Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Faith Diary: Motoring with Mary

The BBC's Religious Affairs correspondent Robert Pigott reflects on the latest news from the world of religion and beliefs. This week - the supposed link between the Virgin Mary and EU number plates, and one man's fight for a Hindu cremation.

TIGHTENING THE BIBLE BELT

Christian influence on everyday life is one thing, but in the Dutch Bible belt it also matters what kind of Christianity it is.

A statue of the Virgin Mary, with a circle of stars forming a halo around her head
Some Dutch Protestants think car registration plates are too similar to the Virgin Mary's halo

A group of traditionalist Protestants has objected to the use of the European Union emblem on car registration plates in the Netherlands, on the grounds that the circle of 12 golden stars on a blue background symbolises the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The National Foundation for the Preservation of the Political Reformed Principles is concerned that the symbol is too close to the 12-star halo surrounding Mary's head in Roman Catholic art.

According to the Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano, the designer of the emblem, Arsene Heitz, said he got the idea from 19th Century reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Paris.

Other politicians say that the symbol dates back to Greek mythology, long before Christianity.

The foundation works to promote Calvinist principles within the Netherlands' oldest party, the Political Reformed Party, which draws much of its support from Christians living in the country's Bible belt.

The "Bijbelgordel" runs from the south west to the north east across the central portion of the Netherlands and contains communities in which the Reformed Christian Church plays a central role, one hostile to the liberal attitudes of mainstream Dutch society towards such issues as euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality.

The belt is a relic of the conquest by Catholic Spain of Flanders and North Brabant, when Protestants were told to leave or convert to Catholicism.

Many moved just across the border, and their successors helped found conservative churches such as the Reformed Congregations, known locally as the "black stockings churches".

Among the belt's towns and villages is Staphorst, where Christian parties including the Political Reformed Party dominate the local council.

Christian observance has been sufficiently strict for swearing to be banned and cash machines not to dispense money on Sundays.

There have also been warnings about potential outbreaks of measles in the Bible belt, because of parents' suspicions about state vaccination programmes.

But the Dutch government seems unwilling to compromise in the question of regulations applying to number-plates.

Undaunted, the foundation's chairman, Op 't Hof, is selling stickers bearing the country's lion symbol for motorists to place on top of the EU emblem.

So far this act of defiance has prompted no official response.

THE FIERY HINDU WAY OF DEATH

When Baba Ghai set fire to the body of Rajpal Mehat in a secluded meadow near Newcastle upon Tyne, he believed he was liberating Mr Mehat's soul.

Mr Ghai says that as a Hindu he believes the consecrated fire of an open-air funeral pyre is necessary to free the soul and achieve what he describes as a "sacramental rebirth, like the mythical phoenix".

The funeral pyre of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Allahabad, India
Open-air cremations are common in the Indian sub-continent

But Newcastle City Council has refused to grant permission for open-air cremations - on the grounds they are banned under the 1902 Cremation Act. So on Tuesday the High Court is due to begin its own hearing to decide what Mr Ghai believes could be his eternal fate.

Mr Ghai argues that when he lit Mr Mehat's funeral pyre in July 2006, the law was in effect tested and a precedent set.

Mr Mehat was an illegal immigrant from India who had drowned, aged 31, in a London canal.

The police investigated the burning of his body, and decided that although the law had been broken nothing would be gained by prosecuting Mr Ghai.

The High Court judge - Mr Justice Collins - who granted permission for a full hearing, said that earlier rulings might mean "the burning of dead bodies in the open air is not necessarily unlawful".

There is another precedent. In 1934 the government gave permission for the Nepalese ambassador's wife to be burnt in the open air in Woking in Surrey.

The Anglo-Asian Friendship Society - founded by Mr Ghai - commissioned an environmental study from a private company, which reported no significant risk to public health from the pyres.

There are more than half a million Hindus living in the UK, and it seems likely many would choose this 4,000-year-old ceremony for their departure.

Some British Hindus send the bodies of their relatives to India to ensure they are burnt in line with traditional practice. A strict interpretation demands the ashes are left to cool naturally for a period of three days. Ideally, they would then be scattered in the sacred River Ganges.

A number of British rivers - including the Soar, the Thames and the Wye - have been "anointed with water from the Ganges", to make them credible substitutes for the holy river.

Funeral parties frequently travel up the River Soar in Leicestershire, for example, to scatter the ashes of dead relatives.

But it is no substitute for a proper cremation as far as Mr Ghai is concerned.

He is in fragile health, and even after a lifetime in which he says he has attempted to come to terms with mortality, he has described himself as "increasingly consumed with dread" at the prospect of being cremated in the local council crematorium.

Mr Ghai is pinning his hopes on the High Court in the first instance, but if it rules against open-air pyres, he is ready to pursue his case in Europe.

PATRIARCH - AND FATHER TO TWO THOUSAND BABIES

As Western Church leaders lament their loss of influence, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, is claiming to have an almost magical effect on his country's people.

With Georgia's sluggish birth-rate worrying the somewhat beleaguered nation, the Catholicos-Patriarch offered to become godfather to every third child born to a family.

Georgian Patriarch Ilia II consecrating a new State banner in the town of Mtskheta some 20 km outside Tbilisi
Wrapping himself in the flag: does the Patriarch now embody the Georgian national spirit?

Patriarch Ilia has been credited by the government's Civil Registry Agency with playing an important role in a "dramatic" increase - almost 20% - in the birth rate last year.

The agency has pointed out the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church has presided over enough mass baptisms to have become godfather to more than 2,000 children.

It is true that the birth-rate among Georgia's 4.6 million people was already rising because of economic growth, but there are signs that Patriarch Ilia's intervention was significant.

A number of recent events indicate a growing influence for the Church.

When the police clashed with anti-government protesters in 2007, Patriarch Ilia intervened and managed to defuse the crisis.

After the war with Russia he was the only Georgian to meet President Dmitry Medvedev for direct talks.

And when saints were included in a television programme, the Church's objections led to a rapid change in the programme's format.

The Church - one of the world's oldest - seems to be regarded increasingly as the custodian of the national spirit.

It is exempt from paying taxes, and has recently seen its state funding almost tripled.

Its television station is also subsidised.

All of this has prompted debate about the Church's growing power and whether the lines between Church and state have become blurred.

It is a far cry from the Church of England's battle against what it claims are attempts to banish Christianity in the UK to a strictly private realm.



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