The Pope ‘forgets’ Northern Ireland

The Pope has paid a lot of attention to us Brits this year. He visited Scotland and England in September, and today he delivered BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. All creatures great and small have delivered this daily address over the years. Though none as great in the eyes of ecclesia as His Holiness, the successor to St Peter.

After all the righteous criticism levelled at the Roman Catholic church on its handling of sex abuse scandals, it is understandable the Pope should want to take the opportunity to set the agenda.

Thought for the Day is a religious reflection. There is an ongoing debate on whether it should be open to non-religious voices from time to time. But that is how it is for now.

It is not a political reflection. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But, by an act of omission, has the Pope unwittingly strayed into controversial political territory?

He recalls “with great fondness [his] four-day visit to the United Kingdom”. He follows this with a contemplation of the Christmas message and then a plea for us:

Dear friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and indeed every part of the English-speaking world, I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers during this Holy Season.  I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick, and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time.  I pray especially for the elderly and for those who are approaching the end of their days.  I ask Christ, the light of the nations, to dispel whatever darkness there may be in your lives and to grant to every one of you the grace of a peaceful and joyful Christmas.  May God bless all of you!
Pope Benedict XVI, Thought for the Day, 24 December 2010

I note that after reflecting on his “visit to the United Kingdom” he then addresses “friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and indeed every part of the English-speaking world”. What about Northern Ireland? While it is self-evidently part of the English-speaking world, it is also one of just four UK territories. Three nations are mentioned. One is not.

Northern Ireland listeners (if, like most, they happen to own a television) are among those who pay for the BBC through their TV Licence. It is very much a part of the United Kingdom; the Republic of Ireland has made no claim on it since its ratification of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Even Sinn Fein accepts the status quo for now, though with great reluctance.

For the Pope to have left Northern Ireland unmentioned, especially given the historic religious sensitivity, seems like a careless oversight. Perhaps so; but I would be amazed if his advisers did not think it through.

If they did, the omission of Northern Ireland was deliberate. The Pope has a right, and a duty, to be controversial. But by failing to mention Northern Ireland in his broadcast, he is in danger of offending both Catholics and Protestants, if perhaps for different reasons.

Update (28 Dec 2010): I just remembered that the British Ambassador to the Holy See is Francis Campbell (Northern Ireland born and raised). This makes the omission of Northern Ireland in the Pope’s address even more fascinating.


Is Allah God?

Malaysia has confiscated 10,000 Bibles, because they refer to God as Allah. Apparently this may upset Muslims. No doubt there are aspects of all religions that many people, of all religions and none, might find offensive.

It is a key factor of belief that there is no universal philosophy held by all and known to be true. Religious beliefs are a matter of faith because doubt must have its place. Faith without doubt cannot be true faith.  One who does not doubt may claim to know; but not all knowledge is true! Read John Ortberg on “Faith and Doubt” for more on this.


What do we call God?

All the monotheistic Abrahamic religions have in common the belief in one God. A single Creator and Ruler of all.

The word used in Arabic for God is Allah. No surprise then that God should choose to be known as Allah in the Koran in His revelation to the Arabic-speaking Prophet Muhammad. But for Muslim believers, the Allah of the Koran is also the God of the Christian and Jewish Scripture. So why all the fuss?

Well Arabic is not the first tongue for Malays. So are the Christians seeking to win over Muslims by adopting the Arabic expression for God? Perhaps there might be an element of proselytising. I don’t know. But I do understand that Islam is the largest official religion of Malaysia, so the word “Allah” is widely understood to mean God. In the UK, we use the word “God” and even many Muslims will use this word interchangeably with “Allah”. Certainly “Allah” is the word Arabic-speaking Christians will have used before the dawn of Islam.

It’s a circular argument. Allah is God. God is Allah. It’s much more important to consider who is God/Allah than what we call Him. I imagine most Muslims in Malaysia feel the same. Just don’t say Jehovah!