Zambian government calls on church to fight against homosexuality

In April 2013, the Zambian government asked the church to help fight what it called ‘vices’, the most notable of these being homosexuality. It has been reported that over Easter some rather brave gay couples tried to get married and have their unions officially recognised. This was enough to scare the government into action and following their request for help, a Zambia Police spokesperson promised to crack down on "homosexual activities". A gay rights activist, Paul Kasonkomona, was arrested days later. 

The reasons given for the need to rid society of homosexuality are nothing new: it’s not a part of Zambian culture, it’s unAfrican, it’s unChristian and it goes against Biblical law. On the one hand, opponents of gay rights are arguing that because homosexuality is alien to Zambia (it isn't), it should not be allowed and they use Christianity to back up their views. What these hypocrites don't acknowledge is that Christianity is unAfrican. It is a religion that was introduced to Africa by European colonialists and wholeheartedly embraced. Those who oppose gay rights in Zambia and throughout Africa falsely claim homosexuality as foreign to the continent, yet they use a foreign religion to back up their claims.

In dealing with homosexuality, the Zambian government has shown a complete disregard for separation of church and state. Government officials not only use their Christian faith to guide their work but actively involve the church in it. This is unfair for the non-Christians and people with no religious affiliation living in Zambia as they are forced to live under rules based on a religion they do not subscribe to. Laws developed through logical thinking, taking into consideration issues facing the modern world and human rights do better to serve the people than laws based on ancient texts whose true authors are unknown. These texts, in form of the so-called Holy Bible, contain a multitude of passages that are not at all acceptable in the modern world and yet they are held in such high esteem by a large proportion of the population, including those who make decisions that affect everyone living in Zambia. 

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Freedom Of Conscience: Can Theists And Atheists Work Together?

Our modern world, where ideas spread far and wide with just one click, continues to fight for something as basic and crucial as freedom of conscience. In 2013, we'd like to think otherwise, but the truth is we have a long way to go before we can score a victory in this fight.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recognised atheist discrimination in its 2013 Annual Report. Discrimination against atheists thrives even in a modern society such as America. In March, the German shoe company Atheist Shoes called out the US Postal Service for discrimination against atheists. The company found that boxes shipped to the U.S. labelled “ATHEIST" were much more likely to be delayed or lost en route than packaging without the label. Similarly, the talented atheist singer Shelley Segal recently faced discrimination when she was booted from a venue. 

If atheists are discriminated against in a modern country like the US, atheists face intolerable discrimination and persecution in Muslim-majority countries. Currently in Bangladesh, Islamists are demanding the hanging of atheists. On 25 April and 2 May atheists around the world rallied in support of the country’s atheist activists. In Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Maldives, atheists can face the death penalty simply for expressing their views. Elsewhere atheists face the curtailment of basic rights the right to citizenship, prohibition from holding public office and restricted access to public education. This year the UN Rights Council was informed about the extensive discrimination atheists face around the world. From Alber Saber to Alexander Aan, from Asif Mohiuddin who was stabbed by Islamists and later arrested by the Bangladeshi government, to world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say who faces retirement after being convicted for blasphemy by his government; fromSanal Edamaruku for whom an arrest warrant was issued by the Indian police because he debunked a miracle believed by many, to Tunisian atheists Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji who were sentenced to seven years in prison for blasphemy by a Tunisian court, there's a long list of cases of persecution and global discrimination against atheists.

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Pakistani Freethinkers to UN: recognise Int'l Day Against State Religion

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A petition urges the UN to come to the rescue of non-Muslims and non-believers in Pakistan – who are often the victims of State Religion – and recognise and celebrate 11 August as the International Day Against State Religion.

As Pakistan makes history and marks five years of democracy by successfully upholding general elections, conditions in Pakistan for non-Muslims and non-believers are far from getting any better. The 2013 election has been termed the most violent election in the history of Pakistan. The Taliban carried out their threats and attacked convoys and rallies of secular and even Islamist political parties. Here is a whole timeline of pre-poll violence in Pakistan. Even on Election Day, the violence didn't stop.  

