In the first of two special programmes we meet Marc Michaels who has a rare skill. He’s keeping Jewish tradition alive. He is a Sofer, a scribe. It’s a dexterous skill that has been passed down for thousands of years. Scrolls are always hand written, otherwise they are not Kosher.
Scrolls hold the sacred words of the Torah, God’s instructions to Moses and they form the basic tenets of the Jewish faith as well as playing a vital, symbolic role in the synagogue.
But throughout their turbulent history, Jews have been forced to move on, sometimes at speed, communities have disappeared, or were banned from practicing their faith, and forced to abandon their scrolls. Heart and Soul hears why it so important to find, rescue, repair and return scrolls to Jewish communities throughout the world.
It’s slow, painstaking work, writing over one letter at a time, repairing tears and removing stains on ancient manuscripts.
Marc introduces us to his wife Avielah, who is also a scribe, or 'Soferet'. She calls herself a ‘Scribal Evangelist’, the first modern female scribe
Describing himself as a “Jedi with a quill” Dina looks on as Marc and Avielah bring these ancient, damaged scrolls back to life.
Presenter: Marc Michaels
Producer: Dina Newman
Temples of discord: Church building in Putin’s Russia
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is a rebuilt structure, a beacon for the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church and a stronghold of Patriarch Kirill who recently boasted that three new churches are built somewhere in Russia every day. Last year, there were 25 new churches in Moscow alone.
Patriarch Kirill argues the country needs new churches to replace the ones destroyed under Communism. In the Soviet era, Lenin compared religion to venereal disease. Churches and monasteries were pulled down or turned into meat storage units, public toilets and museums of atheism.
Now the Patriarch says the increased concentration of churches will give Russians the opportunity to “feel closer to God, lead happier lives and tackle the difficult circumstances of the modern world.”
Yet the church building programme has sparked mass protests across the whole country. Most recently thousands demonstrated against a new church on a park square in Yekaterinburg. Yekaterinburg’s citizens are not alone. Over the past 5 years there have been rows over new churches in 28 cities in 25 regions of Russia. A proposal for a church in Moscow’s Torfyanka Park in 2015 led to violent conflicts between local residents, Orthodox activists and the riot police. Many Russians, especially the younger generation, feel that the Church and the State are too close for comfort. The Kremlin’s recent decision to give 2.8 billion rubles ($43.4 million) toward luxury renovations at Patriarch Kirill’s mansion outside St. Petersburg only reinforces that impression. Even some devout Orthodox believers in Yekaterinburg were unhappy that the new St. Catherine’s Cathedral would be overshadowed by a massive new office block, a gym, and other buildings – the whole project bankrolled by two local oligarchs.
Is this another example of the unholy alliance between God and Mammon? In this edition of Heart and Soul, we explore what this conflict over building churches tells us about the Orthodox clergy, the state and a new generation of Russia’s faithful.
The archive audio for the programme is from a film 'Back to Byzantinism' and it was kindly provided by the film's director Vladislav Tarik.
Produced by Tatyana Movshevich
Presented by Lucy Ash
Escaping China’s religious prison camps
They tell stories of torture and punishment all because of their faith. Uighurs and other ethnic Muslims locked up and subjected to hours of brainwashing designed to rid them of them their faith.
Human Rights Watch estimate there a million Muslims held in camps across China accusing the state of forced political indoctrination, and religious oppression.
There are thousands of Muslims though who have managed to escape the camps to Kazakhstan. Rustam Qobil meets them to learn about their lives. He will hear how they managed to keep their faith when they were imprisoned in a place specifically designed to ‘cleanse’ them of it.
They will tell him of the methods their Chinese captors used on them and through this we will hear the emotional stories of the strengthening and weakening of faith, the doubt that comes with mental attacks and how that faith is now in the haven across the border in Kazakhstan.
And we will hear how they escaped, how their Islamic faith sustained them through their ordeal and how now it helps them as they wait to hear from family members still held.
The Queen of Sheba
Three-thousand years ago, according to legend, a beautiful and wealthy queen embarked on a long journey to visit a celebrated king. He was King Solomon, and she was the Queen of Sheba.
The Queen of Sheba is the great eastern muse, shifting shape, race, appearance, according to the beholder. She may be historical, or she may be mythical, but she is still world famous.
In the Bible, she asks hard questions of King Solomon and leaves only after he gives her all that she desires. In the Koran, this pagan sun-worshipping queen is converted by Suleiman to the one God, Allah. In the Ethiopian national history, called the Kebra Negast, the Queen of Sheba returns from Jerusalem with a son by Solomon called Menelik, who founds the great royal dynasty of Ethiopia. A Scottish historian swears he can prove that she was actually Egyptian, a rewriting of the bearded pharaoh Hatshepsut.
There are other versions of this story too, spun from folklore and recreated by Hollywood. The Queen of Sheba is a temptress, a belly dancer, a witch. She has hairy legs, or an animal foot. She is part spirit, part woman. In Flaubert, she lustfully tempts poor St Antony, the monk in the desert. Beyonce performs in homage to her. Soaps, hotels, restaurants, aeroplanes are named after her. In Yemen and in Ethiopia, she is a symbol of national pride, and children are named after her. In Britain, haughty or flashy behaviour may be met with the sarcastic rejoinder: “Who does she think she is, the Queen of Sheba?” Nobody could be as magnificent as this mysterious queen of the south.
So what do we really know about her, so celebrated in religion, and in art and in life? Did she exist, and even if she didn’t, why does she exercise such a powerful hold on our imagination?
Sarah Sands traces the queen’s journey along the ancient spice route from the south through the Red Sea towards Jerusalem. She talks to the experts who know her story well – such as academic and writer Marina Warner who has studied her influence on feminism and folklore; Eyob Derillo from the British library, who speaks of her significance to Ethiopia; and Mustafa Khaled, the former Yemeni diplomat who regards her reign as a golden age for his country.
Sarah meets the contemporary “Queens of Sheba”, the writer, director and cast of an exuberant and defiant show about female and black empowerment; and the young and eloquent Yemeni art student who looks to the Queen of Sheba for hope for herself and her homeland.
And finally, the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Robert Willis, tells the story of the two ancient stained glass windows on the North Aisle. One depicts the Queen of Sheba meeting King Solomon. The next, the nativity scene. Two pilgrimages in search of power and glory, two different answers to hard questions. Who was the Queen of Sheba? She went on a journey, but was she also the expression of all our journeys? The journey may be geographical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual.
Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba? For at least some contributors to this programme, the answer may be yes.
(Photo: Stained glass windows on the north aisle of Canterbury Cathedral depicting the Queen of Sheba meeting King Solomon. Credit: Neil Koenig)
Ministry of sport
Christians in the UK are facing a huge crisis of faith, the numbers of people who say they are churchgoers is falling and the church is worried.
Shari Vahl meets the Anglicans harnessing the power of sport to try and reconnect people with a faith many had chosen to forget.
Churches in Norwich, a city in the east of England are challenging people’s ideas of what ‘a church’ is, setting up the Sports Factory to use football to bring people, particularly young men, to God.
Shari meets 24 year old Ian at the regular Monday night football, men his age are the most likely to turn their back on conventional Sunday services. He says it was the sport that brought him together with other Christians who enjoy sport, and that allowed him to feel his version of faith, rather than having it imposed by the church.
The Church of England is spending spend nearly two million pounds training special sports ministers, they admit it’s a gamble, but with many churches closing across the country, it’s a gamble that needs to work.
Image: A football during an English Premier League match (Credit: Richard Calver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)