Thoughts on Religious Discrimination from the Cairo Geniza

For nearly a thousand years the geniza (manuscripts storage room) of the main Cairo synagogue housed hundreds of pages of manuscripts. These were not records of Talmudic scholars or religious rituals. Rather, they documented the commercial activities of Jewish merchants within the medieval Islamic world. They reveal large scale, long distance trade managed by a tightly knit group of co-religionists. The Cairo Geniza, as it is called, has long been recognized as a treasure trove for economic historians. It also, however, raises very contemporary questions about the relationship between religion, the market, and the law.

The Cairo Geniza merchants were successful in large part because they were Jewish. The bonds of faith and the ability of their religious community to monitor and punish its members generated high levels of trust. Trust, in turn, allowed the Jewish merchants of Cairo to create far more complex economic organizations than would have been possible in the absence of that trust.

The experience of the Cairo Geniza merchants has been repeated many times over. Religious identity has frequently formed the basis for commercial relations by fostering trust and concern between those that might otherwise have been strangers to one another. Examples include the crypto-Jewish “conversos” of early modern Iberia, Quaker merchants in the eighteenth century, and Catholic and Jewish immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similar networks exist today among groups as diverse as Korean immigrant churches and Mormon lawyers in Washington, D.C.

While the Cairo Geniza manuscripts reveal a commercial world in which religious identity is crucial, modern anti-discrimination law is premised on a vision of the marketplace in Read more

Pope Francis on the Armenian Genocide

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Pope Francis Greets Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Karekin II on Sunday (NYT)

Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of a two-hour liturgy in the Armenian rite, and in the presence of the Armenian Catholic patriarch, patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the president of the Republic of Armenia, and many Armenian pilgrims from around the world, Pope Francis made what should have been an entirely uncontroversial statement. The Armenian Genocide, he said, quoting his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II, “‘is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.’”

The essential facts are well known. Armenian Christians made up a significant percentage of the population in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. For a few decades, there had been unrest. In religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, the Ottomans had formally granted equal status to Christians and Muslims. Equality for Christians caused a backlash among Turkish Muslims, though, and oppression of Armenians and other Christians continued, particularly in the countryside. Armenian paramilitary groups began to resist. When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that these groups would side with Christian Russians. So it decided to solve the “Armenian Question” once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian desert. Deportation through a desert, without adequate protection or supplies, is obviously a recipe for mass extermination. And that is what happened. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished, under horrible conditions, in the death marches and slaughters. The enormities are well documented.

Nonetheless, the Turkish side refuses to acknowledge what happened as genocide, denying that there was any plan to eliminate Armenians from Anatolia, while also arguing, inconsistently, that the Armenians were a potentially disloyal population and that the Ottomans had a right to do what they did. Besides, they say, many Turkish Muslims also suffered and died in World War I—surely true, but a non-sequitur. Because of Turkey’s sensitivities on the subject, and because of geopolitical realities, many Western governments, including our own, dance around the issue. When running for office, President Obama promised that he would officially recognize the Genocide, a promise he immediately broke as president. So Pope Francis’s forthright statement—even if he was, in fact, only quoting a predecessor, who was in turn referring to a general consensus—was remarkable, and praiseworthy. (The words on paper don’t capture the tone of the pope’s remarks. Watch this video of the event from Rome Reports. Francis is not simply reading from a text. He obviously means every word of it).

In response, Turkey has condemned the pope’s remarks as religious hatemongering and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The repercussions will no doubt continue. Yesterday, Turkey’s minister for European affairs suggested the pope had been brainwashed by the Armenian community in Argentina. Today, Turkish President Recip Erdogan reacted in rather personal terms. According to the English-language Turkish Daily News, Erdogan–who actually has gone farther than many Turkish leaders in acknowledging the suffering of the Armenians in 1915–said the pope’s remarks were characteristic of a “politician” rather than a religious leader. “I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him,” Erdogan said.