Non-Muslim candidates were largely absent from the elections, but those who ran were voted for because electors felt they could offer protection. The Christian residents of Joseph Colony, a Christian community that was attacked by a Muslim mob earlier this year, voted for the conservative party Jamaat-i-Islami's non-Muslim candidate because they wanted to vote for protection.

Conditions in Pakistan for non-Muslims are grim. In 2009 and again in 2012 the World Council Of Churches stated that minority religious communities in Pakistan are living in “fear and terror” of Islamic fundamentalists amid abductions and forced conversions that the government is helpless to stop. WCC’s ruling Central Committee declared that Pakistan’s small Hindu and Christian communities were increasingly subject to “persecution and discrimination”. Likewise, Ahmaddiya Muslims face persecution, outlawed and at the mercy of Islamists.  In light of these and other incidents where non-Muslim and non-believer Pakistanis have been victims of persecution and intolerance, a petition has been set up calling on the Secretary General of the United Nations to recognise an International Day Against State Religion on August 11, 2013 “in solidarity with victims of the State Religion, namely, non-Muslims and non-believers of Pakistan”. The petition says "the life of non-Muslims and non-believers of Pakistan is as good as hell thanks to the State Religion of Pakistan.” There is now a need for State Religion to be hit by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

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Witchcraft Accusation Rages in Northern Ghana

The atmosphere may appear calm and serene, and the people friendly and hospitable. Life in the regional capital, Tamale may not be much of the hustle and bustle one finds at the state capital, Accra or in other capital cities across the region. There is low traffic and the streets are hardly overcrowded except when a new chief is being installed, a political campaign is going on or a top politician is visiting the area.

Still all is not well in the northern region of Ghana because beneath this veneer of calmness and tranquility lurks a vicious, virulent and violent trend- witchcraft accusation.

Northern Ghana is a region charged and enchanted with allegations of witchery, spiritual possession and attack. Witchcraft is at the root of a silent battle,an ongoing  war that has torn apart families and communities, internally displaced many  people, turning them into refugees in their own land. In the past 3 weeks there have been 3 cases of accusation within the regional capital, Tamale, alone. I guess there could be other or more cases. But these are the ones that've come to my notice. Most cases of accusation take place in the rural parts of the region with no accessible roads, power or telephone service. In these remote communities, traditional beliefs and institutions are very strong. Cases of accusation are not reported in the news. They are rarely taken to the police stations, where such stations exist. Except on the highways or border posts, there are virtually no police presence in the rural communities. Most cases of witchcraft accusation are resolved locally and traditionally. By that I mean the matter is taken to the local chief and elders who often refer the issue to a local shrine for confirmation. In some cases they are pressured to banish the accused without a confirmation by a local priest. Sometimes accused persons are forced to flee on their own. Accused persons who are banished are relocated to other communities. But in most cases they are taken to one of the seven ‘safe spaces’ otherwise known as ‘witch’ camps in the region.

This report is based on the three cases of accusation I am currently studying in Tamale metropolis.

In the first case, a middle aged woman, Mateda, was accused of being responsible for the death of a 20 year old seamstress. The seamstress sew some wedding clothes for Mateda’s daughter. But shortly after Mateda paid the seamstres, she took ill and died.The parents of the seamstress said their daughter took ill after drinking some porridge she bought with Mateda's money. They claim she gave their daughter spiritual poison through the money. So they accused Mateda of being behind the death of their daughter.

They reported the matter to the chief and asked him to banish the woman immediately from the community. But the chief declined and instead suggested that the matter be taken to a local shrine for confirmation. But the family of the deceased and a local mob refused and insisted that Mateda be banished right away. In protest they marched to the palace of the paramount chief of Tamale and reported the matter. But he sent them back to the village chief, who insisted that the case be taken to a shrine.

