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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.

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.

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.”

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”.


Negotiations with an Extremist Islamist Group: A Possibility or a Fantasy?

Following all the pre-election and post-election hype, protests and disagreements surrounding the Pakistan 2013 Elections, the government now wants to enter negotiations for peace with the extremist Islamist group TTP (Tehrik-i-Taliban). As ironic as it is, a PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) party member even went so far as to call them citizens of Pakistan. Let’s not forget that the TTP has killed thousands of innocent citizens of Pakistan. People are afraid for their lives, in a country that vowed to protect them.

The TTP has an extremist interpretation of Sharia law, and it wants to apply that to Pakistan. It is responsible for many other atrocities that, while justified by Islam, cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. There is no doubt that the majority of citizens in Pakistan are Muslim, but most are moderate and liberal minded; they want peace and do not subscribe to any Sharia law that is against the basic rights of humanity.

Talks and negotiations have been tried, and failed due to the rigidity of TTP’s demands, and the group seems content not to budge on them. TTP members preach that they will keep killing innocent citizens of Pakistan until their demands are met and they take Pakistan under their own control. But if Pakistan is to accept their demands then it is a slap to the very core of Jinnah’s Pakistan: a free state where everyone has equal rights and safety to live. It also dishonours the thousands of martyrs in the Pakistani Army who lay down their lives to protect citizens from these extremists.

Since the TTP is against education for girls, believing in the oppression of women, what can you expect in a Pakistan or a part of Pakistan under their control? A community moving backwards to a barbaric time. Talks are not a way to go forward with a group whose demands put the sovereignty of the nation of Pakistan under threat. If a small scale operation like the Lal Masjid Operation can be put into action to curb extremists from harming the country and civilians, then it is tempting to think that a large scale operation consisting the full force of the Pakistani army, navy, and air force could solve the problem of this extremist Islamist group whose agenda is to send suicide bombs to packed markets and public places with the intent to kill.  But that of course risks injuring innocents and martyring the TTP, encouraging yet more people to commit violence.


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.


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. 


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.


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. 


Boston Bombing and Islamophobia in America

In the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, many Americans focus on *why* it happened.  It seems to be human nature to try to find the cause behind these types of events and, when any information is found, then attempt to use that knowledge to prevent any future incidents from taking place.  Unfortunately, more often than not the “Why?” question leads down a path to an emotional response and bigotry rather than rational solutions.

This line of thinking can also be dangerous and may infringe on the rights of those who are in no way connected to the event.  In this case, the first news to come from an official source said the act was religion based, and that the bombers identified their religion as Islam.  Before this news even came to light, the right-wing extremists had been calling the attack "a pretty safe bet .. that this attack was carried out by an Islamist.”  This sparked outcries from many left-leaning liberals of “Islamophobia” and racism, some justifiably so.  However, the two groups caught up in these remarks from both sides are peaceful Muslims who want to distance themselves from this violence, and anyone who speaks out against Islam in a more civil, factual tone.  Look at some of the writings of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and at the responses they have received.  Simple statements or questions, based on facts such as Islamic traditions teaching that the Prophet Mohammed flew on a winged horse, have elicited the “Islamophobe” response.  This exaggerated, ill-used retort does nothing to counter any logical statements, but only serves as an attempt at discrediting an otherwise valid, logical point.  Meanwhile, moderate Muslims are caught in a wave of ridicule and hyperbole from right-wing fundamentalists.


New Atheists Are Not Islamophobes

An article by Nathan Lean is making the rounds on the internet and it seems like everybody is jumping on the atheist-bashing bandwagon. Lean recently wrote an article for Salon – the title: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia. Many anti-Islamophobia crusaders quickly shared it with comments like “Dawkins’ idiot brigade”. To be fair, many liberals, atheists and Christians shared it too. But Lean’s article is currently a hot favourite in circles that dislike atheists in general because of their atheist views.

If you’ve read Lean’s article, you probably already know who he is. But if you haven’t, let me fill you in.  Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of the non-profit organisation Aslan Media, an aggressive pro-Islamic, self-proclaimed opponent of Israel of which some members – including Lean himself – hold a reputation for making anti-Israel comments on Twitter. Aslan Media is supposedly an anti-Islamophobia crusader, taking cheap shots at Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller in the past, and been called out by Jihad Watch on more than one occasion. It is also ‘supported’ by Loonwatch, a group of anonymous people who smear almost every critic of Islam while also outing anti-Muslim bigots.  Lean is also the author of the book The Islamophobia Industry, which received a critical review by Jonathan Schanzer for the Wall Street Journal, and elicited a petulant and defensive response piece viciously attacking Schanzer by Loonwatch. As well as writing books, Lean also endorses cyber terrorism:    

A criticism of 'new atheism' is that this type of non-believer is the 'mean' and ‘in-your-face’.  Lean puts new atheists like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens in the ranks of Pamela Geller and anti-Muslim bigots, calling new atheists ‘the new Islamophobes’. This is a little disturbing and so over the top that it sounds almost absurd.  Anyone who has read the works of 'new atheists' such as Dawkins and Harris knows that their ‘invectives’ are directed against Islam as a religion, and not Muslims. If Lean should be criticising anyone, it should be those who engage in destructive acts of terror, those who make the lives of people hell on earth by giving fatwas, those Muslims who kill Muslims and then go on to whine about Islamophobia.