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Archive for December, 2008

Grigori Rasputin

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (January 22 [O.S. January 10] 1869 – December 29 [O.S. December 16] 1916) was a Russian mystic who is perceived as having influenced the later days of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, his wife the Tsaritsa Alexandra, and their only son the Tsarevich Alexei. Rasputin had often been called the “Mad Monk,” while others considered him a “strannik” (or religious pilgrim) and even a starets (“elder”, a title usually reserved for monk-confessors), believing him to be a psychic and faith healer.

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t has been argued that Rasputin helped to discredit the tsarist government, leading to the fall of the Romanov dynasty, in 1917. Contemporary opinions saw Rasputin variously as a saintly mystic, visionary, healer, and prophet, and, on the other side of the coin, as a debauched religious charlatan. Historians may find both to be true, but there is much uncertainty, for accounts of his life have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay, and legend. Grigory Rasputin (1872-1916) was a Siberian peasant and self-proclaimed holy man, whose friendship with Russia’s last emperor and empress wrecked the Romanov dynasty’s prestige and contributed to the coming of the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

Born in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye, Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin attended school but remained only semiliterate. He married, probably in 1889, and had four children. He left home in 1901 to become a pilgrim and soon became known both for his alleged healing powers and for his scandalous sexual exploits. In 1903 Rasputin arrived in Saint Petersburg, where he owed his entry into high society to the fad for spiritualism, exoticism, and popular religion fashionable in some circles at that time. Although he was unordained, Rasputin enjoyed the favor of some prominent leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Rasputin first met Russian emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra in the autumn of 1905, when Russia was in the midst of an uprising against the monarchy (see Russian Revolution of 1905). The imperial family was also shaken by the discovery that Alexis, the heir to the throne, had hemophilia. Rasputin seemed to embody the simple peasant faith in the monarchy that Nicholas saw as the chief support for his dynasty and the main justification of his role as autocrat and protector of his people. Above all, Rasputin seemed uniquely able to alleviate the incurable illness of Alexis, on occasion intervening successfully to end dangerous attacks of bleeding. This won him the passionate support of the worried empress.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin

Between 1906 and 1914, Rasputin’s association with the imperial family was used against the regime by politicians and journalists who wished to undermine the dynasty’s credibility, force the emperor to give up absolute political power, and assert the independence of the Russian Orthodox Church from the state. Rasputin helped the propaganda by boasting about his influence on the imperial couple, by his debauched lifestyle, and by a number of public disputes with church figures. Even within the church, however, his role was a limited one. In government it was minimal.

Rasputin’s influence grew significantly during 1915 and 1916, with Nicholas II away at the front during World War I and the Empress Alexandra playing a more active role in government. Rasputin persuaded the empress to fill a few offices with his nominees. What mattered, however, was not Rasputin’s still very limited influence on policies and appointments but the fact that he was widely credited with being the dominant figure in the emperor’s counsels. Amidst the growing mood of hysteria brought on by wartime defeats and privations, this false perception about the power of a semiliterate peasant fatally damaged the monarchy. In December 1916 Rasputin was murdered by a group of conspirators, including the emperor’s first cousin, Grand Duke Dmitry, and his nephew by marriage, Felix Yusupov. These politically conservative aristocrats hoped naively to rescue the dynasty’s prestige and alter the emperor’s policies. In fact, Rasputin’s death changed nothing, and the emperor was overthrown two months later.

India – God’s Own Country

The popular South Indian tourist destination Kerala sells itself as “God’s own country”. It’s home to hundreds of ashrams; spiritual retreats where thousands of pilgrims from India, Britain and the rest of the world seek salvation through a growing number of gurus. But, as this week’s Unreported World reveals, Kerala’s 3,000 “godmen” are facing allegations of varying degrees of seriousness ranging from fraud to physical and sexual abuse.

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eporter Jenny Kleeman and Producer Edward Watts begin their journey in Amritapuri, on India’s south western coast. It’s home to one of India’s most famous – and richest – women. Amma is famous around the world because she blesses her followers by giving them a hug. It’s estimated she’s hugged 30 million people worldwide to date. Ten thousand devotees from many countries, including the UK, live in pink tower blocks at “Amma’s” ashram, worshipping her as a living god.

The ashram receives more foreign donations than any other organization in Kerala and it’s big business. Officials tell Kleeman that most is spent on charities and Amma’s work appears benevolent compared to allegations the team investigates.

