Sunday 25 May 2014

Pope in the Holy Land, a Muslim extremist group, the Vicar of Fleet Street, an anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Belgium, NI schooling, and the Pope in the Holy Land again

This morning's Sunday dealt with serious matters pretty much throughout and focused on the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land. 

Both Sue and myself were rather dreading it, but it turned out OK. Please see what you make of it. 

1. "As Pope Francis continues his three day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Samira Ahmed asks if his trip will go any way to revitalising the peace process there?"

Curiously, that question wasn't really asked or discussed. 

First we heard from the BBC's veteran Rome correspondent, David Willey, who described the visit as "a sort of obstacle race for the Pope". He said the Pope would be spending around six hours in the Palestinian territories and then the rest of the time in Israel, with a very packed schedule - so packed that the Pope's visit to Yad Vashem ("a very moving place" David Willey called it) would last just half an hour. He said that the main purpose of the visit is to further Catholic-Orthodox relations on the 50th anniversary of the first meeting between a pope and a patriarch for many, many centuries. 

David Willey said that the Pope won't to able to engage with the public too much in Israel. Most people won't get to see him - even most Israeli Catholics. The latter mainly live in Galilee, and the Pope won't be visiting there. There will be no public masses, only a private mass. Many Israelis would like to see him, said David Willey.

Then it was off to Bethlehem, and Yolande Knell in Manger Square. She said that the Palestinians are hoping he'll give them them a "show of support" and back their calls for an independent state. She said he will stop to look at the "8-metre concrete wall", the "Israeli separation barrier" that has "blocked" Bethlehem off from Jerusalem. He will also go for lunch at a Franciscan convent called Casa Nova where Palestinian families will talk about the "different hardships" facing them, said Yolande.

2. "The Islamic Education and Research Academy are under investigation by the Charity Commission amid concerns about comments made by their speakers at campus meetings. Is this organisation a 'hate group' as the Quilliam Foundation claim or have their comments been taken out of context? Bob Walker investigates."

This feature was prompted by a call from the very brave Council of Ex-Muslims. They've issued a report calling for iERA to be designated "a hate group" for its "anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic views". 

Bob Walker's report began by presenting the views of a range of the organisation's (many) critics, beginning with a woman who attended that  infamous UCL meeting where iERA heavies tried to enforce gender segregation on the audience. 

Then came Prof. Anthony Glees from the University of Buckingham who said that iERA is an extremist organisation. 

Next up was Haras Rafiq from the Quilliam Foundation. Bob Walker introduced him by saying that some Muslims critics say the Quilliam Foundation promotes "Islamophobia". Mr Rafiq said that the Islamic Education and Research Academy is an organisation that promotes "hate, racism and xenophobia" and that it is pro-Bin Laden. 

Next was Rupert Sutton of Student Rights. Bob Walker introduced him by saying that his group was backed by the Henry Jackson Society, whose critics call them an "insidious" "Neo-con" organisation. Rupert also criticised the iERA and said that its views are "very socially conservative".

Ibrahim Ali of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, in contrast, broke with the trend so far and defended the Islamic Education and Research Academy's right to be heard on the grounds of freedom of speech. [An admirable position, though I suspect he wouldn't be quite so keen on it for the likes of Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders].

Then Bob Walker went to Kings Cross to speak to Maryam from the Council of ex-Muslims. He said he couldn't be more specific about where he met her, from which Radio 4 listeners were to infer that security fears were the reason. She described iERA as being part of the "far Islamic Right". 

Finally, Bob Walker went to North London to interview iERA's Saleem Chagtai. He said that the organisation espouses "true Orthodox Islam". "We are Islam as it is," he said.

Bob Walker played him three clips of iERA members making extremist statement - (1) a shocking clip of a Hyde Park speaker calling for a Jewish member of the audience to be sent away because of  "his stench", (2) the same speaker calling for adulterers to suffer "a slow and painful death" by stoning, and (3) for apostates to be subject to the death penalty. 

Saleem Chagtai said they are no longer anti-Semites and that the extremists statements made were "pre-iERA" but didn't recoil from affirming some of those other sentiments. He said that the belief in stoning for adultery is "classic Islam" and that belief in the death penalty for things such as apostasy and homosexuality is "Orthodox Islam". He added, however, that it's all "very theoretical" as he doesn't support such measures in this country.

A creditable report from Bob Walker.

3. "Samira meets David Meara, Rector of St Bride's the 'spiritual' home of the media. As he prepares to leave the Church after 14 years, how does he now regard the profession of journalism as the phone hacking trial continues in the Old Bailey just around the corner?"

This was the nearest thing to light relief in the whole programme and, as you'll see, it was hardly light.

Nearly all the papers have gone from Fleet Street now, but St Bride's (and the Fleet Street wine bar!) is a place where journalists still like to meet up.

They talked about the Journalists' Altar, which features photos of journalists. It was set up in the mid '80s, during the hostage crisis in Lebanon, as "a place of vigil and prayer so that they wouldn't be forgotten". It now shows photos of journalists killed or injured in conflicts, plus some of the greats of journalism.

