Francis, Kirill set for historic meeting in Cuba

francis kirill

The recent announcement that Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic church, and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox church, plan to meet in Cuba later this month will mark the first such gathering in more than 950 years.

The summit comes after decades of diplomacy between the Russian Orthodox church and the Vatican.

The two branches split in 1054 over disagreements regarding theology, when they officially became two separate faith traditions: Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

While modern popes have met in the past with the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchs, the spiritual leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy, the meeting with Kirill is more substantial. Eastern Orthodox patriarchs play a largely symbolic role, while the Russian church is seen as wielding considerably more influence because it includes 165 million of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Whereas past efforts to bring the two faith leaders together have failed, the two churches are now willing to meet largely because of the “current turmoil facing Christians in several parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have long been vocal in denouncing Islamic extremist attacks in the Middle East, North and Central Africa, in which radical Islamists have waged wars on Christians, often causing a rift between Muslims and Christians, the publication reported.

“In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution,” Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Associated Press.

In addition, concerns that Ukrainians are losing faith with the Orthodox church over its acquiescence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “aggression in Crimea and the Donbas,” and the Roman Catholic church’s desire for religious freedom for Catholics in Russia and Ukraine are also driving the meeting.

The split dates back to difficulties between Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Leo IX, head of the Roman Catholic church.

By the middle of the 11th century, there were a number of ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes standing between the Greek East and Latin West. These included the source of the Holy Spirit, whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, the Pope’s claim to universal jurisdiction and the position of Constantinople in the organizational structure of Christendom.

Michael Cerularius was determined, if possible, to have no superior in either church or state. He took several actions against the Western church, including attacking it because it used unfermented bread in the sacrifice of the mass and closing the Latin churches in Constantinople, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.

In 1054, Leo IX sent a letter to the patriarch that cited a large portion of the Donation of Constantine, a forged Roman imperial decree which was purported to have been written by the emperor Constantine the Great, supposedly transferring authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope.

Leo believed the Donation of Constantine to be real and cited it to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.

The upshot of the Donation was that only the apostolic successor to Peter – the bishop of Rome – was the rightful head of all the Church.

In early 1054, Leo IX sent a legatine mission under Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida to Constantinople to negotiate with Michael Cerularius in response to his actions concerning the church in Constantinople.

Humbert quickly disposed of negotiations by delivering a bull excommunicating the patriarch. This act, though legally invalid due to Leo’s death on April 19, 1054, was answered by the patriarch’s own bull of excommunication against Humbert and his associates.

Not surprising given the bad blood that had been brewing between the pope’s representatives and Michael Cerularius, the patriarch rejected the claims of papal primacy, and subsequently the church was rent in two in the Great East–West Schism of 1054. That split continues to this day.

(Top: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.)

Gerard of Cremona’s role in reinvigorating medieval Europe


Polyglots are a fascinating breed. As one who has worked all his life, and is still working, to gain mastery of a single language, I have mucho admiration for those who easily and fluently pick up additional tongues.

My maternal grandfather, a native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, could speak multiple languages, including Italian, French and English, along with a variety of others, due to the fact he grew up in the far northeastern part of the country, near a variety of shifting borders.

I am living proof that being a polyglot is not an inherited trait. I failed English in 6th and 7th grade, and came close again in 10th grade. In addition, I barely made it through two years of college French (mandatory for graduation).

Of course, upon reflection I have recognized that study habits – or lack thereof – were largely responsible for my early inability to learn the intricacies of English, as well as the basics of French. At least, I’d like to think so.

Yet, there is no question that for a special few individuals, the ability to learn languages is indeed a gift.

Take Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who found himself drawn to the intellectual riches of the Spanish city of Toledo in the 12th century. Toledo during this period was a true multi-religious melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims living, working and learning side by side.

Gerard, who was born around 1114, is believed to have traveled to Spain in his late 20s due to the lack of written scholarship available in his native area.

Toledo, the former provincial capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, had been conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085 but had remained a seat of learning, with protected Jewish and Muslim areas.