Kleeman and Watts move on to Cochin, a popular stop on the tourist trail and home to a godman called Santosh Madhavan. Neighbours tell Unreported World that his guest house was recently raided by the police after one of his devotees claimed he’d cheated her out of thousands of pounds. After the raid, two young girls came forward to say Madhavan had sexually assaulted them. He’s been charged and is currently in jail awaiting trial. The police tell Kleeman they fear there are many other corrupt godmen still at large in Kerala.

Heading further north, Kleeman and Watts arrive in the town of Trichur. Here, a family of ‘chathan’ swamis claim they can harness the power of evil spirits to solve their followers’ business and health problems – for a price. Devotees tell Kleeman they have spent hundreds of times the average daily wage in exchange for the godmen’s help. The chathans’ publicity brochure says they live very simple lives, but their family home seems far grander than the other houses the team have seen.

Moving on to Calicut, the team meets Gopal Swami. He claims to be able to perform miracles, including curing the terminally ill and giving infertile couples children. But they hear disturbing reports about his methods. One man, fearful of revealing his identity, tells Kleeman that he and his wife had spent months praying at Gopal Swami’s temple after trying unsuccessfully for a baby for eight years. Eventually, he claims, the guru told his wife that she had a snake inside her and then kicked her three times in the stomach, with such force that she had to spend five days in hospital recovering. When the team tries to put these allegations to Gopal Swami, his minders threaten them, saying that unless they go away they will destroy the camera.

Even though India is modernising, religion is still central to life in Kerala. As the economy booms, spirituality is being turned into big business – not just for Indians, but also for the spiritual tourists who visit. And it’s clear that this business’s customer base of many vulnerable and desperate people is open to abuse.

From: Channel 4 – Unreported world

The ancient church

The Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian community in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church. And yet in many places people think that Christianity is either Catholic or Protestant. What do the 250 million Orthodox Christians believe? What makes them “Eastern Christians”? Who and where are they, and what does Orthodoxy look like in America and Europe? Where did Orthodox Christianity originate, and what happened that divided Christian East from Christian West? Might they reconcile?

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he Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest single Christian communion in the world. It has between 225 and 300 million living members worldwide. It is considered by its adherents to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Christ and his Apostles nearly 2000 years ago. It is composed of numerous but theologically unified autocephalous ecclesial bodies, each shepherded by a synod of independent bishops whose duty, among other things, is to preserve and teach the Apostolic and patristic traditions and related Church practices. All Orthodox bishops trace their lineage back to one of the twelve Apostles through the process of apostolic succession.

Members of the Eastern Orthodox Church usually refer to themselves as simply Orthodox. Eastern is a term often applied in the Western World for the sake of clarity. Almost from the very beginning Christians referred to the Church as the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. Today, in addition to the Orthodox Church, a number of other Christian churches lay claim to this title (The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Assyrian Church, the Oriental Orthodox Church, and others); however, the Eastern Orthodox Church sees these other churches as break-away groups, with the Assyrians and Orientals breaking away from the church after the first few centuries and the Roman Catholics in the 11th century (see: East-West Schism). The Eastern Orthodox Church is also sometimes called the “Orthodox Catholic Church”[1], but this is not in widespread general use due to possible confusion with the Roman Catholic Church or other separate groups using this name. The term “Catholic” is referenced within Orthodoxy in English primarily in the Symbol of Faith , and is rendered in other languages, such as Russian, with a word quite distinct from the English word “Catholic” (“that which is gathered together, complete, universal”).

The term “Orthodox” translates from the Greek to mean “Correctly Believing” or “Correctly Glorifying God” (from the adjective orthos = correct, right & the verb dokeo,-o = I see, I believe or the noun doxa = glory) and was adopted by the Church in order to distinguish itself from what was becoming a larger and larger body of non-orthodox Christian denominations. What unites the Orthodox is theology, although there are variations in style depending on country of origin and/or local custom. These local customs are referred to as differences in “Typica” and are accepted by church leaders since they are not perceived to conflict theologically with basic Orthodox teachings. Thus it is that many Orthodox Churches adopt a national title (e.g. Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, etc.) and this title serves to distinguish which language, which bishops, and which typica is followed by that particular congregation. Members of the Church are free to associate with any congregation regardless of typical differences though most members tend to gravitate to whichever group makes them feel most comfortable. Differences in praxis tend to be slight; they involve such things as the order in which a particular set of hymns are sung or what time a particular service is performed. In general, an Orthodox Christian could travel the globe and feel familiar with the services performed on Sunday even if he did not know the language.

