Current Comment

Conscience and Information

Two newspapers in Malaysia were recently closed down for specified periods as a punitive measure after their editors published controversial cartoons. In both cases the press could be seen as an equal opportunity offender, since one cartoon pictured the prophet Muhammad and the other pictured Jesus Christ, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette, above the caption “If someone repents for his mistakes, then this heaven awaits them.” These examples, though, are only the tip of an iceberg of repression that includes attempts to limit freedom of expression, the transfer of information and even freedom of conscience. Reporters Without Borders, a worldwide organization that monitors freedom of the press, has criticized Malaysia for these actions. In response, Malaysian political figures have dismissed Reporters Without Borders as working from Western values of press freedom and hence not qualified to judge local values.

Freedom of conscience, however, goes beyond the media. Recently Malaysia’s federal court refused to recognize the conversion of a woman from Islam to Christianity. She could be subject to forced rehabilitation, heavy fines and prison, or will have to emigrate to escape such penalties. The bishop of Melaka-Johor, Paul Tan Chee Ing, S.J., has said that “to deny this basic human right of a person to choose his/her religion is to usurp the power of God, and the right of the person concerned. It is, therefore, inhuman and uncivilized.” Although Malaysia guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution, it also recognizes Islamic courts as arbiters of religion. This kind of conflict and the already limited freedom of expression do not bode well for the progress of a free society.


Greenpeace and Logging

According to a recent Greenpeace report, hundreds of angry loggers with trucks and vans trapped a group of Greenpeace activists for two days in mid-October in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest. With the government’s permission, the activists had planned to remove an illegally cut Brazil nut tree for use in an exhibit exposing the destruction taking place in the region. The loggers surrounded the group, forcing it to seek refuge in a nearby office of the Brazilian environmental protection agency. Finally, Brazilian police agents escorted the Greenpeace team out of town. The report adds that the Brazilian government “gave in to the loggers” and revoked Greenpeace’s license to remove the illegally cut tree.

These events in the Amazon underscore the fact that illegal logging is a worldwide phenomenon, especially in developing countries. The Rainforest Foundation has said that the practice has been rampant for years in Cameroon, for example, with corrupt government employees bearing much of the responsibility. Another environmental group, the National Resources Defense Council, notes that part of the responsibility for illegal logging lies in an escalating consumer demand in industrialized countries, especially for old-growth mahogany. Nearly all the mahogany shipped from Peru is logged illegally; the United States consumes 80 percent of the exports. The council reports that it is urging U.S. officials to stop accepting invalid export permits for Peruvian mahogany and is trying to persuade large furniture dealers to avoid buying mahogany that comes from illegal sources.

Necessary Ending

The Franciscan academic tradition at the University of Oxford in England is long and distinguished. The first friars arrived in the city in 1224 and began a ministry of learning that would involve such original thinkers as Roger Bacon, John Duns Scotus and William of Occam. The upheavals of the Reformation, which led to the dissolution of religious foundations, imposed a lengthy hiatus on the activities of the Franciscans. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that their work at Oxford resumed, when the Capuchin Franciscans received recognition from the university for their house of studies. Greyfriars Hall was given the status of a permanent private hall in 1957. Unlike the colleges, private halls are not governed by fellows but by an outside sponsoring organization, in this case the Capuchins of Great Britain.

Last month it was announced that Greyfriars would close at the end of this academic year. Shortage of manpower and an increasing financial burden are the reasons. There are fewer than 40 Capuchin friars in Great Britain. So, with reluctance and an eye on their future ministries throughout the country, the friars made this courageous decision. Provisions have been made for present and applying students to be transferred to another of the halls, Regent’s Park College—a Baptist foundation in its origins but now thoroughly ecumenical. The university and the Oxford student union have signed on to the plans. The friars will remain in their parish and in other ministries in the city.

In the coming years we will see more such necessary endings, many for want of funds or loss of manpower in a changing society. We hope they can be accomplished with as much grace as the Capuchins have managed at Oxford.

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