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Religious News

June 24 , 2009

'Stoning' film sends message about Islam, but which message?

c. 2009 Religion News Service

    While chaotic post-election demonstrations threaten to tarnish the image of Iran and its hard-line Islamic government, Hollywood filmmakers are releasing a drama they hope will send an opposite message about Islam itself.
    Centered around the stoning of a woman unjustly accused of adultery, the graphic and stomach-turning violence in "The Stoning of Soraya M." has the potential of sparking anti-Islamic sentiment, or at least giving Islam a bad name.
    Yet producers of the film hope their drama, which hits theaters Friday (June 26), will not focus so much on the villains -- in this case, corrupt Islamic authorities -- as on the hidden martyrs: women beneath the veil.
    Set in 1986 Iran, the film is based on the true story of a divorce-seeking husband who framed his wife (Soraya) for adultery, a misdeed punishable by death according to Islamic law. The governing clerics of the remote village wash their hands of the flagrant misuse of Islamic law, and the graphic stoning scenes have the potential to scar the viewer into thinking that Islam is a faith of extremists and murderers.
    For the director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, the film actually attacks a perversion of Islam, not the faith itself.
    "I don't see it as an anti-Islamic film or an anti-religious film," he said in a phone interview. "It's Islam versus Islam. There are those who will misuse religion for their own benefit and others who will see religion as their salvation."
    Nowrasteh said his film focuses on women as second-class citizens in Iran who are subjected to gross misinterpretations of Sharia law. In fact, producer Stephen McEveety said the film's lead female characters "represent the best of a Muslim person."
    "Soraya carries her 'cross' with dignity," said McEveety, who produced Mel Gibson's blood-stained "The Passion of the Christ," borrowing an image of Christian suffering. "The last thing she does is pray to her God."
    Since the film is banned in Iran, McEveety said it is one of the few times he will condone underground piracy so that the "pro-Muslim" movie can be seen in restrictive corners of the Muslim world.
    Michael Cromartie, a member of a federal watchdog panel that has singled out Iran for its religious freedom abuses, said the film is "anti-brutality" and "anti-mistreatment of women," not anti-Islam.
    The film has a greater purpose, he said: "a redemptive effect in contemporary Iran."
    "I'm all for stigmatizing corrupt evil actions by government authorities," said Cromartie, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "I have no problem with anything that stigmatizes these types of heinous acts."
    The film, he said, does just that.
    "One hope is that ... it will call attention to something that didn't just happen in the Middle Ages, but is happening now in the 21st century," he said.
    Reform-minded female foot soldiers are gaining increased visibility after the murder of an Iranian woman in Saturday's (June 20) demonstrations was broadcast on the Internet. President Obama warned Tehran on the day of Neda Agha-Soltan's murder that "the world is watching."
    Nowrasteh, the film's director, said the film's timing with the political unrest in Iran is largely coincidental, but a perfect opportunity to raise awareness about age-old injustices that are taking on new life.
     "This movie is about reform," Nowrasteh said. "And the people who are demonstrating in Iran currently are seeking reform.

June 24 , 2009

South Korean churches urge food aid for North Korea

TOKYO (RNS/ENI) A South Korean group of churches is urging its member congregations and organizations to join a campaign to give North Korean children milk and bread "without any precondition."
    The National Council of Churches in Korea said it would mobilize its churches for "urgent support to people in North Korea in the situation of the present critical antagonistic political arrangement on the Korean peninsula ..."
    The council said the campaign is the result of discussions with its North Korean counterpart, the Korean Christian Federation, held in Beijing last March.
    The campaign includes a Week of National Reconciliation in June that encourages churches to have special worship services with prayers for the people of North Korea. The campaign will send 20-kilogram packs of flour and 8,000 cans of powdered milk.
    Tensions around the Korean Peninsula have heightened in recent months. North Korea launched a long-range rocket on April 5 and engaged in a second nuclear test on May 25, an action that has led to tougher United Nations sanctions on the isolated state.
    "Any humanitarian assistance from South Korea has completely ceased because of the stringent relationship between the North and the South and 330,000 tons of expected assistance from the U.S.A. was stopped" because of the nuclear situation, the South Korean churches said.
    The food shortage has been particularly tough on children, pregnant women, and the elderly, the South Korean churches said. The undernourishment of North Korean children will cause "a vicious circle, downgrading their physical growth as well as their ability to study and learning quality."
    The South Korean church group includes Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, the Salvation Army and the Assemblies of God as members.
    -- Hisashi Yukimoto

June 24 , 2009

Chaplain dies five years after being wounded in Iraq

(RNS) A Minnesota Catholic priest who was seriously wounded five years ago while serving as a chaplain in Iraq died Saturday (June 20), his archdiocese announced.
    The Rev. Tim Vakoc, a retired Army chaplain who was wounded on May 29, 2004, died at a nursing home in New Hope, Mich. He is believed to be the first military chaplain to have died from injuries sustained during the Iraq War.
    A Web site on which he welcomed visitors said Vakoc, 49, was wounded on the 12th anniversary of his ordination. He suffered a serious brain injury when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle as he was returning from presiding at a Mass he conducted for soldiers.
    "A man of peace, he chose to endure the horror of war in order to bring the peace of Christ to America's fighting men and women," said Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, in a statement. "He has been an inspiration to us all and we will miss him."
    Vakoc received a Purple Heart as well as the Bronze Star.
    -- Adelle M. Banks