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  Greetings to all our readers and patrons
Stewardship and Trusteesh
  By A.J. Philip  
  I ACCOMPANIED Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to South Africa on the occasi  
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Letter to Metropolitan
  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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Back to infancy -- they n
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
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Transplanted lives
  Meetu Tewari  
  The Kite Runner
By Khaled Hosseini
Pages 352, Rs 290

WHAT do an affluent, artistic boy and a lowly, loyal, courageous servant have in common? The subtle thread of human fallacies and emotions. This is what joins together this powerful story of friendship, hope and valour.

The Kite Runner was the debut novel of Khaled Hosseini, an American novelist and physician, originally from Afghanistan. It has not only won the South African Boeke Prize, but also topped US charts in 2005, besides being adapted to the stage and into a film. Hosseini manages to intricately carve a story, which, despite some of its impossibilities, conveys with verisimilitude the plight of civilians caught in a conflict; the heavy burden of choices made and the journey of redemption.

The story languidly unfolds during the childhood of Amir, a rich Pashtun boy and his servant Hassan who is a lowly Hazara, but fiercely loyal to Amir. The reader discovers the imagination and artistic inclination of Amir, who tries hard to win his father's favour - a man referred to as 'Baba'.

Baba is the archetypal rugged man who enjoys watching the bloody Buzkashi sport and is rumoured to have single-handedly fought off a black bear. Hassan is in many ways the foil of Amir. He is brave, adventurous, selfless and kind.

The name, Kite Runner, is meant to reflect not only on the childish pastime of the boys but also on a life-changing event, which will leave both of them scarred. It defines the turning point in their relationship, when Hassan emerges glorified, while Amir is unable to forgive himself for his weakness and cowardice. It is after this fateful occurrence that Amir deliberately shows a mean and petty side of his character, trying to prod the faithful Hassan to some kind of retaliation, but always fails.

When Afghanistan is invaded by the Soviet Union, their lives are changed forever. Baba takes his son to the safety of the US, where Amir becomes a writer, marries the love of his life Soraya and Baba dies of cancer, shortly after his son's marriage.

After many years, Amir learns that Hassan's father, Ali, has died. As he learns more about the fate of his hare-lipped childhood servant and friend, he begins on a perilous journey to right the wrongs of his past; to rediscover himself and find redemption on his personal pilgrimage.

As he traverses once again through his country, now ravaged by years of war, he meets once again with the ghosts of his past. As history reveals great secrets hidden for many years, he finds himself changing, as he tries to overcome his fears.

The Kite Runner is an engaging novel, from its detailed and loving descriptions of Afghanistan, to its encounters with fear, when characters have to decide how they will react. It is a moving story, showing the brutal reality of life, revealing how nobility is not something someone is born with, but something that is determined by his decisions. It has many surprise elements, which unfold gradually, catching readers off guard.

Despite the sometimes-fantastic twists, it remains a story that is encouraging in holding out the glimpses of a fortunate future. It also depicts the struggle of Amir and others displaced by the war, as they try to hold on to the vestiges of their culture and way of life, which are threatened as they are forced to migrate to new shores.

The novel has an open ending, where readers are left sensing the fragility of hope and the tangible bonds created from long experiences of suffering. There is triumph, but there is bitterness at the price paid. While Amir seeks forgiveness, the little life he tries to rescue has lost innocence and faith. It is the juxtaposing of these conflicting events and emotions that enrich the tale and give it its own unique flavour.

From the raw Afghanistan to the accommodating US, everything is richly covered by Hosseini, whose novel has not only won him critical acclaim but has also established him as a very promising new writer. It is definitely a book one should read.
Another Hindutva laboratory
  By J. Sri Raman  
  Kandhamal: A Blot on Indian Secularism, by Anto Akkara, Media House, Delhi, 2009, Pages 128, Rs. 150.

"If Muslims and Christians use perfidy and force in conversion..., we have to act with merciless ferocity and militant determination. Collateral damage in such cases is regrettable...However, let Hindus stop beating their breasts until the end of Kali Yuga about it."

It may have taken a George W. Bush to dismiss callously as 'collateral damage' the incalculable human suffering wrought by his Iraq misadventure. It has taken India's far right to describe with the same cruel phrase its diabolical offensives against religious minorities.

