Friday, February 13, 2004

Poor Cupid. Some spoilsports overseas are giving him a hard time.

Though Americans revel in lace-trimmed romance and good will on St.Valentine’s Day, this holiday is considered a symbol of Western decadence in some countries, banned as a pagan celebration among the infidels.

While sweethearts in the West nibble chocolates and murmur sweet nothings today, Saudi Arabia’s religious officials have issued a stern warning against St. Valentine’s Day celebrations in any form.

“It is a pagan Christian holiday and Muslims who believe in God and Judgment Day should not celebrate or acknowledge it or congratulate people on it,” the Saudi fatwa committee said yesterday in a notice published in Arab-language newspapers. “It is a duty to shun it to avoid God’s anger and punishment.”

The committee approves only the two Muslim holidays that mark the end of Ramadan fasting and the annual hajj pilgrimage among devout Muslims.

Everything else is “banned,” the committee said.

Though the religious origins of St. Valentine’s Day are often lost amid its commercial hubbub, many scholars trace the day to Roman Valentinus, a Catholic priest beheaded in the year 270 for marrying couples despite a decree from Emperor Claudius outlawing marriage. Claudius reasoned, perhaps correctly, that marriage distracted his soldiers and weakened his army.

The popular romantic custom probably sprang from beliefs in England and France during the Middle Ages that, since the 14th is midway between the beginning and end of the dreary second month, that’s when birds begin to pair. Chaucer wrote: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day/When every foule cometh there to choose his mate.”

Neither the religious nor the commercial aspect of St. Valentine’s Day plays well in some spots overseas, which are not generally thought of as hotbeds of love and affection, anyway.

Hard-line Hindu activists burned hundreds of St. Valentine’s Day cards in Bombay, New Delhi and other Indian cities yesterday — where the celebration has come to be called “Lover’s day.”

The activists have threatened to smear soot on the faces of couples who woo in public, or to shave their heads and beat them with bamboo sticks.

“We will not allow the westernization of Indian culture,” said Ved Prakash Sachan of Bajrang Dal, a group of militant Hindus, during a demonstration in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

“We condemn Valentine’s Day. Down with Western culture,” members of the ultra-nationalist Hindu Shiv Sena party chanted at a demonstration at a Bombay university.

“We will not allow Valentine’s Day to be celebrated,” cautioned the group’s leader Bal Thackeray, alluding to past years when radical Hindus ransacked neighborhood gift shops, purging them of any symbols of the holiday. “Be warned.”

Police in Bombay were called in to protect customers who insisted on buying their chocolates and red Mylar balloons despite the threats.

St. Valentine’s Day is also misunderstood by some in Pakistan.

“Any contact between opposite sexes is forbidden in Islam, so Valentine’s Day is not for us,” a spokesman for the religious alliance of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) told Agence France-Presse yesterday.

The MMA controls the harsh North Western Frontier province that borders Afghanistan. The holiday “is a Western tradition with no concept in Islam,” agreed a representative of the fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party.

Still, Reuters news service reports, the potential of all those cards and flowers is nevertheless a commercial factor. Florists, bakeries, restaurants and hotels in larger Pakistani cities are anticipating the profits of romance just like their American counterparts.

St. Valentine’s Day is alive and well in Iraq. Cleveland-based American Greetings Corp. operates 50 “tent stores” in the Iraqi desert for American troops who want to send some sentiment stateside. “Sending Valentines may seem frivolous in the face of the daily dangers faced by servicemen and women, but greeting cards take on added significance to homesick soldiers,” spokeswoman Donna Eyerman says.

The company maintains a partnership with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which places up to 600 cards in each tent store. Last year, more cards were sold for St. Valentine’s Day than any other occasion, Miss Eyerman said. For security reasons, the locations of the tent stores are classified. Not everyone, apparently, loves a lover.

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