In his remarks, Francis correctly linked the Armenian Genocide to the persecution of Mideast Christians generally—100 years ago, and today. Religion was not the only factor in the Genocide, of course, but it had a major role. Armenians who converted to Islam were often spared; some of their descendants still live in Turkey today. Many Armenians died as Christian martyrs; indeed, the Armenian Apostolic Church will canonize these victims of the Genocide at a ceremony in Armenia this month. Moreover, as the pope told the crowd at St. Peter’s, the Genocide struck not only  the “Armenian people, the first Christian nation”—here the pope is referring to the fact that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, in 301 A.D.—but also “Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.”  In all these communions, “bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

In addition, as everyone knows, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East continues today. The pope referred to these new martyrs as well: “Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death – decapitated, crucified, burned alive – or forced to leave their homeland.” Many Christian communities in Syria and Lebanon took in the refugees of 1915, saving their lives, giving them a place to raise their children and preserve their faith. Now those communities themselves are the victims of ethnic and religious cleansing. To whom shall they go?

In an insightful column, Walter Russell Mead argues that Pope Francis’s remarks show that he has decided to raise the rhetorical stakes in the crisis facing Christians in the Mideast. Up till now, the Vatican has taken a “‘softly, softly’” approach to the conflict, so as not to endanger the lives of vulnerable Christians still there. Outside intervention often makes things worse for Mideast Christians, after all. But how much worse can things get? Mideast Christians face extinction.

Today’s Turks are not responsible for what their ancestors did 100 years ago. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the truth about what happened to the Armenians is a start. Meanwhile, drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide may be a way to mobilize the world to save suffering Christians now—before it is too late.

St. John’s Professor to Speak on Collective Bargaining at Catholic Universities

The National Center for Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions will host its Annual National Conference on “Thinking about Tomorrow: Collective Bargaining and Labor Relations in Higher Education” at the CUNY Graduate Center from April 19-21. St. John’s Law’s Professor David Gregory will moderate one of the conference’s panels, “Catholic Colleges and Universities: Collective Bargaining and NLRB Jurisdiction.” Get more information and register here.

“Secularism, Catholicism, and the Future of Public Life” (Adler, ed.)

This June, Oxford University Press will release “Secularism, Catholicism, and the Future of Public Life: A Dialogue with Ambassador Douglas W. Kmiec” edited by Gary J. Adler, Jr. (University of Southern California).  The publisher’s description follows:

Secularism, Catholicism and the Future of Public LIfeHow can religion contribute to democracy in a secular age? And what can the millennia-old Catholic tradition say to church-state controversies in the United States and around the world? Secularism, Catholicism, and the Future of Public Life, organized through the work of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (www.ifacs.com), responds to these questions by presenting a dialogue between Douglas W. Kmiec, a leading scholar of American constitutional law and Catholic legal thought, and an international cast of experts from a range of fields, including legal theory, international relations, journalism, religion, and social science.

“Crossings and Crosses” (Strandbrink et al., eds.)

This April, De Gruyter Press will release “Crossings and Crosses: Borders, Educations and Religions in Northern Europe” edited by Peter Strandbrink, Jenny Berglund, and Thomas Lundén, (Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden). The publisher’s description follows:

Crossings and CrossesDealing with different regions and cases, the contributions in this volume address and critically explore the theme of borders, educations, and religions in northern Europe. As shown in different ways, and contrary to popular ideas, there seems to be little reason to believe that religious and civic identity formation through public education is becoming less parochial and more culturally open. Even where state borders are porous, where commerce, culture, and trade as well as associative, personal, and social life display stronger liminal traits, normative education remains surprisingly national. This situation is remarkable and goes against the grain of current notions of both accelerating globalisation and a European regional renaissance. The book also takes issue with the foundational tenet that liberal democracies are by definition uninvolved in matters concerning faith and belief. Instead, an implied conclusion is that secular liberal democracy is less than secular and liberal – at least in education, which is a major arena for political-cultural-ethical socialisation, as it aims to confer worldviews and frameworks of identity on young people who will eventually become full citizens and bearers/sharers of prevailing normative communities.