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The year that was

JAMES ROBERTS

Terrorism in Madrid and Iraq; 15 more EU members; Ratzinger on the role of women; Arafat died; Bush re-elected; Europe’s anti-Catholicism: farewell to 2004

Just before the shortest day of 2004, Melvyn Bragg and three guest scientists attempted to explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics to BBC Radio 4’s early-morning audience. Helpfully, one of the scientists said it was possible to restate the law, roughly, in three words: “things get worse”. And if things appear to get better this is only ever a localised phenomenon. The year now closing brought much to suggest that the law applies to human affairs as much as it does to the behaviour of stars and steam engines ...

JANUARY The BBC itself, on 28 January, must have felt Thermodynamics 2 was driving events as the Hutton report broke about its head. Lord Hutton had inquired into a May 2003 broad-cast on the Today programme, in which the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan suggested the Government had “sexed up” a dossier that made its case for the war in Iraq. Mr Gilligan based the report on an off-the-record conversation with the weapons expert Dr David Kelly, who later committed sui-cide. The Hutton Inquiry concluded Andrew Gilligan’s report was “unfounded”. Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director-general, and Gavyn Davies, chairman of the board of gov-ernors, resigned. By the summer, under the new director-general Mark Thompson, the BBC was implementing the recommenda-tions of a review on what the corporation needed to learn from the Hutton Inquiry.

FEBRUARY Pope John Paul II sent his chief ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to Moscow to tell the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, that he wanted to improve relations with the Orthodox Churches. This visit did not mark an imme-diate thaw, but by the end of August, Car-dinal Kasper was back in Moscow bearing the Pope’s personal gift of the sixteenth-cen-tury icon of the Mother of God of Kazan to Alexei II. In November Ecumenical Patri-arch Bartholomew of Constantinople visited the Vatican for the return of the relics of two important saints. Patriarch Bartholomew said this was the most important event in his 13 years as patriarch.

March Al-Qaida agents placed 13 bombs on the Madrid railway network and 10 of them exploded at 7.40 a.m. on 11 March. In the four trains that were blown apart 191 people died, including one unborn baby, and almost 1,900 were injured. Spanish general elec- tions were scheduled for three days later. The Prime Minister, José María Aznar, apparent-ly calculating that an al-Qaida attack would count against him with the voters, given his support for the American-led coalition in Iraq, tried to blame the atrocity on the sepa-ratist Eta organisation. All the trails led to al-Qaida, however, and Spaniards changed their voting intentions. The Socialist José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was voted in, and kept his pledge to withdraw Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq. For the rest of the year the Catholic Church in Spain squared up to the Socialists over their plans to introduce gay marriage, dilute religious education and withdraw privileges from Catholic schools.

The French President Jacques Chirac, spotting a danger to France’s secular tradi-tions, decided to ban the Muslim headscarf, the hijab, in state schools. Also banned were the Jewish kippa and crosses of “manifestly excessive dimensions”.

The same month Mel Gibson’s take on the Crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ, opened in Britain, having already confound-ed American cinema “experts” who said a film about Christ was bound to flop. The Passion proved one of the year’s biggest blockbusters. Accusations of anti-Semitism died down after the film was released.

On 20 March, the Pope told an internation-al group of doctors and ethicists that the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration from patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) amounted to “euthanasia by omission”. Then, on 14 December, the Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith, won a last-minute con-cession on the Mental Capacity Bill that was heading through Parliament. A deal brokered between Archbishop Smith and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, appeared to save patients from being killed by the withhold-ing of treatment – exactly what the Pope had described as euthanasia by omission.

APRIL Photographs published in Watch Me . . . Grow! by Professor Stuart Campbell showed our earliest weeks in the womb in extraordi-nary clarity and detail. At 22 weeks – the minimum age today that a foetus could sur-vive – we are “so advanced neurologically”, according to Professor Campbell, “that abor-tion at 24 weeks [the current UK limit] is just unacceptable”.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology authority in August granted the first licence to create human embryonic stem cells using cell nuclear transfer – a technique also known as therapeutic cloning – to the New-castle Centre for Life. In November solici-tors acting for Peng Voong, of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, served an application for a judicial review on the HFEA.

MAY The 15-state European Union accepted 10 new members into the family. For those whose worldview had been shaped by the divisions of the Cold War, the accession of former Soviet republics and satellite states into the Western sphere of human rights and democracy was the stuff of dreams. Unfortu-nately, no mention of Christianity was allowed in the new EU Constitution. “The Christian roots of Europe are the main guar-antee of its future,” the Pope had wisely warned. Europe’s officials turned deaf ears.

Also in May, The Tablet published a draft order of the Mass prepared by the Internation-al Commission on English in the Liturgy. Most English-speaking bishops gave the draft an unfavourable reception. At a meeting in Rome in November of Vox Clara, the commit-tee of bishops that examines liturgical transla-tions and advises the Vatican on them, Vox Clara’s chairman, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, insisted that all translations must be faithful to the 2002 Roman missal in Latin, and said “significant improvements” had been made to the draft seen by Tablet readers.

