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Reporting and analysis of the religious forces that drive and influence global news. 

Female genital mutilation on the rise among Southeast Asian Muslims

More than 90 percent of women surveyed in Malaysia have been circumcised, and experts say increasing regional Islamic conservatism may be the reason why.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

Though World Health Organization reporting in 2011 indicated a decline in the practice of female genital mutilation — also known as female circumcision — experts say it is actually being practiced at much higher rates among Southeast Asian Muslims than previously thought.

The rise, they suggest, correlates directly to increasing conservative attitudes throughout the region.

On December 20, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously accepted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation, saying that the practice affects between 100 and 140 million women and girls worldwide. But nearly a full year later, it appears the ban has had little to no effect in the southernmost tip of Southeast Asia.

More from GlobalPost: Debunking 5 misconceptions about female genital mutilation

A 2012 study conducted by Dr. Maznah Dahlui, an associate professor in Malaysia’s University of Malaya’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, found that 93.9 percent of Muslim women surveyed had been circumcised. In Indonesia, a 2010 Population Council study of six provinces indicated that between 86 and 100 percent of teenage girls had undergone the procedure. In both studies, 90 percent of Muslim women surveyed expressed support for the practice, claiming that it fulfills a religious obligation and fosters purity in women by controlling their sexual desire.

“Many people are doing it because they believe it is wajib or mandatory in Islam - a belief that was reinforced by a 2009 fatwa by Malaysia’s Islamic council that made it religious obligation,” said Suri Kempe, an activist from Muslim feminist organization, Sisters in Islam. “Yet there is nothing in the Qur’an that states that female circumcision is required. The bottom line is that Islam is not supposed to cause harm.”

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Cardinals advise Pope Francis to focus on child sex abuse

Analysis: Is the Vatican entering a new era or just issuing more PR?
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Michael Duran, who received nearly one million dollars in a sex abuse settlement with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaks during a news conference on March 14, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Joe Klamar/Getty Images)

The Catholic Church’s crisis in clergy child sexual abuse is rooted in a de facto immunity enjoyed by bishops and cardinals, regardless of their negligence.

The soft-glove approach to accountability by John Paul II and Benedict XVI stemmed from a theological concept, apostolic succession, which sees every bishop as a spiritual descendant of Jesus’s apostles. Somewhere along the way, apostolic succession erased the memory of Judas, the betrayer.

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Pope Francis’s progressive statement opens questions on abuse cases, women

Francis says he wants a church that challenges power and "has been out in the streets." But his populist approach has not shown reform on handling sex abuse cases nor inviting women to the priesthood.
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Jorge Mario Bergoglio attends his first private Mass as Pope Francis in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on March 14, 2013 in Rome, Italy. (L'Osservatore Romano/Getty Images)

Pope Francis stands as a rare figure on the global stage, speaking truth to the power of a globally interconnected financial system and governments of the developed world as he puts continuing stress on social responsibility to the poor.

In a document released yesterday, which the Vatican said the pope wrote in August, Francis calls the global economic system “unjust at its root” for promoting a “survival of the fittest” mentality.

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In the US, church and state are not always so separate

Analysis: The US is more religious than many other high-income countries, and this strong religious voice has influenced government since the beginning.
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Rev. Rob Schenck and Grace Nwachukwu pray together with a display of the Ten Commandments in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

LONDON — The US Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. Americans learn from an early age that this is one of the key things that makes our country unique.

Yet the US is more religious than many other high-income countries. 

According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, 67 percent of Americans say they never doubt the existence of God, compared to the UK’s 38 percent who believe in God, according to a Eurobarometer report

This strong religious voice in the US often influences the secular government, the latest example of this influence being the Supreme Court’s agreement Tuesday to hear a case based on religious objection to the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring employers to provide health insurance covering birth control. 

So this Thanksgiving, I have been thinking about how far the legal separation of church and state really extends in American society and history.

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Putting religious differences aside, Tanzanians craft new constitution

From a society split between Muslims and Christians comes a model for peaceful political change.
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Maria Kashonda pages through her copy of the proposed constitution she helped draft as a member of the Constitutional Review Commission. She says People are putting aside their religious differences to fight for guarantees of rights like education and health, which she says are universal. (Jacob Kushner/GlobalPost)

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania – Political divisions in this East African nation are so profound that to achieve some sort of unity may, paradoxically, require dividing the country even further—into as many as three governments within a single state.

