By Chris Herlinger

New York, 21 January (ENI)--Barrack Obama attended prayers before he became the 44th president of the United States at a ceremony seen to spotlight the complexities of U.S. religious pluralism and the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world. Obama and his wife Michelle were accompanied to St John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, across from the White House, by his vice president-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill. At the service, Pentecostal Pastor T. D. Jakes preached.

"The problems are mighty, and the solutions are not simple," Jakes said. "And everywhere you turn, there will be a critic waiting to attack every decision that you make. But you are all fired up, sir, and you are ready to go. And this nation goes with you. God goes with you." President Obama, a Christian son of a white Protestant mother from Kansas and a black Muslim father from Kenya, attended another prayer service at Washington National Cathedral early on 21 January. There the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, the president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), became the first woman to lead the traditional post-inaugural service, which dates back to the first presidency.

Watkins said, "In times, such as these, we the people need you, the leaders of this nation, to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago, to work for the common good, for the public happiness, the wellbeing of the nation and the world, knowing that our individual wellbeing depends upon a world in which liberty and justice prevail." The day before, the first African American U.S. president sent a conciliatory signal to the Islamic world, when he said during his inauguration speech, "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Robert King, in his "Thou shalt blog" column headed, "An Inaugural speech that recognises America's religious patchwork" for the Indianapolis Star newspaper, wrote on 21 January: "This was an inaugural that mentioned God three times … Obama referred to the 'God-given promise that we are all equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness'. He referred to the 'source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny'." King said, however, more interesting were the parts that "showed Obama has a pretty good understanding of America's diverse religious landscape. Chief among them was this one: 'For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers'."

King noted, "To me … it is important to realise that Christians and Muslims are already living together peacefully under the Stars and Stripes. The reference to Jews and Hindus, while not as potent, parallels Obama's inclusion of rabbis and Hindus in the National Prayer Service on Wednesday. By going beyond the Abrahamic faiths to include Hindus, Obama showed an understanding that America's religious quilt is indeed more complex than ever before. And I wonder, is this the first inaugural speech to ever mention Hindus?" King said it might also have been the first inaugural speech to refer to non-believers, noting, "Ironic that it should come after atheists and agnostics, the out and out secularists, have so loudly complained that the Obama inauguration had become inundated - swamped, if you will - with religious fervour."

Obama pledged to poorer nations in his speech, "to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds". He added, "And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to the effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it. " A penchant for affirming religious pluralism was evident in Obama's choice of evangelical leader the Rev. Rick Warren of California’s Saddleback Church to offer the inauguration's invocation, and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a veteran civil rights leader and one-time colleague of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to close with the benediction.

Warren's presence had been criticised by gay rights groups for his public opposition to same-sex marriage. By the end of the inauguration day, the U.S. "blogosphere" and media accounts found both defenders and critics of Warren, particularly over his use of the Lord's Prayer in his invocation. "All that fuss for nothing," wrote Mary Katherine Ham, a writer for The Weekly Standard magazine, praising Warren for his declaration that "Dr. King and a great crowd of witnesses are shouting in heaven."

Others, however, did not like Warren's prayer. "I don't think he acquitted himself very well," said Randall Balmer, who teaches American religious history at Columbia University and Barnard College in New York, who was quoted by the Los Angles Times newspaper. "To lead the nation in saying the Lord's Prayer, which is so particularly Christian, was a mistake." The London Times newspaper wrote on 21 January that Lowery "stole the show … because he proved America could laugh at its divisions".

Lowery had said, "Lord, in the memory of all the saints, who from their labours rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen."

:: Full text Obama speech:
:: Link to Robert King's blog: [968 words]


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By Fredrick Nzwili

Nairobi, 20 January (ENI)--On the day Barack Obama was being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America, African and Americans resident in Kenya marked the event through public celebrations and prayer. "This defining moment in world history also has a special meaning for the citizens of Kenya," the Rev. Phyllis Byrd Ochilo, a Presbyterian Church of East Africa minister, told journalists ahead of the inauguration, which was celebrated in the United States and around the world.

The festivity was titled, "Fulfilling a dream". Along with it came songs, dances and feasts in Kogelo, the village in western Kenya, where Barack Hussein Obama, the new U.S. president's father, was born. "The public is invited in this celebration of a new hope, healing and change for America, Kenya and the world articulated by ... prayer, presentations, song and poetry," said Ochilo.

One of the biggest challenges Obama will face, is how he can influence Africa, said Professor Vertistine Mbaya of the University of Nairobi. "Many non-Africans will want to see if he can have a positive impact on issues of governance, corruption, and ethnic identity," Mbaya said. In a village about 370 kilometres from Nairobi, residents, including some church leaders, began making their way to the Obama ancestral home, where several bulls had been slaughtered, by 11 am.