Iraq exploded on to the front pages in May in a way that few could have anticipated. Pic-tures as shocking as Stuart Campbell’s had been delightful, from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, showed how the United States had been treating its Iraqi prisoners – in pretty much the same way as Saddam Hussein or any other tyrant. The Americans saw how the pictures undermined their grounds for being in Iraq, and mounted a damage limitation exercise which included the speedy bringing to justice of the perpetrators.

JUNE The UN, touted by many as the rightful arbiter on the question of whether to invade Iraq, continued to exhibit its flimsy moral credentials as an organisation – and for the second time in a decade failed to intervene in Africa to prevent genocide.

In Sudan, over the whole of 2004, African Sudanese were driven from their homes, raped, tortured and killed by Arab militias aided and abetted by the Government in Khar-toum. At the time of writing more than 70,000 had been killed and more than 1.5 million “cleansed” from their homes. In November, the UN Security Council warned Khartoum that it might face “appropriate action”.

JULY In July the Church, still reeling from the sex abuse scandals and associated cover-ups that were exposed in 2002, was knocked flat on its back once more. In the Austrian St Pölten diocese of Bishop Kurt Krenn, seminarians and their superiors were photographed in homosexual embraces, and found to have been downloading child pornography in quantities indicative of gargantuan appetites. The Vatican sent an investigator, Klaus Küng, who took over from Kurt Krenn as bishop.

On 14 July Lord Butler reported on the September 2002 dossier that made the UK Government’s case for war in Iraq. There had been intelligence and other failures, he said, but no individual could be blamed.

AUGUST In a letter dated 31 July, which became wide-ly publicised in August, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote to bishops in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the “authentic” advancement of women. “From the first moment of cre-ation, man and woman are distinct and will remain so for all eternity,” Ratzinger wrote. It is only on the basis of the recognition of the nature of the differences, he said, that the “equality, respect and love that are required in the relationship of man and woman according to God’s original plan” can be realised. On his pilgrimage to Lourdes on 14 August, John Paul II added that the special mission of women was to be “a witness of those essential values which are seen only with the eyes of the heart”, and that to them fell the task of being “sentinels of the invisible”.

SEPTEMBER On the first day of September the mothers and carers of the children of Beslan’s School Number One, in Russia’s North Ossetia province, dressed their children in their new uniforms and took them or sent them off to start the new academic year. The school was seized by Chechen separatist terrorists who held 1,000 parents, children and teachers hostage in the gym for the next two days. On 3 September, the terrorists exploded two bombs among the hostages, and shot fleeing children in the back. Security forces entered the school. Three hundred and sixty people died, including 172 children and 30 terrorists.

OCTOBER In October, the Vatican discerned a “nasty new lay Inquisition” at work in Europe, that was prejudiced against “everything that is Christian”. The immediate trigger for this judgement was the persecution of Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s nominee for EU commissioner. The “new anti-Catholicism”, according to Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican’s justice and peace council, “system-atically mocked marriage between a man and a woman”. Signor Buttiglione, who pas-sionately supports marriage, was prevented by MEPs from taking up office.

The Catholic aid agency Cafod spelled out its position on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids. As people gradually changed their behaviour from high-risk to low-risk, they might, as part of this journey, use condoms.

In October the Anglican Church tried, through the publication of the Windsor report, to slow the “centrifugal disintegra-tion” that had been advanced in November 2003 by the consecration of a non-celibate gay man as the United States Episcopal Church’s Bishop of New Hampshire. The report advocated the strengthening of the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the introduction of a common canon law.

Meanwhile, a former Anglican bishop ignited a slow fuse under the Green move-ment. Hugh Montefiore, a former Bishop of Birmingham, wrote in The Tablet that those serious about saving the planet need to embrace nuclear power to counter global warming, and resigned from Friends of the Earth.

NOVEMBER In November, Americans overthrew the wis-dom of the former president, Bill Clinton. He had stated the first law of how to win elections thus: “It’s the economy, stupid.” George W. Bush defeated the Democrat John Kerry on the basis of a new law: “It’s morality”. He did-n’t call anyone stupid, but many of his liberal enemies continued to use the word about him.

The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died in Paris on 11 November. President Chirac paid tribute to “a man of courage and convic- tion who for 40 years incarnated the Pales-tinians’ fight for recognition of their nation-al rights”. The White House offered condolences and said this was “a significant moment in Palestinian history”.

Margaret Hassan and Ken Bigley were kidnapped in Iraq and murdered after being videoed pleading for their lives, surrounded by armed, masked men. No one who saw the images of the two Britons needed to see the faces behind the masks to understand the true nature of the captors.

DECEMBER In December, despite insisting his adultery was a private matter, David Blunkett was forced to resign as British Home Secretary.

Ukrainians, who had stayed on the streets of Kiev until they won the right for a rerun of a flawed election, were vindicated on 26 December when the pro-Western opposition leader Victor Yushchenko won a clear vic-tory in a new poll.

On 26 December, the Indian Ocean states of south Asia were overwhelmed by the world’s biggest earthquake for 40 years, which sent tsunamis racing across thousands of miles of ocean. At the time of going to press, 50,000 were reported dead.

... On 25 December Christians celebrated the incarnation of God, born of a Jewish mother in circumstances not too far removed from those of a Darfur refugee camp. Because of the baby’s arrival things will one day, in contravention of the Second Law of Thermo-dynamics, be much, much better.



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