But the angry ‘youths’ started throwing stones at the palace of the village chief and threatened to burn down the building. They broke a window of the palace and a ‘sacred’ pot used in keeping some water for the ancestors to drink when they come visiting at night! The chief invited the police, but before the police convoy arrived, the mob had dispersed. The Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit and the Criminal Investigation Department are currently questioning the suspects. As I was trying to meet and interview the accusers, I was told of another case of accusation that could erupt very soon. An elderly man has been sick for several months and a woman in the neighbourhood is being suspected of being responsible. I was told that if the man died, the ‘youths’ in the area might attack this woman or get her banished from the community. I am trying to nip this accusation in the bud.

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Syrian rebels execute an atheist boy

But are Assad's soldiers the only ones committing war crimes? Of course not. Just recently Amnesty warned over increasing war crimes perpetrated by Syrian rebels. Sen. John McCain in a recent interview said that he's willing to excuse war crimes committed by Syrian rebels because apparently he doesn't want an extremist takeover of Syria. He probably didn't hear about al-Qaeda advising Syrian rebels to create an anti-Western state.

Because of the situation in Syria, some might call Syria the playground of the devil. But the devil, in most cases, is religious fanatics often claiming to fight for Syria. In a country torn apart by sectarian violence, there is no difference between a rebel and a terrorist. In fact, many fighters among Syrian rebels ARE terrorists affiliated with terror groups. The cloak of ‘rebels’ only worked for these groups for some time because of their anti-government stance, holding Bashar al-Assad and his regime responsible for war crimes against the people.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the boy had been in an argument with someone about the existence of God, and was heard to say: “Even if the Prophet Mohammad returns, I will not become a believer.” But other sources say that the boy's executioners, who spoke Arabic and not the Syrian dialect, misinterpreted the boy’s comment. The Islamists who executed Qataa are said to belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a militant group that started off known as the Nusra Front. One of the Islamists was heard to say: “Generous citizens of Aleppo, disbelieving in God is polytheism and cursing the prophet is a polytheism. Whoever curses even once will be punished like this”. Qataa's parents say he had taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations in Aleppo.

A latest news story [warning: link contains graphic image] coming out of Syria has shocked everyone and is just another addition to the long list of atrocities committed by Syrian ‘rebels’. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – an anti-Assad Britain-based group monitoring the actions of some Islamist fighters – has reported the death of a 15-year-old atheist boy named Mohammad Qataa, allegedly shot in the face in an execution by Syrian rebels in front of his family.

If Iran and Hezbollah are financing Assad, then Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also financing terrorism by funding al-Qaeda affiliated Syrian rebels. It is very difficult to decide who is committing more war crimes – rebels or Assad’s forces – but one thing is sure: it’s almost never wise to support a bunch of Islamist terrorists against another bunch of Islamist terrorists.

More than 94,000 people have been killed and some 1.6 million Syrians have fled the country since the civil war began in March 2011. While the US, UK and France mull over arming Syrian rebels, leaders should put all the options on the table AND take a look at past mistakes before making a decision. Here is a good article on The Moral Minimum in Arming Rebels highlighting similar past human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing in Libya.

Malala Yousafzai: One Girl, One Idea

Malala Yousafzai: one girl with one idea who refused to be silent. An education activist, she was working on educational rights and women’s rights in the Swat valley. Her weapons were knowledge and education in resistance to the violence perpetrated by the Taliban of Pakistan who are against female education.

In Swat valley the Taliban have at times banned females from going to school and getting an education. Malala – a strong and brave soul who stood up against all odds to provide a voice to the voiceless – was made a target by the Taliban gunmen. They wanted to silence her, but they failed.

Malala was shot in the head and neck but survived and is back on her feet with even more hope, strength and courage to carry on. She is still advocating peace and rights for everyone, with education and without the use of violence.  

