a believer in civil liberties I’m very angered at the latest attack by Pope Razinger on homosexuals. Once again this Pope is using the environment as a lousy excuse to oppose something he disagrees with. In this case it’s the fact that the Portugese parliament has accepted homosexual marriages.

Mr Razinger stated he considers gay marriages as unnatrual and an ‘attack on creation’. What the Pope doesn’t seem to note is the fact that many animals including cats, do engage in same sex activities. He also seems not aware while there are species of animals where couples engage in long term, even life-long relationship, not a single one of them found the need to sign a contract for it.

Worse still, Mr Razinger considers this ‘blurring of gender’ as the road to the destruction of humankind, and compares it to the destruction of rainforests. May the Pope gently explain how? I don’t feel that I need to explain the consequences of destroying rainforests, most probably you already know them. But gay marriages? Does he think that by giving homosexuals the right to marry everyone will turn homosexual and no human male sperm will ever meet a female egg? Does the Pope still think that gays can be ‘cured’ or that heterosexuals can be ‘converted’.

While these comments have angered well meaning homosexuals as well as  environmentalists, his comments might flare more the fanatic homophobes. A law is being proposed by the Ugandan governement, a counry with a Christian majority, to introduce ‘aggravated homosexuality’. Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, punishable by long term imprisonment. The proposal states that ‘aggravated homosexuality’ such as homosexual activity involving an HIV+ person or that of a ‘repeated offender’ would be punishable by death. Worse still, knowing that a person is a homosexual and not reporting it to authorities is punishable by three years imprisonment, even if that person happens to be you own son. I’m sure the Ugandan government is appreciating the support of his new ally, the Pope.

Groups of Christian fanatics, mostly found in the U.S. take the law in their own hands and harass, assault and even murder homosexuals. To add insult to injury, they turn up at the victims funeral carrying slogans such as ‘GOD HATES GAYS’ or worse still ‘THANK GOD FOR AIDS’. These criminals must surely be rejoicing at Mr Razinger’s words. Most probably they take them as an approval for their cowardly acts.

 

Speaking for the majority of environmentalists, may I at least ask the Pope one thing? If you intend to continue fuelling hate crimes could you at least be decent enough and at least refrain for doing it in our name.

Regularly, on newspapers published in Malta you see some letter about one of these two subjects:

1) How Islam has degraded the UK, how evil it is, and that we should not forget what’s happening in Iran

2) How much Catholic values are neglected and the ‘harm’ this has having on (Maltese) society.

For the first, the implied recommendation to beware of Islam. For the second, an urge to make pressure on local politicians to show their Catholic traits. Some go to the extent of using their vote for MEP elections as a threat towards candidates who do not conform 100% to their Catholic beliefs.

Following current international affairs, it is obvious that what some powerful Muslims in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia are doing is disgusting, transforming these otherwise beautiful countries in a hell on earth. The obsession on political correctness in some regions in the UK, such as removing crucifixes is not something enviable (though this is taken out of proportion, in that it is only practiced in some local regions, UK law was never changed). However, what many fail to realise are that first of all we are using two weights for two measures. We condemn Muslims bullying their religion on the state or politicians while accept, if not condone Catholics doing the same thing. We hailed a Danish cartoonist ridiculing prophet Muhammed as a freedom of speech icon, yet proceeded criminally against a person who dressed as Jesus Christ in Carnival. Doesn’t anyone sense a bit of hypocrisy here?

Secondly, speaking about our country – Malta, let’s face it and be honest, there is no Muslim threat. The Muslim community in Malta has never made any implicit or explicit threats calling Maltese society to appease them. The just cherish their freedom of worship (always as long as Maltese laws are not breached) and stop there.

On the other hand, people who like me are agnostics or atheists, face subtle discrimination from Catholic churches’ imposition. Crucifixes in schools or places of work had never bothered me before. Now, they are beginning to do so. I’m seeing them as a threat to our supposedly secular society. They are a symbol of the limitations on our freedom of expression, or of the so called ‘invisible hand of the church’. They signify a curriculum of religious studies that does not teach religion to our kids, but just the Catholic faith. Such symbols signify the oppression on some of my friends who have different sexual orientation who have a right to be different unless they do not put in practice their differences. They justify the cruel stare I sometimes receive when I say I don’t believe in God, the prejudice that I have no morality, which is far from the truth.

 I’ve got nothing against the crucifix itself. Far from that. Jesus was a progressive revolutionary in his time, maybe even too progressive for our times 2000 years later. As has happened to people like him along world’s history, and is unfortunately still happening today, he was tortured and murdered for his beliefs. What bothers me is what such a symbol has come to represent. Together with the injustice towards Muslims in Malta who are somewhat made to blame for removal of crucifixes in some places in the UK when they have never made such demands.

I’m not afraid of Muslims at all, at least in my country (I can’t imagine myself living in Iran let’s face it – yes we are better off in this respect). However sometimes I askel: Is inquisition really over in our small country, or have we just eliminated the most sinister parts such as physical harm and imprisonment, but let the psychological abuse carry on.

 

 

The absolute majority (though somewhat dwindling) of the Maltese are Catholics. Some practice their religion to the letter, some just use it as a guide whole others consider themselves Catholic but do not really care. So far so good.

 

 

 

 

Obiously there are other religions in Malta. Islam and Judaism are also practiced in our island but the Catholic church finds no problem with those. Why? They are considered as ‘religions’ and the reason for that is that in the world they have a substantial amount of followers. And rightly so, religious authorities of these three religions moved ahead with tolerance and acceptance. A sweet example from a bitter experience was in the Simshar tragedy, where a burial of a Muslim and two Catholics was carried out in with authorities from both religons present. Many us don’t realise how much we should be grateful for this – unlike many countries, where even more religions that these three mentioned are practiced, we haven’t had a single episode of religios related violence since the Great Siege.

 

 

coexist

 

However, the Catholic church considers some religions as less equal, even as ‘bad’. They aren’t actually called religons by them but ‘sects’. Jehovah witnesses are the number one target. Before I learnt how to write I was already taught to be afraid of these people always ready to poison our minds. Many of our houses had a sticker at the entrance stating clearly that Jehovah witnesses and memebers of other ‘sects’ are not welcome. Nearly three decades later I was shocked and offended to read a pamphlet issued from the Catholic condemning Jehovah witnesses. I was shocked because I had thought that in nearly three decades the after effects of the inquisition had subsided. I was offended since I have friends who are Jehovah witnesses. I must admit that yes, many do start pestering so that you ‘convert’ to their religion. However, when I made it clear I hadn’t the slightest intention of converting or attending any meeting, they stopped and still respect me as I am. Some Catholics weren’t even able to do that.

 

 

What is the difference between a religion and a sect? In reality it’s only one thing: numbers. If there are hundreds of thousands, or millions of people around the world worshipping the same god/s as they know him/them, then that’s a religion. If they are small in number, they are a ‘sect’ a word which in itself brings to mind something bad, even diabolic.

 

 

It is not only the Catholic religion that does this. In Malasia members of a so called ‘sect’ called the Sky Kingdom were harassed by the Muslim majority. However, I confine to criticising the Catholic church, since in Malta, I’ve only seen this kind of bullying practiced by them, probably since they are the majority.