The city was full of libraries and possessed an abundance of manuscripts. It represented one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian such as Gerard could be exposed to Arabic language and culture, along with extensive written scholarship dating back to the Greeks.

What Gerard saw upon his arrival in Toledo staggered him; myriad books in Arabic on every subject, all nearly unknown in Latin.

Like any true polyglot, Gerard first taught himself Arabic, then proceeded to work his way through Toledo’s libraries, “churning out translations of at least seventy major works previously unavailable in the Latin-speaking west,” according to Chris Lowney in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment.

Continue reading

Former Egyptian royal diamonds to be auctioned in NY


Among Christmas gifts Mrs. Cotton Boll should not expect under the Christmas tree this year is an Art Deco diamond necklace that once belonged to Queen Nazli of Egypt.

The jewels, made in 1939 by Van Cleef & Arpels, will be auctioned next week by Sotheby’s. Set with 217 carats in a sunburst motif, the necklace has been tagged with a pre-auction estimate of $3.6 million to $4.6 million.

Queen Nazli, once married to King Faud, who had died in 1936, and mother of King Farouk, commissioned the diamond necklace and a matching tiara of 274 carats for the wedding ceremony of her daughter, Princess Fawzia, to the Crown Prince of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the future shah, in March 1939.

The ensuing wedding banquet has been described as the most lavish event to ever take place in modern Egypt, and Queen Nazli attended practically covered in diamonds.

However, all did not end well for many of the above individuals.

In 1950, Farouk stripped his mother of her rights and titles after his sister, Princess Fathia, went against the king’s wishes and married Riyad Ghali Effendi, a Coptic Christian, despite the fact that the latter had converted to Islam.

Nazli had left Egypt in 1946 and moved to California because of health problems, but Farouk banished her and Fathia from Egypt, and they would spend the rest of their lives in the United States.

Nazli continued to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle and in 1975 sold the Van Cleef & Arpels diamond necklace and tiara at a New York auction. The pair fetched $267,500, according to the website Jewels du Jour.

However, the former Egyptian royals apparently continued to live high on the hog. The following year, less than a year after the auction, Nazli and Fathia appeared in a Los Angeles bankruptcy court. They hoped that Nazli’s diamonds and rubies would bring $500,000, and the money could be used to settle their debts but bids only reached $180,000. However, the court rejected the offer, instead granting permission for a private sale of the jewels.

Three months later, Fathia was killed by her ex-husband, who then shot himself in the head but survived. Queen Nazli died in 1978 after suffering from years of painful arthritis.

Farouk was overthrown in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and forced to abdicate in favor of his infant son Ahmed Fuad, who succeeded him as Fuad II of Egypt. Farouk died in exile in Italy in 1965.

Faud II, born in January 1952, formally reigned as the last King of Egypt from July 1952 to June 1953 before the monarchy was abolished. He is still alive and lives in Europe.

The marriage of Fawzia and the future Shah of Iran did not go swimmingly, either. Queen Fawzia left Iran and moved back to Cairo in 1945, where she obtained an Egyptian divorce. She remarried four years later and lived until 2013.

Mohammad Reza’s reign as Shah of Iran ended in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution. He died in Egypt in 1980 at age 60.

(Top: Queen Nazli of Egypt wearing Van Cleef & Arpels’ necklace and tiara on the occasion of her daughter Princess Fawzia’s wedding to the future Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. The necklace will be auctioned by Sotheby’s on December 9 in New York.)

Myriad ‘messiahs’ irks Iranian government


Among some Shia Muslims, there is a belief that Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as the Twelfth Imam, has been hidden for more than a millennium but will return one day to bring justice to the world.

Known as the Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam bears similarities to the Judeo-Christian notion of the messiah.

Apparently, the concept is a popular one in Iran, as there are currently some 3,000 “fake mahdis” imprisoned in the Middle Eastern nation.