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Indian Governor Seeks to Suppress Religious Freedom

Bhopal: The Governor of Madhya Pradesh in India agreed on 31 July to forward a controversial bill, already approved by the Madhya state Assembly, to the President of India for constitutional review and approval before signing it into law.

The bill is titled the "M.P. Freedom of Religion Amendment Bill 2013". But despite its name, its purpose is to require individuals who wished to change or disaffiliate from any religion in the state to notify the District Magistrate prior to the change. It also requires religious leaders to get permission from the District Magistrate before administering or taking part in any religious ceremony. The bill provided penalties of significant fines and even a jail term of up to four years for anyone who failed to adhere to the law.

Having the Governor send the bill to the President of India prior to signing was a victory for regional civil rights groups and minority religious groups who had been organizing state-wide protests for several weeks to lobby the Governor to take this action.  These groups saw the bill as limiting and restricting the ability of individuals to join their communities and reinforcing the power and control of the majority Hindu community over individuals' exercise of religious freedom. The bill was supported by local Hindu leaders and representatives in the state Assembly.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in India's 1947 constitution and is considered a foundational principle of the State. Yet India is one of the most diverse religious countries in the world, having been the birthplace of four world religions: Hinduism; Jainism; Buddhism; and Sikhism.  The country also has large MuslimSikhChristian and Zoroastrian populations, with Islam being the largest minority religion in India.  Despite the Constitutional guarantee, many regions and localities in the country promote and privilege their local majority religion and have passed anti-conversion laws.  Madhya Pradesh passed a similar law in 2006 requiring one month's notice to the government before one could convert to another religion. But that law was struck down by the Solicitor General of India as unconstitutional.

The groups pressuring Governor Ram Naresh Yadav to forward the bill to the President of India expect a similar ruling for this bill.




 

Iran is one of seven nations...

Iran is one of seven nations (Afghanistan, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan being the other six) where apostasy is legally punishable by death.  A stronger incentive not to be counted as infidel is probably harder to come by. And yet, to date, 3,468 atheists in Iran have gone to atheistcensus.com to do just that.

To be part of society in Iran, religious affiliation – Muslim or otherwise - is required: for official forms, for social inclusion, for just appearing “normal”.  Despite the religious appearance, Iran is one of the top 10 contributors to the Atheist Census, suggesting that atheists do indeed exist there.  It’s just that they are hidden.

In this context, it was heartening and harrowing to receive an unsolicited email from an Iranian woman who warmly thanked the creators of Atheist Census for giving her a forum to be counted.  It was notable that she identified herself as atheist, an Iranian and a global citizen.  She was appreciative, but was not satisfied with counting herself anonymously.  She mentioned that she was going to tell her “numerous” non-religious friends about the site.

According to the latest statistics on Atheist Census, 88% of Iranians who took the short, six question survey, were raised Muslim.  They have now rejected their (former) faith.  They are apostates.  The entomology of apostasy comes from the Greek “apostasia” which means “revolt”.  When apostasy is possibly a life and death situation, it is not hyperbole to say that being counted as an atheist is a revolutionary act.  Perhaps it is even more so when a woman professes herself as infidel, given the oppression of women in particular in Islamic countries.  This atheist, this Iranian, indeed this global citizen who was counted in Atheist Census and then took the time to send me an email, was one woman among the (only) 20% of Iranians who have been counted in Atheist Census that identify as female.

Often surveys are important to those who have created them.  This short story shows that some surveys can also be important to those who participate in them.

