Re­li­gious ex­pres­sion hard to po­lice in World Cup

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - TERRY MAT­TINGLY Terry Mat­tingly is the ed­i­tor of GetReli­gion.org and Se­nior Fel­low for Me­dia and Re­li­gion at The King’s Col­lege in New York. He lives in Oak Ridge,Tenn.

His­tory buffs re­search­ing the ori­gins of the Cross of St. Ge­orge will find them­selves ex­plor­ing a labyrinth of faith and leg­end in the late Mid­dle Ages.

But to see this her­aldry sym­bol, just look at Eng­land’s flag — a bright red cross on a white back­ground. Soc­cer fans may no­tice that the English side’s 2018 World Cup kits fea­ture a St. Ge­orge’s Cross on the back col­lar. Dur­ing away games, a sub­tle cross cov­ers the en­tire front of the red jer­sey.

This is in­ter­est­ing, since the In­ter­na­tional Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion Board’s “Laws of the Game” — used at the FIFA World Cup — state: “Equip­ment must not have any po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious or per­sonal slo­gans, state­ments or im­ages.” This rule “ap­plies to all equip­ment (in­clud­ing cloth­ing) worn by play­ers,” ac­cord­ing to the board’s guide­lines.

Does this ap­ply to re­li­gious sym­bols wo­ven into the flags and tra­di­tions of many na­tons?

“It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the rules of soc­cer came from Europe,” said Jennifer Bryson, di­rec­tor of the Is­lam and Re­li­gious Free­dom Ac­tion Team at the Re­li­gious Free­dom In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton. “The [In­ter­na­tional Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion Board] be­gan in Eng­land. FIFA be­gan in Europe. Both of these or­ga­ni­za­tions are sup­posed to be truly in­ter­na­tional — but their roots are Euro­pean. Ba­si­cally, the word ‘re­li­gion’ in these rules means ‘Chris­tian­ity.’ … FIFA is still try­ing to come to terms with the rest of the world.”

It’s hard to imag­ine a more chal­leng­ing task than im­pos­ing modern Euro­pean sec­u­lar­ism on this very re­li­gious planet, Bryson said. Eng­land’s Cross of St. Ge­orge is just one ex­am­ple of faith mix­ing with foot­ball. Play­ers from Iran wear their na­tion’s flag, with a red “Al­lah” sym­bol and two bold hor­i­zon­tal bars con­sist­ing of 11 rep­e­ti­tions of “Al­lahu ak­bar (God is great­est).” Can Brazil­ian evan­gel­i­cals keep wear­ing “I be­long to Je­sus” T-shirts un­der their jer­seys?

Bryson has paid close at­ten­tion dur­ing World Cup 2018, look­ing for ex­pres­sions of re­li­gious faith. She sum­ma­rized her early find­ings in a late June lec­ture in Wash­ing­ton, ti­tled “Ex­or­cisms and Ex­er­cise, Crosses and Cross Passes: What Re­li­gious Free­dom Has to Do With the World Cup.”

She gave par­tic­i­pants a quiz, in­clud­ing this ques­tion: “Na­tional foot­ball as­so­ci­a­tion of­fi­cials of what coun­try ob­jected when a team called in re­li­gious lead­ers to con­duct an ex­or­cism to rid a soc­cer field of evil spir­its be­fore a match?” An­swer: China.

“Sport is so rel­e­vant to re­li­gious free­dom be­cause it of­fers a shared civic space where peo­ple from di­verse tra­di­tions come to­gether and com­pete to­ward a com­mon goal, Bryson said dur­ing the lec­ture. Her bot­tom line: “Your own re­li­gious free­dom is most pro­tected when your neigh­bor of an­other faith also has re­li­gious free­dom.”

In this World Cup, Bryson noted that Egypt’s Mo­hamed Salah pros­trated and prayed af­ter scor­ing against Rus­sia. A Catholic and an evan­gel­i­cal knelt to­gether in prayer — one player from each team — af­ter Bel­gium de­feated Panama. A Nige­rian player waved his rosary af­ter a win. An East­ern Ortho­dox player for Swe­den made the sign of the cross when en­ter­ing the game. So far, no one has been pe­nal­ized.

There have been con­tro­ver­sies dur­ing in­ter­na­tional play in the past, Bryson said.

In 2003, lead­ers in heav­ily Protes­tant Scot­land pro­posed a ban on play­ers mak­ing the sign of the cross in a “provoca­tive way.” Dur­ing a 2010 match in Aus­tria, an Is­raeli player re­ceived a yel­low card when, while cel­e­brat­ing a goal, he knelt and prayed af­ter don­ning a yarmulke. In 2011, the Ira­nian women’s team with­drew from an Olympic qual­i­fy­ing match when told that play­ers could not par­tic­i­pate while wear­ing hi­jabs. Evan­gel­i­cal Jae­lene Hin­kle with­drew from the U.S. na­tional squad last year, rather than wear the manda­tory LGBT “pride” rain­bow jer­sey.

The goal, Bryson said, ap­pears to be avoid­ing acts and sym­bols that of­fend other play­ers. How­ever, of­fi­cials get to de­ter­mine whether re­li­gious sym­bols, ges­tures or speech are in­tended to be provoca­tive. Of course, a sym­bol that is sec­u­lar in one cul­ture — like a rain­bow jer­sey — may have pow­er­ful re­li­gious im­pli­ca­tions in an­other.

“It ap­pears that es­tab­lished sym­bols — like flags — are OK,” she said. “It also ap­pears that short, ex­pres­sive prayers spo­ken to God are ac­cept­able, as op­posed to cries of tri­umph aimed at other play­ers. … In the end, the ref­er­ees get to make the fi­nal de­ci­sions.”

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