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World: Analysis From Washington -- How Many Divisions?

Washington, 12 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- China's effort to suppress religious life, the new prominence of the Orthodox Church in Russia, and expanded international attention to the activities of Pope John Paul II all testify to the impact religion continues to have on a world many view as ever more focused on materialistic values.

Last week, the flight to India by a high-ranking Tibetan lama whom Beijing had tried to cultivate called new attention to Beijing's broader efforts to control or even suppress religious life of all kinds in the world's most populous country.

Meanwhile, Aleksii II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, continued his ever more high profile role as a spokesman not only for the Russian faithful but for the Russian state when he reiterated his support for Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya and officiated at a Christmas ceremony in Bethlehem.

And yesterday, media around the world focused on Pope John Paul II both because a German bishop had hinted that the leader of the world's Roman Catholics might have to retire for health reasons and because of the pope's annual "state of the world" message delivered on Monday.

These events generally been reported separately. But there importance is most clearly seen when they are taken together. All of them call attention to the fact that religious faith continues to animate people around the world.

Even more, they show that this faith in the unseen can lead believers and their leaders to act in ways very different from the ones economic model of human behavior might suggest.

Significantly, Pope John Paul II used his speech this year to address precisely this continuing role of religious belief in a world often fixated on material values. To move into the future, the pope said, humanity must "renounce idols such as prosperity at any price, material wealth as the only value, and science as the sole explanation of reality."

The failure of people to do that in the past century, John Paul continued, led to "bloody wars which have decimated millions of people and provoked massive exoduses and shameful genocides which haunt our arms race which fostered mistrust and fear," and "ethnic conflicts which annihilated peoples who had lived together."

Many of these things continue, the pope said, leading to a situation in which "unemployment in the more developed countries and extreme poverty in too many countries of the southern hemisphere continue to hold millions of women and men back from progress and prosperity."

And the failure of wealthy countries -- particularly those in North America -- to address these challenges, he added, reflects a situation "where economic and political concerns are often considered paramount" and where there are "many poor people despite [that continent's] manifold riches."

In order to overcome these various problems, John Paul concluded, people around the world "must find new ways of living together and respecting one another" if the new century is to be a better one, a period of time he said that he hoped could become known as the "century of solidarity."

Many commentators are likely to dismiss his words and the actions of the faithful around the world in much the same way that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin did when he was confronted by objections from one of John Paul's predecessors: "How many divisions does the pope have?"

At the time, that may have seemed to some a witty remark. But the system Stalin helped to create is gone, while the faith that opposed him lives on. Indeed, such religious faith, Pope John Paul reminded the world this week, "can ensure that despite failures, violence and fear, neither evil nor death will have the last word."