That’s the proposal put forth by a group of politicians drafting a new constitution intended to usher in prosperity for all Tanzania’s people, urban and rural, rich and poor. That task appears even more daunting given that Tanzanians are further divided by religion, split between Christians and Muslims and those who are animist or practice local religions.

And yet the one thing nearly everyone in Tanzania agrees on is that religion should have little or nothing to do with the constitutional process.

“Wherever you are, you want good education, health services—these things are universal,” said Maria Kashonda, member of the Constitutional Review Commission. “People are putting aside their religious differences for these.”

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Behind an Indian skeptic's murder, a murky realm of superstition

Narendra Dabholkar advocated against what he called "blind faith." His murder has brought attention to a violent clash between science and superstition.
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Mourners pay their respects over the casket of anti-superstition and black magic campaigner Narendra Dabholkar, who was killed by gunmen, in Pune on August 20, 2013. An Indian state government August 21 passed legislation banning superstition and black magic, an official said, a day after a prominent champion of the bill was shot dead. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

MUMBAI, India — On the morning of August 20, the anti-superstition leader Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated by two men on a motorbike as he walked along the Omkareshwar Bridge in India's Pune city.

Three months after Dabholkar’s murder, no arrests have been made.

At the edge of the bridge where the 67-year-old was killed is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, which, like thousands of temples in India, earns millions of rupees in donations each year. Young, old, educated, illiterate – a vast majority of Indians continue to seek spiritual refuge through elaborate rituals — which can be expensive and in some cases, dangerous.

Living in the birthplace of Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, and home to a large number of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and numerous tribes, a majority of Indians identify themselves as part of a religion or sect. Making donations – from a few rupees by the poor, to large sums of cash and gold by the wealthier – is also a way of paying obeisance to one's religion.

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The Vatican’s questions on family: a window into Pope Francis’s mind

The Catholic Church issues a first-of-its-kind questionnaire asking Catholics what they think about issues like gay marriage, contraception and divorce.
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Cardinals attend the Inauguration Mass for Pope Francis in St Peter's Square on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The inauguration of Pope Francis was held in front of an expected crowd of up to one million pilgrims and faithful who crowded into St Peter's Square and the surrounding streets to see the former Cardinal of Buenos Aires officially take up his position. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In a world where the nuclear family is one strand in a web of single mothers, grandparents raising children, gay unions or marriages with and without children, unmarried parents, the gamut of domestic ties has pulled serious interest from a Catholic Church theologically grounded in ‘natural law’ – principles drawn from nature, binding on social mores and undergirded by scripture.

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Confucius may be the voice of reason China needs

As China's Central Committee deliberates what could be major economic reforms, ancient teachings help many cope with rapid change.
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A woman looks at a painting showing officials at an arrival ceremony in Beijing on November 11, 2013. The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee's Third Plenum is currently underway and is expected to focus on economic reforms a year after a closely watched leadership transition. The four-day session of the full 376-member Communist Party Central Committee takes place at a closely guarded hotel and traditionally sets the economic tone for a new government. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING — While many in China are proud of the nation's extraordinary economic achievements in the last two decades, there has been a price paid: colossal environmental degradation and a degree of inequality that might a hundred years ago have led to, well, a communist revolution.

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Delegates from divided societies offer help in Nigeria

Christian-Muslim violence has claimed thousands of lives here, but survivors from Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Israel and Palestine are working with local leaders to quell the conflict.

KADUNA, Nigeria — The bridge over the Kaduna River divides this city.

In many ways Kaduna stands as a microcosm of Nigeria itself, with Christians living to the south and Muslims in the north. Like all of Nigeria, it suffers from desperate poverty that cuts across both communities and shares a pervasive culture of fear as the country continues to plunge into communal strife that has claimed nearly 20,000 lives since 1999.

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Confidant cardinal tells new tales about Pope John Paul's role in scandal

Analysis: In a new book, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz absolves John Paul of blame for praising a priest accused of pedophilia, claiming that the pope was unaware of the accusations at the time.
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Pope John Paul II is helped by secretary bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz during his weekly general audience, in October 2002, on Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

In a new book, John Paul II’s longtime secretary claims that the former pope is not to blame for his support and praise of a disgraced power broker accused of pedophilia and bribery, according to a Catholic News Service report.

The book, written in Italian by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz and titled Ho Vissuto con un Santo (I Lived with a Saint), has apparently changed certain memories of factual inconvenience — creating a sort of performance piece that sings truths people never knew.

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