Christmas eve

On Christmas eve a moment of contemplation with Russian liturgical music. A great wealth of Russian liturgical music exists on the web. One of Russia ’s leading choirs, the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir is actively involved in continuing the rich traditions of Russian and European vocal music. Founded in 1977, the choir is made up of professional musicians who have completed their studies at Russia ’s top musical institutions.

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St Petersburg Chamber Choir
‘We Praise Thee’ (from the Russian Liturgy)
Music by Pavel G. Chesnokov (1877-1944)
Nikolai Korniev, conductor

esides receiving numerous national awards, it has excelled in the international arena, winning prizes in Hungary in 1986 and in Germany and Italy in 1989. In 1994 the choir was awarded a Grammy for the best Choral Performance of the Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninov. On the back of these successes the choir has launched an extensive international touring career, and has received widespread critical acclaim in the United States, the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

The choir’s broad repertoire includes Renaissance music, Bach’s sacred compositions, nineteenth-century music and contemporary works, many of which were composed for the choir. In this way the choir has attracted the attention of many well-known conductors and soloists. Over the years such conductors as Gennady Roshdestvensky, Yury Simonov, Semyon Bychkov, Valery Gergiev, Mikhail Pletnev and Sir Georg Solti have worked with the ensemble. In 2000 the choir performed the world première of St John’s Passion by Sofia Gubaidulina. The choir participates in all the significant musical festivals in St. Petersburg . Valery Gergiev invited the choir to perform at the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1994 for the first time.

Pavel (Paul) Grigorievich Tchesnokov (1877–1944), also transliterated Tschesnokoff, was a Russian composer, conductor and teacher. He composed over five hundred choral works, over four hundred of which are sacred. Today, he is most known for his piece Salvation is Created as well as works such as Do Not Reject Me in Old Age (solo for Basso Profondo).

Pavel Tchesnokov was born in the Government of Vladimir, near Moscow on October 24, 1877 and died on March 14, 1944. Tchesnokov was known throughout Russia as a composer, teacher, and choral instructor. While attending the Moscow Conservatory, he received extensive training in both instrumental and vocal music including nine years of solfege, and seven years training for both the piano and violin. His studies in composition included four years of harmony, counterpoint, and form. During his years at the school, Tchesnokov had the opportunity to study with prominent Russian composers like Sergei Taneyev, and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, who greatly influence his style of liturgy driven, choral composition.

At an early age, Pavel Tchesnokov gained recognition as a great conductor and choirmaster while leading many groups including the Russian Choral Society Choir. This reputation earned him a position on staff at the Moscow Conservatory where great composers and music scholars like Tchaikovsky shared their skills and musical insight. There he founded a choral conducting program, which he taught from 1920 until his death.

By age thirty, Tchesnokov had completed nearly four hundred sacred choral works but his proliferation of church music came to a standstill at the time of the Russian revolution. Under communist rule, no one was permitted to produce any form of sacred art. So in response, Tchesnokov composed an additional one hundred secular works, and conducted secular choirs like the Moscow Academy Choir and the Bol’shoy Theatre Choir. With Stalin as dictator of the U.S.S.R., many of the religious persuasion suffered for his effort to enforce a universal doctrine of atheism. In this pursuit, Christ the Savior Cathedral,[5] whose last choirmaster had been Tchesnokov, was destroyed. This bothered Tchesnokov so much that he stopped writing music all together.

Inside Hezbollah

Anderson Cooper narrates CNN Presents Classroom Edition: Inside Hezbollah, which takes an extensive look at the militant Shiite group Hezbollah and its part in the current crisis in the Middle East. Inside Hezbollah traces the group’s history and examines its tactics of violence. Through interviews with military analysts, Middle East and terrorism experts, and representatives from Israel and Hezbollah, Inside Hezbollah explores what makes this conflict different from previous conflicts in the region.

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ezbollah or Hizbullah (Arabic for ‘Party of God’), Lebanese political party and militia group committed to promoting Islamic activism in Lebanon. The group was founded during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and sided with one of the war’s Christian factions over the many other, mostly Muslim, factions. Other powers, including Syria and several Western countries, also played varying roles in this civil war. Largely in response to Israel’s invasion, a group of Shia Muslim clerics led by Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah established Hezbollah to promote Islam and resist Western influences in Lebanon. The clerics politics and theology were inspired by the Islamic Revolution of Iran, which had culminated in the overthrow of Iran’s secular government in 1979, and they hoped that Iran, which was then fighting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, would be able to export its revolution to Lebanon. Hezbollah provided a more radical alternative to Lebanon’s mainstream Shia faction, known as the Amal movement (Afwaj al-Muqawimah al-Lubnaniyya, or Lebanese Resistance Detachments), which also sought greater power for Muslims in Lebanon.