Inevitably, Samira asked him about "Hackgate". He knows many of the people caught up in it, and says that there's been "a healthier balance" recently between the press, the politicians and the police.

As there are fewer journalists  these days and, thus, a lack of job security, and because a lot more journalists now work in isolation, and because of the 'perfect storm' of events about "Hackgate" and the "demonisation" of journalists that resulted, David Meara feels that the pastoral care St Bride'a offers allows journalists to feel better about themselves and their profession. 

Not an uninteresting feature.

The programme then moved on to a shocking news story that 'broke' too late to feature in their website preview...

4. The killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels

The BBC's Duncan Crawford said that the city's mayor says it was probably a terrorist attack and that three people have been killed - an Israeli couple in their 50s from Tel Aviv, on holiday, and a female volunteer at the museum.

Samira Ahmed asked him if anti-Semitism is rising in Belgium? He said that the Jewish community in Belgium are saying that it reminds them on attack in 2012, Toulouse, where an al-Qaeda affiliate attacked a Jewish school.

Duncan Crawford said there are 42,000 Jewish people in Belgium, half of whom live in Brussels. 

He ended by quoting Benjamin Netanyahu saying that the crime is more proof of the "the endless incitement against the Jews and their state".

5. "Politicians in Northern Ireland are coming under pressure over their failure to promote integrated education. Sixteen years after the Good Friday Agreement why are only 7% of children study at an integrated school."

This was a report from Andrea Catherwood which put the case for integrated education. 

The headmistress of one integrated primary spoke of what they'd achieved so far. Jim McConville (son of Jean, murdered by the IRA) said he's a great believer in educating Catholics and Protestants together. Andrew said they provide "neutral spaces". A student outside an integrated college though notes that despite Catholics in her local community would still stop Protestant friends coming to her house. All four 'vox pops' (from the streets of Belfast) were in favour. Andrea said there's popular support for it too (shown by polls). Grass roots action has resulted in all the integrated schools so far as the two main political parties are unwilling to support it. The report ended with the headmistress say that integrated school are "very, very worthwhile" and "hopeful", and her children singing of sunshine.

A one-sided report then, but Samira said that the NI minister responsible, John O'Dowd [Sinn Fein], was "unavailable for interview", so a short statement from him was read out saying that parents are being given what they want.


6. "The Pope will be accompanied on the visit by two close friends from Argentina, Rabbi Sorka and Omar Abboud, Muslim Director of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue. We discuss the current state of interfaith relationships in Israel and the West Bank."

This was a longish discussion between a Muslim, a Jew and a Catholic - namely Mohammed Dajani, Founder of the Wasatia Movement, Rabbi David Rosen, Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and Rev Father David Neuhaus, Latin Patriarchal Vicar [for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel]. There were no jokes.

There was a a measure of disagreement between the two Davids over the lack of interfaith events during the visit. David Rosen catch himself as being the one pouring a little cold water over the others' enthusiasm, saying that it is "disingenuous" for the Pope to bring along his two friends but for there to be no interfaith events during the whole visit. He also expressed surprise that the Pope isn't travelling to Galilee, where 80% of Israeli Christians live.

Both Mohammed Dajani and Fr Neuhaus were wholly positive about the Pope's visit.

Samira Ahmed asked them, among other things, about the "far-right Jewish attacks" [abusive graffiti daubed on Christian buildings] and noted the drop in the Christian population of Bethlehem since 1990 (from 60% to 18%), but - as is her way - she played it pretty straight throughout to my ears.


  1. Am I giving Samira Ahmed the kiss of death if I say she’s one of the fairest presenters on this kind of programme? As far as the Pope is concerned, the narrative didn’t have much to say about the Israelis, and the least said the better under the circs; as soon as I hear the words Yolande and Knell I put up a metaphorical 8-metre separation barrier to block her off from my consciousness.
    The section about the IERA did surprise me though. Those of us with an interest in these things will be familiar with the names and issues mentioned therein, but hearing them set out on the BBC for all to hear was a revelation.

    The killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels has fallen off the front pages already, but there is still, at the time of writing, no clarification on the BBC as to whether the fourth victim has died of his injuries, as was reported in a couple of news outlets several hours ago.

  2. Heard Jeremy Bowen refer to the security fence in Israel as an "apartheid wall" in one of his suckups to the Palestinians under cover of "reporting on the Popes visit".
    Yet the same day , there was an Andrea Catherwood programme about those frightful bigots in Ulster who insist on separate educations for their kids...why they don`t just send them to bog standard comps as we do here isn`t considered.
    Apparently the Catholics and Protestants are separated by something called a "Peace Wall".
    S`pose nobody at the Beeb will tell me the difference between an apartheid wall and a peace one...I guess that Banksy is only safe to stick his graffiti on the apartheid one.
    Does NOBODY at the BBC even listen to their own hypocrisies and alphabet soup narratives?...


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