The quote from Nagendra Rao, a web 'parivar' warrior, was about the anti-Christian crusade witnessed in the tribal Dangs area of Narendra Modi's Gujarat in 1998, as a prelude to the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002. The formulation also sums up how the far-right 'family' views and vindicates the savage violence it has visited on the Christians of Orissa's Kandhamal since August 2008.

This slender volume from a seasoned reporter, based on several actual visits to an area treated by major sections of the mainstream media as out of bounds, tells the Kandhamal tale again. It raises questions that need to be asked repeatedly.

The Dangs outrage came as an eye-opener to many, who had thought of Muslims as not only the favourite target of far-right propaganda, but also the sole quarry of saffron hordes translating fundamentalist words into foul deeds. The world then came to know of the holy war the 'parivar' had been waging against a minuscule Christian minority, totaling 2.4 per cent of the country's population. The terror, unleashed on this soft target in Orissa, followed the successful Gujarat experiment made possible by the brazen communalism of the rulers in the State and the benign inactivity of at the Centre.

The then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, declared in New Delhi that the Dangs had made 'the country hang its head in shame'. He visited Gujarat, and changed his tune, with a call for 'a national debate on conversions'.

The cue was not lost on Modi's comrades-in-communalism in Orissa. They carried their kind of 'debate' forward with the assassination of Australian missionary Graham Staines. He along with his sons Philip (10) and Timothy (6) were burnt alive in a jeep in January 1999. Then came another cruel Christmas, when minority-baiting mobs struck in Brahmanigaon and other villages.

This background of hate provided no bulwark, obviously, against the violence beginning on August 23, 2008. The day witnessed the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a vanguard of the violent campaigns in both Gujarat and Orissa. The first police statement on the murder attributed it to Maoists active in the tribal areas. A Maoist leader himself claimed responsibility on behalf of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army. The 'parivar', however, rejected the claim, blaming Christians for the crime.

The killings then began and thousands could survive only as refugees in relief camps. Over a thousand homes and at least 17 places of worship were then reported to have been burnt down.

Casteism, too, contributed to the conflict's aggravation. The victims were the 'untouchables' of the Paana community, who had converted to Christianity. The Kui tribesmen, who resented the benefits of affirmative action for the Paanas, were the ones to set the area aflame.

Politics contributed even more to the plight of the victims. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the 'parivar', was a junior partner in the government of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. With 32 seats, as against the 61 of Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD), in the 147-strong State Assembly, the BJP used its crucial support for the Government's survival to foment and fuel the violence in preparation for the polls that concluded in May.

Anto Akkara marshals evidence of the complicity of the BJP-blackmailed Government. He points out that, given the Christmas violence, "no administration worth its name would have allowed the body of the slain Swamy to be taken around jungle tracts."

Akkara adds, "Worse still, they allowed VHP leader Praveen Togadia, known for spitting venom against religious minorities, to make inflammatory speeches during the funeral procession."

Togadia, in fact, "reached Kandhamal from Bhubaneshwar, escorted by the police, while ordinary citizens were stranded even at the airport due to the bandh called by the VHP and others…"

Akkara argues: "Had the orgy of violence unleashed on Christians been a 'spontaneous reaction' as claimed by Hindu fundamentalists, the worst attacks should have been on the Christians and their houses around the Jalespata Ashram where...Lakshmanananda was brutally murdered." But, "none of the 500 Christian houses around Kurtamgarh close to the ashram was attacked, nor did the Christians there have to run for their lives…"

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Kandhamal violence "a national shame", though he desisted from calling for a debate on conversions. Akkara, however, rightly points out that the 'pillars' of secularism - including the judiciary and the media - did not act either in time or tough enough to spare the victims prolonged agony.

The Christian community appealed for a postponement of Lok Sabha elections in Kandhamal, as people in refugee camps could not return home. In a petition to the Chief Election Commissioner, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath noted that the victims had lost their vote identity cards, too, in many cases, along with their other belongings, and that the atmosphere of terror might not let them cast their ballot with confidence, The CEC, however, turned down the request.

The good news is that the gory Kandhamal violence did not pay political dividends for its perpetrators. In the Lok Sabha election in the constituency, BJP candidate Ashok Sahu ended up third, after the nominees of the Biju Janata Dal and the Congress.

