Benedict XVI Meets Bush In Realignment of Church and State

June 13, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic church, granted a special audience to U.S. President Bush on Vatican state grounds earlier today. This is their second official meeting in exactly three months. Photos of the seemingly casual encounter unambiguously articulate a new alignment and alliance between the two powerful leaders. Both men walk (or sit) side by side — as amiable colleagues, placing Western religion and Western politics on equal, albeit very precarious, footing.

bushpopeOn the surface, the two men appear diametrically opposed. Joseph Ratzinger consciously adapted his papal name from Benedict XV, known as the “peace pope” during World War I. While George W. Bush simply inherited an ancestral name then fell into (some say stole) a legacy of war.

So why the love fest?

We can only speculate. Both are heads of institutions whose global dominance and relevance are currently on the wane. Future growth and stability are dependent on cultures outside their historic territories. Do they simply need each other to survive into the next century?

The more important question for me is why Benedict XVI has positioned himself (and therefore his god, his church) so squarely on the side of a president who continues to wage a profoundly unjust war.

There are at least three answers — all of which, of course, just lead to more questions:

1. The pope condones war. Has Benedict XVI chosen to walk in the footsteps, NOT of Benedict XV, but of one of Benedict XV’s proteges: Pius XII, who was crowned pope on March 12, 1939, the eve of Adolf Hitler’s march into Prague? (Controversy over Pius’ papacy continues today because of his refusal to condemn the Nazi regime and his silence in face of the Jewish holocaust.)

2. The pope rejects war. Perhaps these meetings are subtle attempts to sway Bush from staying the course of war. The Vatican’s official line, of course, is that Benedict XVI rejects the war and is “skeptical of politics without reference to the Gospel.”

3. The pope rejects war but has to turn a blind eye in order to win his church’s larger battle — converting the entire world over to Christianity. In other words: the elimination of all other religions, including the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Islam.

It’s a new world. All roads no longer lead to Rome. Strangely, they now all lead to the Middle East.

Whichever the answer (and there are admittedly many more), both Benedict and Bush seem to be ideal counterparts. Not two men from different spheres, but two halves of a single neoconservative coin.

During his visit, Bush reportedly told Benedict: “This is fantastic up here… Thank you so much for showing me this.” The view of the gods must be spectacular. Caution: thunderbolts ahead.

Photo from Getty Images, as published in NYT’s lede story this morning.

Iranian Firm Orders Employees: Get Married or Get Fired

June 10, 2008

iranmarryBBC and Iranian media report that marriage is now a job requirement for all employees at Pars Special Economic Energy Zone Company, one of Iran’s state-owned companies. Employees who are single have been directed to get married by September 21 — or get fired.

The company controls Iran’s huge network of gas and petrochemical facilities around the coastal city of Assalouyeh on the Gulf coast. It employs thousands of people, mostly young men striving to earn good incomes.

The company described marriage as an “important and moral religious duty” and quoted Prophet Mohammed’s sayings to encourage compliance. This new requirement is an attempt to ensure that employees “eschew sexual temptations during their stay away from home.” Sexual relations outside of marriage are illegal in Iran.

In a similar warning, the governor of the eastern province of North Khorasan has said only married civil servants will be allowed to take up official posts in the region. Officials who are single must marry before they can take up their posts.

Yahoo News adds that Iran is undergoing an “unprecedented moral crackdown”. In addition to this marriage directive, tens of thousands of women are being warned by police for dress considered unIslamic.

Oil-Rich Abu Dhabi Hosts First Picasso Exhibition in the Arab World

May 27, 2008

emiratesMajor works by Pablo Picasso are now on view for the first time in the Arab world. The retrospective, “Picasso Abu Dhabi: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris”, will be at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi from May 27 to September 4, 2008. It is the only Middle Eastern venue on the show’s 9-city tour.

The exhibition was originally curated by Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, where it went on display in February with 400 of the artist’s works. Abu Dhabi’s version has only 186, but includes a special exhibition of “40 drawings, prints and illuminated manuscripts reminiscent of the Arab influences Picasso absorbed during his youth in Málaga, La Cocina and Barcelona.” It was curated by Anne Baldassari of the Musée National Picasso (who I suppose knows why more than 50% of the original group is NOT on view in the emirates’ capital.)

While major U.S. news sites have done little more than run a generic AP article about the opening, this represents a significant public relations move for the UAE and the Middle East in general, and for Abu Dhabi in particular. The richest of the seven emirates, oil-rich Abu Dhabi is rapidly transforming itself into a sophisticated cross-cultural destination (unlike its flashier neighbor, Dubai). Already, it is the future site of a Guggenheim, a Louvre, a New York University campus, as well as a performing arts center, maritime museum and a national museum named after Sheikh Zayed, the main driving force behind the UAE’s formation.

Remarkable growth for a nation that paved its first road in 1961. As Americans face a summer (or more) of skyrocketing gas prices, art openings like this hint at who’s at the other end of the pump. Culture flows in the direction of capital.

Photo: Emirates Palace at dusk, by Jake Brewer on flickr