“Every month we get someone coming in, convinced he is the Mahdi,” seminary expert Mehdi Ghafari told The Economist. “Once a man was saying such outrageous things and talking about himself in the third person that I couldn’t help laughing. He got angry and told me I had ‘bad hijab’ and was disrespecting the ‘Imam of Time,’” as the Mahdi is known.

Earlier this year Iran’s authorities arrested nearly two dozen men in separate incidents, all of whom claimed to be the Mahdi.

A website based in Qom, Iran’s holiest city, deemed the men “deviants,” “fortune-tellers” and “petty criminals,” who were exploiting credulous Iranians for alms during the Persian new-year holiday, which fell in mid-March, according to The Economist.

“Iran’s economic doldrums may have helped to cause this surge in people claiming to be mankind’s savior – and in women saying they were the Mahdi’s wife,” the publication added.

Continue reading

Famed Islamic minaret destroyed in Syria

great mosque of aleppo minaret

In addition to tens of thousands of lives, the ongoing civil war in Syria has now claimed the minaret of one of the world’s most picturesque mosques.

The 145-foot-high minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in the city of Aleppo, dating back to 1090, was destroyed Wednesday during fighting between the Syrian army and rebel forces.

The mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, was founded by the Umayyad Caliphate in 715 on the site of a Byzantine church. It had to be rebuilt after being damaged by a fire in 1159, and again following the Mongol invasion in 1260, according to the BBC.

However, the minaret was oldest surviving part of the structure.

In addition, other parts of the mosque complex – much of which date from the 1200s – have been badly damaged by gunfire and artillery shells.

The mosque has significance for Christians as well as Muslims. It is said to hold the remains of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist

Continue reading

Rejuvenated rails represent hope for Nigeria

nigerian railway corp.

Nigeria represents for many both the great potential and the great frustration of Africa.

The nation’s oil reserves, among the largest in the world, have flooded the country’s coffers. Yet Nigeria has long been dogged by high levels of crime, poverty and violence, and government corruption has been a serious problem for decades.

Evidence that little oil revenue makes its way to the nation’s 170 million citizens can be seen in the fact that in more than one instance in recent years, hundreds of Nigerians scavenging petroleum products from punctured pipelines have been killed when puddles of fallen fuel ignited.

If government corruption and endemic poverty weren’t enough, the nation is divided between Muslims, who are concentrated mostly in the north, and Christians, who mostly live in the South.

In recent years, efforts by Islamists to establish sharia law have resulted in armed conflict with government forces, particularly in the north, though the clashes pale in comparison to the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s that claimed as many as 3 million lives.

Yet, not all the news from Africa’s most populous nation is bad. The railway linking Nigeria’s capital city Lagos, in the south, with Kano, the second-largest city, located in the north, has reopened after more than a decade.

It cost more than $150 million to rehabilitate the line, according to the state-owned Nigeria Railway Corporation.

Continue reading

Signs of scientific awakening in Muslim world

Islamic science

Islam’s reputation for hostility to science is a modern phenomenon.

As has been well documented, the Muslim world was a dynamo for scientific development during the time Europe was ensnared in darkness and superstition.

How advanced was Islam’s scientific community? Extremely advanced, according to Physics Today.

“Islam’s magnificent Golden Age in the 9th–13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science, and medicine,” the publication wrote in 2007. “The Arabic language held sway in an age that created algebra, elucidated principles of optics, established the body’s circulation of blood, named stars, and created universities.”

The Economist highlights several of Islam’s scientific greats:

  • Avicenna wrote the “Canon of Medicine” in the 11th century, a standard medical text used in Europe for hundreds of years;
  • Muhammad al-Khwarizmi laid down the principles of algebra, a word derived from the name of his book, “Kitab al-Jabr,” in the ninth century;
  • Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham transformed the study of light and optics, and is known as the father of modern optics and scientific methodology; and
  • Abu Raihan al-Biruni calculated the earth’s circumference to within a single percent and has also been called the first anthropologist.

In addition, Muslim scholars did much to preserve the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece; centuries later it helped spark Europe’s scientific revolution.

Unfortunately, this period of great development came to a screeching halt long ago.

Continue reading