The story, however, will have a happy ending only when popular struggles succeed in making the pillars of secularism strong enough to frustrate repeated efforts of the rabid far right to pull down a proud national edifice.

J. Sri Raman is a senior journalist, author and columnist based in Chennai.
Amen time for US churches
  By Dinoo Anna Mathew  
  Quitting Church
Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to do About it
By Julia Duin, Religion Editor, The Washington Times
Baker Books, 2008
Pages 186
Price $17.99
THIS book by Julia Duin is a quest to understand why people are increasingly getting disillusioned by the Church and as a result are leaving in large numbers.
These are ordinary people who have not lost their inherent faith, but find themselves lost for a variety of reasons and feeling a disconnection with the established church.
Julia Duin has focused mainly on Evangelical Christians in the United States. Still, some of the concerns she has highlighted are those which pastors, church leaders and lay people belonging to all Christian denominations, and in all places, need to seriously consider and address as real issues.
The author begins by contextualizing the concern by quoting several surveys and studies that provide growing statistics of non-churchgoing Christians in the United States.
Referring to the statistics by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago, she says that the religious attendance of Americans declined from 41 per cent in 1971 to 31 per cent in 2002.
George Barna, an evangelical pollster, estimated that with the growing American population, the growth of non-churchgoing Americans is about one million each year. The American Religious Identification Survey in 2001 by the City University of New York stated that the number of people without religious preference doubled from eight to 14 per cent during the 1990s.
Out of this 14 per cent, only 40 per cent were atheists, while the rest were just 'religious' or 'spiritual'.
The author spells out clearly in the book, the paradox why many people, in spite of their spiritual interest, fail to attend Church. She begins her inquiry with a strong sense of something not being right with Church life -- causing many to flock out.
A noteworthy example she provides is how in the aftermath of the attacks in New York on September 11, there was a huge growth in church attendance. However, this growth soon died down in as short as a month's time, as the seekers went away 'unimpressed'.
Julia Duin draws upon her own personal experience, interviews with a wide cross section of people, review of various articles and books and visits to several Churches, to present before the readers relevant insights, opinions and views on factors that seem to draw many believers away from the Church.
The book is organized into 10 chapters, with each chapter focusing on a particular challenge facing the institutional church.
It is rich with the perspectives and viewpoints of people with different backgrounds and from varied walks of life.
There are pastors who are increasingly called upon to do multi-faceted jobs and who burn out in a pastor-does-all system; people who fail to receive answers on how to deal with critical issues like co-habitation, divorce, abortion; people who fail to get a sense of community in the church that is so integral to Christian teachings; men and singles who feel that their needs are not addressed; women and working mothers who feel unvalued and deprived of meaningful and leadership roles; and, most importantly, people who increasingly feel that the sermons and teachings are increasingly disconnected from their real day problems.
The author provides an interesting account of new trends, including the emergent and new breed churches that have come up following the frustration that many people felt about the institutional churches.
Listening to televangelists, instead of the traditional practice of attending Sunday worship service in the Church, is one such trend. Pointing to its increasing popularity, the author refers to an article published in the Los Angeles Times which highlighted that 'the explosion in digitised spirituality might make the local church obsolete'. Small groups and home churches are another trend which appeals to many because of its flexibility, sense of belonging among the members, emotional and prayer support, etc. Still, the author concludes that such trends also have its inherent concerns.
The author has done well in detailing the primary concern of why many people, especially in America, are leaving the church. However, in dealing with the question of what to do about this concern, it would have been more enriching if the author had brought in more resources.
She should have included the perspectives and interpretations of theologians and Biblical scholars across Christian denominations who advocate for sustaining and ensuring a Church ministry that gives ample importance to building relationships, a community that does not base itself on narrow exclusivism and self-centeredness and which does not fail to take into account its social responsibility.
The thinking and teachings of such scholars gives important focus on how best to equip people to view and relate to conflicts, sufferings, daily struggles and the various challenges posed by the contemporary world, not just at the individual level, but at the community and global levels, from a thorough Biblical perspective.
Dinoo Anna Mathew is Project Coordinator, Asia-Pacific Programme, University for Peace, United Nations Affiliated University.
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