Except...there is no heaven

On Wednesday, Pope Francis addressed people from all walks of life by claiming that anyone who does ‘good’ will go to heaven, even atheists. Pope Francis has been the first in many aspects of his papacy: first Pope from the Americas, first Jesuit Pope, and first to use Francis as a regnal name. However, he is not among the first to take a more universalist approach. Pope John XXIII began the Second Vatican Council in 1962, stating he wanted to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” That council went on to be more accepting of others, but their acceptance focused primarily on other types of Christ-based religions. Many Christians, from Origen in the third century to Madeleine L’Engle in the twenty first century, have argued for a universal acceptance to heaven, but never has a Pope so concretely stated that morality, not faith, is the way to heaven. With such a broad change from the denominationally strict tendencies of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, what does Pope Francis’ Wednesday morning mass mean for nonbelievers?

Pope Francis alluded to the Gospel of Mark during his mass, telling a story of Jesus’ disciples seeing another man do good and complaining that “if he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not our party, he cannot do good.” The Pope explained that Jesus tells his disciples not to “hinder him” and they should “let him do good.” It appears that the Pope is paralleling the story found on Mark 9:39-40. This book was likely the first of the four canonical gospels, having been written around 60 C.E. It provides the early groundwork for what modern Christians believe, such as being the only gospel to refer to Jesus as a carpenter. With such significance, shouldn’t Mark’s universalist undertones have come to light sooner? Additionally, Mark isn’t the only one arguing for acceptance: “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). With all of these apparent allusions, why is Pope Francis the first to openly accept all people? There is a simple answer: the Bible is unreliable.

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Are atheists more helpful than Christians?

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The tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma had a casualty count of two dozen killed and hundreds injured, with the cost of damage still being tallied, according to a recent report. Directly after the event, social media sites began seeing a plethora of tweets and posts of the damage from first-hand accounts, as well as a tremendous amount of hopes, good thoughts and prayers – just as anyone might expect. On the ground, many relief organisations moved in to give aid to those whose lives had just been drastically altered by the storms. 

But what were the reactions of those who not only believe in a divine creator, but also claim to know the mind of the creator or have a direct link to the divinity? First, I checked into what the largest, worldwide, Christian organization was doing to see what aid was coming from their leader. The Vatican’s response was to offer prayers, but not aid.  Here are some notable citations from public prayers given by Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome:

“Let us pray for the victims and the missing, especially the children, struck by the violent tornado that hit Oklahoma City yesterday. Hear us, O Lord.  Conscious of the tragic loss of life and the immensity of the work of rebuilding that lies ahead, he asks Almighty God to grant eternal rest to the departed, comfort to the afflicted, and strength and hope to the homeless and injured”.

“Upon the local civil and religious leaders, and upon all involved in the relief efforts His Holiness invokes the Risen Lord's gifts of consolation, strength and perseverance in every good”.

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The Church of Anti-Vaccination

There is, however, a loophole in the new law. If parents can prove that vaccination could cause a dangerous medical reaction to their child, or if their objection is for religious reasons, they are entitled to avoid the ban. 

The New South Wales State Government recently legislated that childcare centres are permitted to ban children whose parents refuse to vaccinate them. The decision came after a campaign by NSW newspaper The Telegraph to prevent children whose parents objected to vaccinations, thereby spreading contagious diseases among the other children.

The Church of Conscious Living was created in 2008 and owes its creation to the anti-vaccination movement, with co-founder Jane Leonforte formerly serving as vice-president of the South Australian anti-vaccination group, Vaccination Information Serving Australia. In an email sent in 2007, she raised the concern that moves in the US towards compulsory vaccination may happen in Australia, and that concerned parents should do what they could to prevent it. She proposed a solution: ‘To this end, we have decided to create a ‘religion’, so, amongst other things, we can claim ‘religious exemption’, if the need ever arises, for ourselves and our children.’

Soon after the announcement of the law, the founder of the Australian Vaccination Network Meryl Dorey, who has been involved in aggressive campaigns in regards to the anti-vaccine movement in Australia, has since been encouraging supporters to join the Church of Conscious Living.

As yet, there have not been any moves to amend the law, though Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek stated that any objector would have to consult with an immunisation provider first, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott claimed that there would be a crackdown on exemptions if his party wins the next election. As it stands, the loophole is allowing parents to use a sham religion as an excuse for avoiding potentially life-saving healthcare options, which is neither good for religious groups nor the secular community.