"They have brought some church choirs here. There are also church leaders who are part of the celebrations," said John Oywa, a journalist in Kogelo. In Geneva the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Ishmael Noko, a Zimbabwean, said, "Obama's inauguration is, for the U.S. and for the world, a similarly transformative event"

He noted, "It sends the clearest possible message of the American people's willingness to be challenged and to challenge the politics of racial and other forms of division. It calls for the creation of a true union of all U.S. citizens. It also invites all of us around the world to examine our own contexts and to do the same." [475 words]


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By Hisashi Yukimoto

Tokyo, 15 January (ENI)--A Tokyo-based multi-faith and interdenominational coalition has sent U.S. President-elect, Barrack Obama, a list of proposed changes to military policies and arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region, where tens of thousands of Americans are stationed. Like many groups throughout the world, their expectations from the new president are high, and the interfaith coalition of 16 groups of Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians, made public their open letter to Obama that they sent at the end of 2008.

The coalition said it was "extremely concerned that the U.S. military transformation of the Asia Pacific poses a serious threat to peace and stability in the region". It also said, "In particular, the [George W. Bush] administration's pressure on Japan to revise [the war-renouncing] Article 9 of our constitution represents a very real danger of a new Cold War in Asia." The coalition said in its message to Obama, "Your promise of change is truly needed to heal and reverse the disastrous impact of the last eight years of the Bush Administration." It noted, "The change you promised is needed not only for American people but also to the entire humankind."

The coalition also requested Obama to review and suspend a 2005 bilateral agreement for the consolidation of U.S. bases in Japan, as well as new U.S. base construction plans in the southern Okinawa islands and at Guam in the western Pacific. It said the United States had been pressuring the Japanese government to revise the war-renouncing article of its constitution. Among those adding his voice to that of the coalition was Reiko Suzuki, director of the Christian Peace Network, a Tokyo-based interdenominational peace movement in Japan.

In a letter dated 14 December to Obama, she cited the preamble for peace in the war-renouncing Japanese constitution, saying, "We want you to work with us to achieve this universal goal, by ending war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the withdrawal of troops and bases from other countries." This she said should be done by "concluding a peace accord instead of a military treaty". According a report in Jane's Intelligence Review in 2001 the United States had about 100 000 troops in East Asia, with Japan hosting some 47 000, while 37 000 were stationed in nearby South Korea.

Jane's link: [390 words]


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By Anto Akkara

Mondasor, India, 7 January (ENI)--A teenager danced to the tune of a popular song, enthralling about 500 people gathered on Christmas Day at Mondasor's Catholic church in India's troubled Kandhamal district. A year earlier the region had been the scene of vicious communal violence. Federal soldiers stood guard outside the church, now converted into a relief camp for homeless Christians, as several people rushed to pin currency notes on the teenager's clothing in appreciation of his dance.

Still, despite threats by some Hindu groups, Christmas passed peacefully in the remote district in India's eastern Orissa state. The eight refugee camps in Kandhamal that now shelter more than 8000 Christians had special Christmas celebrations while the state government took unprecedented security arrangements. "We want to make sure that Christmas will be celebrated here with peace," Krishan Kumar, district collector (chief officer) of Kandhamal, told Ecumenical News International on 24 December. The district administration deployed more than 10 000 security personnel around churches, Christian villages and refugee camps, and mounted road checkpoints.

The government erected colourful tents in the refugee camps for Christmas services, where residents tried to forget their sorrows, decorating them with balloons and stars. Christmas also brought special cheer to refugees used to only Spartan meals, with the Catholic church offering chicken and cakes on the menu. Nuns of the Missionaries of Charity congregation founded by deceased Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mother Teresa brought a healing touch, supervising open-air preparations for the special meal in each of the refugee camps, which have few sanitary facilities.

Kandhamal was again wracked by violence following the killing in August of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, Hindu groups described the murder of the Hindu leader as a Christian conspiracy. More than 70 Christians lost their lives in the violence, which displaced half of the district's 100 000 Christians. About 6000 Christian houses were looted, while 200 churches and dozens of Christian institutions were torched by Hindu groups.

As well as the 8000 Christians now living in government run relief camps, thousands more sought refuge in jungles and cities outside Kandhamal. In the Nuagam refugee camp where more than 2000 homeless Christians have taken shelter, Prakash Digal looked dejected, despite the young children dancing around him before the start of the Christmas Eve service.

"How can I celebrate Christmas when my mother has been killed and we could not even get her body for burial?" Digal said as he stood under a star atop a pole near the Christmas tent. Digal said his mother, Lalita, was killed when she went to harvest her paddy crop in her native Doddavalli village on 21 November. "Two days later, one of our friends came and informed us that mother's body was lying in the village," said Digal. "But when we went there, the body was not there."

India's federal supreme court on 5 January lambasted the Orissa government, saying it had failed to protect the Christian minority against orchestrated violence. [521 words]


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