God and Al-Jazeera

Siti Fatimah was born a Muslim, but tried to change her name to Revathi Masoosai before marrying a Hindu man.

This created a crisis, since multi-ethnic Malaysia has both civic and Muslim courts. After the birth of the couple's daughter, the Muslim grandparents urged a Sharia court to give them custody of the baby. They won and Revathi was sent to a rehabilitation center for apostate, wayward Muslims.

"I will make her a Muslim child. That's why I took her," said the grandmother. "Her mother has no choice. ... She asked me if I can allow her to convert out of Islam. I said, 'No way, you must remain in the religion. You cannot leave, it's the law here.' "

This kind of human drama makes for gripping television news. At one point, the Hindu husband briefly managed to talk to his wife through a metal gate before being confronted by a guard -- on camera.

Welcome to Al-Jazeera English, a news channel that few Americans get to see. It is operated by the controversial global network that former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the "mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda."

Al-Jazeera English has struggled to find a U.S. audience because cable-television executives believe Americans are not ready to see world events -- many tied to religion -- through a Middle Eastern lens. Also, it's easy to question the perspective of a network funded by a billion dollars or more from His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar.

But Americans need to hear the kinds of voices featured on a network that reports from the developing world back to the west, said Nigel Parsons, a BBC and Associated Press Television News veteran who is managing director of Al-Jazeera English.

"But it's not just about telling the rest of the world what is happening from inside the Middle East out. It's also about telling the rest of the world about America," he said, at a National Press Club forum in Washington, D.C. "America is often accused of not understanding the outside world, ... of being very insular and of not understanding the events that shape its policies."

However, it's possible to turn that equation around, because the rest of the world "actually understands very little about the United States," he said. "We hear about New York, we hear about Hollywood and we hear about things that go on inside the Beltway here in D.C. We don't hear much about that big bit in the middle."

The result is a kind of two-sided blind spot.

On one side, said Parsons, are millions of Al-Jazeera viewers around the world who previously had little or no chance to learn about "what makes America tick," including the diversity of religious and political beliefs found in U.S. churches, synagogues and mosques. On the other side, he is convinced that few Americans have been exposed to the variety of religious and political perspectives found in the many cultures of the Middle East and in the wider Islamic world.

That Al-Jazeera English report on the apostasy charges against Revathi Masoosai, for example, ended with a stark contrast. A "Sisters in Islam" spokeswoman backed the views of legal scholars who insist that Article 11 of Malaysia's constitution protects freedom of conscience and religion. But a conservative Muslim leader stood his ground, insisting that to "be a Malay is to be a Muslim" and that the nation will collapse if believers are free to convert to another faith.

The report ended with that question unresolved, which is the tense reality in Malaysia and many other parts of the Muslim world.

Parsons said it would be wrong to claim that Al-Jazeera English is promoting the spread of some form of "moderate Islam" -- a loaded label the network never uses -- because what is "moderate" in one Muslim culture would be called "apostasy" in others.

However, the network has pursued a "reformist agenda" that often clashes with state-controlled networks in the Middle East. Parsons proudly noted that Al-Jazeera has been forced, at one time or another, to leave almost every nation in the region -- except Israel.

"We are not going to see major changes in that part of the world overnight," he said. "Arguments and debate and dialogue are going to have to come first. We cannot afford to have news and information going in one direction and that's that."

Communion in the Anglican Communion?

The words change from continent to continent, but the world's 77 million Anglicans have always found unity around altars containing bread and wine.

In Ireland's new Book of Common Prayer, the modern rite proclaims: "Father, with this bread and this cup we do as Christ your Son commanded: we remember his passion and death, we celebrate his resurrection and ascension, and we look for the coming of his kingdom.

"Accept through him, our great high priest, this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; and as we eat and drink these holy gifts, grant by the power of the life-giving Spirit that we may be made one in your holy Church. ... Amen."

These familiar words failed to unite 38 archbishops when they gathered recently in the Dromantine Conference Centre in County Down, Northern Ireland. In fact, the Eucharistic table became the symbol of division.

The leaders of the Anglican Communion met for business, study and prayer, but could not share Holy Communion.

It's hard to gather at the same altar when bishops lack a common understanding of words such as "salvation," "resurrection," "marriage" and even "God," said Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison, an Anglican historian who is the retired bishop of South Carolina.

"You can't hold a church together with appeals to human emotions. You need stronger stuff than that," he said. "You can get by with bonds of affection at your local Rotary Club, but that won't work for us right now. ... You have to be of one mind on the doctrines that have united Christians through the ages."

In headlines around the world, the clashes behind Dromantine's high walls were caused by a familiar controversy -- the ministry of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a gay man living in a same-sex relationship.

The primates released a five-page communique that, in its most quoted passage, urgently requested that the "Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council for the period leading up to the next Lambeth Conference" of the world's bishops in 2008.

The North Americans quickly denied that they had agreed to stand down.

But reports circulated that conservatives, led by Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and others, had moved beyond words into dramatic action. Before the meeting, Akinola wrote Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and warned that many Third World archbishops would not celebrate communion with U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. There are 2 million Episcopalians and between 40 million and 50 million Anglicans in Africa alone.

Seeking compromise, Williams proposed bringing in a chaplain to lead a daily Eucharist.

"Archbishop Akinola responded it was not the worthiness of the minister that prompted their objections, but their belief that unity of doctrine preceded unity of worship. It was not a question of receiving 'from' Bishop Griswold, but 'with' Bishop Griswold," wrote the Rev. George Conger, in the Church of England Newspaper.

Williams relented, "formally recognizing the state of broken Eucharistic communion," wrote Conger. Some Third World archbishops, led by Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, fasted for the four days.

Griswold was defiant, saying his church welcomes future opportunities to defend its actions on behalf of homosexual clergy, since its leaders believe they have "sought to act with integrity in response to the Spirit, and that we have worked, and continue to work, to honor the different perspectives very much present" in the church.

Yes, these are painful and sobering times, and Allison said he could understand the stance taken by Third World bishops.

After all, it has been a dozen years since he decided he could no longer, with a clear conscience, receive communion during meetings of the U.S. House of Bishops. During a Bible study, several bishops had said that they believed they worshipped a god that is "older and greater" than the God of the Bible. Others said they could not affirm this belief, but would not condemn it.

"This is apostasy," Allison said.

When it came time for all the bishops to go to the altar and receive communion, Allison declined.

"If you do not share the same faith, you cannot share the same communion," he said, recalling that moment. "When people start talking about new revelations and creating some kind of new faith, that's when the red flags have to go up."