In early 1983 Hezbollah fighters launched a guerrilla war that forced Israel out of most of Lebanon, although the Israelis maintained a self-proclaimed ‘security zone’ in southern Lebanon. In April a suicide bomber destroyed the United States embassy in Beirut, and in October another bomber destroyed the U.S. Marines barracks in the city. More than 300 people died in the attack on the U.S. Marines, ultimately forcing the United States to withdraw from Lebanon. Press accounts linked Hezbollah to both attacks. In the next several years the group allegedly orchestrated the kidnappings of several Westerners living in Lebanon, prompting the withdrawal of many of the country’s remaining Westerners. The governments of Iran and Syria appear to have aided Hezbollah in a number of these acts.

In the late 1980s two events changed Hezbollah’s course. First, Iran and Iraq reached a cease-fire in 1988, ending their long-stalemated war. The war’s end with little gain on either side made it clear that Iran would not export its Islamic Revolution to Iraq and points beyond in the Middle East. Second, the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, signaling the gradual return of Lebanon to parliamentary rule. After these events many of Hezbollah’s leaders argued that the group should try to achieve power through politics, not just military action. Hezbollah ran candidates in Lebanon’s 1992 parliamentary elections, winning several seats. It also sought to enhance its public image by establishing television and radio stations, philanthropic institutions such as hospitals and orphanages, and several private businesses.

In 1992 an Israeli helicopter gunship attack assassinated Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Abbas al-Musawi. He was replaced by Sheik Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, who became the organization’s secretary general.

Nasrallah continued guerrilla operations against Israel, and Israel, maintaining its security zone in southern Lebanon, responded with counterattacks. Its ongoing resistance earned Hezbollah increased popularity among Shia Muslims, particularly those who had fled their homes to escape this and other fighting and had settled mainly in the slums of Beirut. In April 1996 the United States negotiated an agreement between Hezbollah and Israel to restrict the fighting to the security zone and to place civilian targets off limits. Nevertheless, sporadic firing between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon continued, with each side accusing the other of violating the agreement on numerous occasions. In June 2000 the Israeli government abruptly withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon after a breakdown in peace talks between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Hezbollah received much of the credit for the Israeli withdrawal among Lebanese people, and the group’s popularity increased. It won several additional parliamentary seats in the 2000 elections and took up a Cabinet position in the government.

In 2004 Nasrallah negotiated an agreement with Israel to release 400 Arab prisoners, mostly Lebanese and Palestinian detainees, in exchange for the release of a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three slain Israeli soldiers. The prisoner exchange raised Hezbollah’s stature among many Arabs in the Middle East. However, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon withheld three prisoners, and Nasrallah said he would ‘reserve the right’ to capture Israeli soldiers unless the prisoners were released. The same year heavy international pressure was brought to bear on Lebanon to disarm militias, particularly Hezbollah’s, in an attempt to make Hezbollah a purely political force that renounced violence. The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called for the disbandment of all Lebanese militias.

Then, in July 2006, Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid into Israel, killing eight Israeli soldiers and capturing two. The raid came after a similar cross-border incident in which Hamas guerrillas from the Gaza Strip took an Israeli soldier prisoner. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert declared the Hezbollah raid an ‘act of war’, and Israel began a heavy aerial bombardment of southern Lebanon and Beirut, targeting the homes and offices of Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders. Hezbollah responded with rocket attacks on civilian areas of Israel. Many observers believed that the punishing Israeli air campaign, which destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and killed thousands of civilians, would isolate Hezbollah from other Lebanese. But the heavy civilian toll and seemingly indiscriminate air attacks appeared to have the opposite effect. Many Lebanese reportedly rallied to Hezbollah, particularly after its guerrilla forces in southern Lebanon put up heavy resistance to an Israeli invasion force.

The conflict led to a ceasefire in August 2006 after 34 days of heavy fighting. Under a UN Security Council resolution, an international peacekeeping force and the Lebanese army were to occupy southern Lebanon and Israeli troops were to withdraw. The resolution also called for the disarmament of all militias in southern Lebanon, but most political observers believed that neither the international force nor the Lebanese army would attempt to disarm Hezbollah. In November 2006 indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah reportedly involved a prisoner exchange.

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