Press Column Saturday 12 August 2000

A bitty and disjointed week, in which there is lots of news, but none of it so striking as a photograph, which appeared in Friday’s Guardian of Texans praying at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. It is one of those pictures that make it hard to believe the word "religion" has any sense at all: to judge by their expressions, what they are doing is as moving and dramatic as anything you could see in the papers. But the clothers they choose to be religious in would make no sense at all outside the republican party: one man prays in a polo shirt that is half stars and half stripes; all of them hold huge stetsons liturgically over their hearts. What on earth has this got to do with the funeral of Diana, or half the other religious stories in the press this week? What do all these activities have in common that any single word like "religion" might cover?

In India, the New Scientist reports, there is a theological crisis among the Parsees, probably caused by a virus: vultures are dying at a terrible rate across the whole continent, which means they cannot perform their office of eating the faithful dead. Since Parsees expose their corpses on towers in the sky for this purpose, they really need the vultures. A captive breeding program is being considered. It’s nice to think of this as a story of science and ecology coming to the worship of religion, but the matter is more complicated than that. Because of fears about genetic engineering, no doubt inspired in part by religious scruples, it is impossible to ship vulture tissue out of India for analysis which might tell what is killing the birds and so where it is safe to breed them. in the mean time, Parsees continue to die at a rate much greater than vultures breed.

In Israel, which one might have though closer to the Republican convention, a leading, and terrifically important rabbi, on whose votes the entire peace process depends, turns out to be a believer in reincarnation, of a particularly obnoxious sort. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said in a sermon that Hitler’s victims were "reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things which should not be done. They had been incarnated in order to atone." If he’d been a football manager, his carer would have been finished — unless he had won some particularly important trophy. But he is a politician, in whom a greater diversity of theological views are tolerated. He leads a party with 17 seats in parliament, which gets to decide which of the two main blocs should hold power. In fact it was the second half of his sermon that seems to an outsider really important. To quote the Daily Telegraph: Referring to Mr Barak’s offer to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians as part of a peace deal, the rabbi asked, ‘Where are his brains?’.

"He said of Mr Barak: ‘You are bringing snakes close to us. Will we make peace with a snake?’ God, he said, regretted every day that he had created the sons of Ishmael, as the Arabs are known in the Bible."

A peculiar irony is added to these rantings by the knowledge that the popularity of ultra-orthodox Judaism in Israel is greatly increased by the fact that seminary students are exempt from military service.

The story made the front page in the Daily Telegraph and the Times. The Independent, however, added unexpected value by devoting its foreign press monitor to Israeli coverage. Of the four items they chose, two claimed that his attitude to the Palestinians was more obnoxious than his attitude to the dead. But the ones who lambasted him over the holocaust had the best invective: "The foul-mouthed buffoon, Ovadia Yosef … was not being original at all. I make a point of never calling him ‘rabbi’. That is because … in Jewish traditions rabbi means a wise, learned and sensitive spiritual mentor of his people, rather than a mumboo-jumbo would-be mystic or merely a man with a photographic memory of religious texts with a a sewer for a mouth" wrote one commentator in the Jerusalem Post.

The Rabbi bounced back as best he could on the Monday, explaining that his earlier remarks — made in a sermon broadcast live all over Israel— had been "taken out of context." Without going so far as to say that eating pork chops was not in fact sufficient justification for God to reincarnate you as a holocaust victim, he said that all the holocaust victims "were holy and pure and complete saints." The Daily Telegraph in its coverage of the story explains that he is still being courted as a coalition partner because the alternative is to cal an election, which Mr Barak might lose. The implication is that nothing can shake Rabbi Yosef’s vote.

In England, of course, religion is perfectly normal, the way God meant it. Here is the most prominent domestic religious story from the Times: "Sacked rector fights ‘God’s employee’ law." "A rector dismissed by his bishop is taking the Church of England to court this week in an unprecedented action that would revolutionise the way the Church employs its clergy." Slightly more dramatic was a dirty vicar story in the Yorkshire Post, about a man who had run off with his church warden despite being described as "very gifted" by the bishop.

Perhaps things will be brighter when Victoria Combe returns to the Daily Telegraph in mid-October. She is off work at the moment with a baby whose appearance is testimony to excitement of parties at Lambeth Palace: back in April she decided, nine days overdue, to attend Andrew Deuchar’s leaving do at the Palace. The Archbishop kissed her on the cheek and wished her well: her son Gabriel was born six hours later. So there’s one good journalist from whom he can expect exclusively favourable coverage.

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