An interesting contrast today in the impact of different men of religion on the affairs of their respective countries. Many people are rightly feeling inspired by the peaceful protests in Burma which are being lead by the Buddhist monks there in the face of brutal oppression by a military regime. On this same day we read of the story of a Catholic Bishop in Africa who is claiming that European Condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting the condoms that they send to Africa. Here in a nutshell we see both the potential for good in religion and the potential for backwardness and ignorance.
It is not yet clear what the outcome will be for Burma as a result of the ongoing protests there. In some ways it surprising to find such protests being lead by Buddhist monks. For Buddhism is a strange religion. Unlike western monotheistic religions it is not, fundamentally, built on the concept of a personified God. Indeed it is arguable that in Buddhism there is in fact no such thing as "God". True there are "enlightened" souls who have reached a state of nirvana - but this is not equivalent to the Judeo -Christian notion of heaven. Buddhism is a very individual religion in some ways and one that stresses the responsibility of the individual to pursue their own path to enlightenment.
At the core of Buddhism are notions of "non-striving" and non-attachment" which can result in Buddhists appearing sometimes to have a very passive attitude to this world and its affairs. Yet in Burma we now see monks taking a clear lead in their society for justice and democracy.
If religion has any value in this world then it is when the religious defend the weak and disempowered in this way that religion is deserving of respect.
Contrast this though with the Catholic African Bishop of Mozambique, Maputo Archbishop Francisco Chimoio, who has claimed that some western made condoms sent to his country have been deliberately infected with HIV and that some anti-retroviral drugs were also infected "in order to finish quickly the African people".
Sadly this, the irrational and backward voice of the truly fundamentalist religious believer, is more typical of the impact of religion in our modern world. The Archbishop speaks with a voice redolent of the US right wing christian, the Sunni Al Qaeda fanatic and the Shia fundamentalist revolutionary.
If there is one religion speaking for the values of peace and progress in this world it is not these, it is not the Archbishop of Mozambique and it is not the Catholic Church. It is the brave, saffron robed, monks of the Buddhist religion whose heads are being broken and cracked right at this moment in Burma - a country crying for democracy.