Despite openly admitting in an email that the Church of Conscious Living was created to claim religious exemptions, the law still allows parents trying to get around it to join this sham religion. The NSW Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, has admitted that there is nothing she can do to prevent parents claiming the religious exemption, as “the NSW government is not legally able to prevent people practising a religion or following religious beliefs.”

After Pussy Riot: Russia strengthens anti-blasphemy laws

The relationship between politics and religion is interesting. Russia is an example of a country where attitudes toward religion have gone from one extreme to another. For much of the 20th century the country under Soviet rule actively sought to eliminate religion. Religion was a threat to the power structure of the country at the time. Things changed in the 1990s, and modern Russia now has laws guaranteeing religious freedom. The politics in the country changed and now the church, and in particular the Russian Orthodox Church, enjoys significant influence on Russian politics. 

An example of this is the Pussy Riot case, as reported by Atheist Alliance International in August 2012. This brought to international attention how powerful the Russian Orthodox Church really is and how strongly dissent is still dealt with in Russia. That case relates to the actions of five women of the Pussy Riot collective, who performed a protest piece in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Three of the women were arrested, charged and convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. As reported by RAPSI News one of the convicted three, Samutsevich, has since had her sentence reduced to probation

There was much criticism at the time from the international community regarding the harshness of the sentences handed out to the convicted women. However, the reaction from Russian MPs since then has not favoured the support of free-speech, but rather to seek harsher anti-blasphemy laws. Laws were then proposed setting fines and long jail sentences for those who insult religious feelings. Critics at the time warned that under the proposed laws the teaching of evolution or the Big Bang theory could be considered as insulting to believers and punishable under the proposed laws.

There have since been three readings of the proposed laws, and the state of Duma, part of the Russian Confederation, has passed an anti-blasphemy bill, which introduces fines of up to 500,000 roubles ($15,430) and the possibility of prison sentences of up to three years for “offending the feelings of religious believers.”   

The new laws have been heavily criticized by human rights advocates. Veteran activist Lev Ponomaryov stated that “It's a step back from the secular nature of Russia recognized by the Constitution”, commenting also that the bill introduces terms, such as ‘feelings’, which are illegal. Ponomaryov and others also fear that the new law may be used for political purposes and will put pressure on free speech.

Indeed, and that is the crux of the matter. For while the country has changed from being officially atheist (under communism) to its modern stance of supporting religious belief, one thing that has not changed is intolerance of dissent. The new anti-blasphemy laws show that free speech is not guaranteed in Russia, as much now as it was last century.

Censorship!

To uphold Islamic beliefs, people are limited to what they are exposed to so that they cannot think of anything in contrary with Islam. To reach this goal, censorship is used to prevent people from understanding, acting and even thinking of facts that Islam rejects. There are many different ways of censoring in Islam to keep people in the Muslim scholars’ ideal condition of ignorance. One of the most ridiculous methods that truly bothers me is censorship in books, especially in educational books just like my book.

To improve my English, I have taken a Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) course. Learners of English around the world who are taking the CAE course may not have any idea about books published for the same course in Iran. The versions here are not the original. Actually some changes are made before publishing. However, original ones can be found rarely. One of my classmates owns one.

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Atheism Strong Among Irish College Students

A survey of Irish college students has uncovered some very interesting statistics regarding those  students and their changing attitudes towards religion.

The survey revealed that the views of 78.7% students have been negatively affected with regard to how they perceive the Catholic Church after the recent scandals were uncovered.

Shockingly, only 37% respondents admitted to be practicing Catholics. The second group to top the scale were atheists at 20%.

When asked “Do you attend communal religious ceremonies and functions?” the highest response was ‘no’ at 61%, and those who responded ‘yes’ mainly attend only 1-3 times a year.

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